KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A Philippine terrorism expert has identified backdoors in the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah and Manado in Indonesia’s North Sulawesi province used by foreign militants to enter the southern Philippines to join Islamic State-affiliated groups.
The Defense Post recently reported Chairman of the Board of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research Professor Rommel Banlaoi as saying that up to 100 foreign fighters, mainly Indonesians and Malaysians, arrived in Mindanao after the battle for Marawi.
“Others were able to reach Mindanao after using a backdoor, mainly in Sabah and Manado,” he told The Defense Post.
Banlaoi, who is also President of the Philippine Center for Intelligence and National Security Studies, said the Armed Forces of the Philippines had provided him with information on two routes, but his research based on interviews and interpretations of intelligence reports on the movements of foreign fighters found four additional routes.
The AFP did not respond to a request for comment.
One Indonesian route begins in Manado and transits somewhere in the Sangihe islands within Indonesian territory northeast of Sulawesi before heading to General Santos city, the Philippines’ southernmost city. Banlaoi said the AFP had acknowledged this route.
But according to Banlaoi, some militants take a second Indonesian route that also begins in Manado and has a stopover somewhere in the Talaud islands, an Indonesian territory to the east of the Sangihe islands, before proceeding to the Davao region in the southern Philippines. From General Santos or Davao militants traveled overland to Marawi.
From Malaysia, would-be fighters can choose one of three separate courses from Sandakan district in eastern Sabah.
Two separate routes, one north via Mapun and the other east via the Tawi Tawi island area then converge on Zamboanga. From there, militants either travel overland or by boat across the Moro Gulf towards the Cotabato area, south of Marawi.
The third route heads north towards Palawan, an island in Philippine territory, before heading towards Negros Island and then south to Mindanao.
Only one of the three, via the Tawi Tawi Island area, has been acknowledged by the AFP, Banlaoi said.
According to Banlaoi, militants can travel to Sandakan from the west coast of Sabah and from Tawau, another eastern Sabah district, before taking any one of the three sea routes to the southern Philippines.
Banlaoi first presented this information during a September security symposium in Kuala Lumpur. Despite the wide media coverage of the symposium, Banlaoi’s briefing on the routes taken by the Marawi foreign fighters has received little attention.
Manado: a strategic hub for Indonesian jihadists
An Indonesian terrorism researcher from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University said Manado is the Indonesians’ preferred launch pad because it is close to both Poso in Central Sulawesi and the southern Philippines.
“It’s become the hub for terrorist networks in Poso to go to Mindanao,” Chaula Rininta Anindya, a research analyst at the university’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, told The Defense Post.
“In the past, the [Indonesian] Jemaah Islamiyah network also used Manado as their primary route to go to Mindanao. The primary route was from Manado to General Santos City, while the alternative route was from Sulawesi to the Sarangani coastline of the Southern Mindanao.”
Chaula said Manado currently serves as a strategic hub for pro-ISIS networks in Indonesia.
“In May 2015, a jihadist who was affiliated with Mujahidin Indonesia Timur named Witadi alias Iron, was arrested in Manado,” she said. “This arrest indicated that MIT had been in close contact with radical groups in the Philippines, including for arms smuggling and military training.”
“Manado may be the main transiting point. In November 2017, the authorities arrested Abu Musad, who is originally from Banten, in Manado for his alleged intention to join ISIS-affiliated group in Southern Philippines. He had been in contact with pro-ISIS sympathizers in the Philippines.
“Aside from Manado, there is also another spot that was used by the JAD [Jemaah Ansharut Daulah] network to smuggle arms. JAD network smuggled guns for the Sarinah-Thamrin bombing attacks from southern Philippines to Sangihe-Talaud islands in North Sulawesi.”
ISIS claimed the January 2016 bombings near the Sarinah shopping center in Jakarta in which eight people including the attackers were killed.
Scores of militants and would-be fighters from Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia were arrested before the fall of ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Malaysia routes questioned
Pawel Wójcik, a terrorism analyst who focuses on Afghanistan and South East Asia, cast doubt over some of the routes.
“Sabah has been the place with most of foreign fighters coming through, and now we see them on Sulu and Basilan,” he said.
Wójcik said that ISEA established a cell that was supposed to smuggle foreign fighters through Sabah to the southern islands of the Philippines. He noted that the sea route from Sabah to Tawi Tawi is difficult to protect and that the Philippine ISEA affiliates exploit that.
“I personally doubt Palawan route, because it’s way too hard to get around like that.”
Wójcik also cast doubt over the number of foreign fighters now making the full journey to the Marawi area.
“I don’t believe that many people made it to the area after the battle finished in October 2017,” he said.
“This zone is still a heavily contested battleground, hard to reach even for experienced smugglers,” he said, adding that foreign fighters have likely stopped attempting to reach Mindanao in favor or Jolo, Sulu and Basilan islands, where it’s easier to reach ISEA affiliates.
Regarding the routes from Indonesia, Wójcik agreed that foreign fighters traveling via General Santos was “plausible.”
Tawau: a possible launch point
Regional security expert Associate Professor Lai Yew Ming said he agreed with Banlaoi’s findings on the four routes from Malaysia.
He said evidence for the established routes was based on a number of arrests made by the Malaysian authorities earlier this year.
“The suspects were said to be from a terror cell that has been using Sabah as transit point to smuggle militants into the southern Philippines,” Lai, a lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, told The Defense Post.
The route from Kota Kinabalu may be “used by IS militants coming from Bangladesh, Pakistan or other states located west of Malaysia,” he said. “The militants would be smuggled via land route from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan.”
Lai said the routes heading north from Malaysia may simply be alternatives to the established southerly route.
However, Lai believes Tawau may also be the launch point of a sea route for militants moving between Indonesia and the southern Philippines.
“In other words, I don’t disagree with the land route from Tawau to Sandakan as suggested by Professor Rommel, but there is also the possibility of the terror cells using the sea route via Tawau for the purpose of smuggling/arranging safe passage for militants heading to the southern Philippines.”
Malaysia’s Eastern Sabah Security Zone
After an attack by Sulu militants in the eastern Sabah district of Lahad Datu in 2013, the Malaysian government designated Sabah’s east coast as the Eastern Sabah Security Zone or Esszone, covering some 1,700 km of coastline and the surrounding sea and land areas. A multi-agency command called the Eastern Sabah Security Command or Esscom was created to secure the special security zone.
The Esszone encompasses, among other areas, the Sulu Sea, which had been a hotspot of piracy and kidnappings by groups from the southern Philippines, although Esscom’s efforts have greatly reduced such incidents.
However, Malaysian authorities continue to catch terror suspects from the three neighboring countries in eastern Sabah.
These include arrests in January and February this year of 10 suspected ISIS-linked militants in Sandakan and Penampang districts, the latter in Sabah’s west coast.
One of them was a Filipino trying to arrange the movement of militants to Zamboanga through Sandakan, Malaysian Inspector-General of Police Mohamad Fuzi Harun said in a statement at the time.
Fuzi also said the cell had planned a future attack in Sabah, but he did not specify where.
In March, a 31-year-old man, allegedly the top aide to Furuji Indama, the notorious head of an Abu Sayyaf faction in Basilan, was arrested.
In late February, three men believed to have been Filipino militants were killed in a shootout with Esscom and other security agencies in Tawau.
During a press conference after the shootout, Esscom commander Deputy Commissioner of Police Hazani Ghazali announced additional security measures to stem the movement of criminals including militants from the east coast to the west, where Sabah’s capital city Kota Kinabalu is located.
Esscom is not only concerned about transborder foreign militant movements but also the spillover of southern Philippine militants heading towards the state’s west coast from eastern Sabah, and Indonesian militants making their way in the jungles through the Sabah-Kalimantan border to the southern Philippines.
Rat paths through the jungle
Hazani said there are many “lorong tikus” or rat paths in the jungles between Indonesia and Malaysia that make Sabah an attractive transit point for the militants.
“We are aware of these and are monitoring these hidden paths,” he told The Defense Post.
According to the Esscom chief, most Indonesian militants prefer to transit Sabah overland before crossing the sea to the southern Philippines because of the shorter sea routes later.
“If they are to go directly from Indonesia to southern Philippines, they’ll have to travel far by sea from Indonesian Borneo or Sulawesi,” Hazani explained.
“Both long sea routes have a stopover on islands within Philippine territory, but the Philippine authorities are monitoring these. So, these are not the ideal routes for them. Sabah is, but we’re monitoring these routes closely.”
Indonesian foreign fighters travel through Malaysia
Indonesians were arrested in the the Sabah districts of Tawau and Sandakan trying to get to the southern Philippines while Filipinos were caught in Sabah and in Peninsular Malaysia after making a stopover in the state.
Several Malaysian militants from Peninsular Malaysia were also suspected to have transited through Sabah en route to Mindanao.
“There are many routes for Indonesian militants, but Sabah is one of the easiest due to several important factors,” Yohanes Sulaiman, a security analyst and lecturer at Indonesia’s Jenderal Achmad Yani University, told The Defense Post.
“The porous Indonesia-Malaysia border and more importantly the stronger connection between Sabah and Mindanao since both shared some close roots as they used to be part of the Sultanate of Sulu in southern Philippines, make Sabah the easy choice.”
“There have already been a lot of movements traditionally of people between Sabah and Mindanao, and the terrorists are just utilizing that network. Remember the fact that the Malaysian government was caught completely off guard a few years ago when a bunch of people affiliated with the Sultanate of Sulu infiltrated Sabah,” Yohanes said, referring to the bloody 2013 Lahad Datu intrusion by Sulu militants out to stake their territorial claim over part of Sabah.
“In essence, it is easier to form a logistic support network to facilitate the movement of militants from Poso, an Indonesian region in central Sulawesi where there was a terrorist training camp, to Mindanao through Sabah and to maintain secrecy,” continued Yohanes.
“But of course, Sabah is not the only route, but it is the safest so far.”
Trilateral cooperation to counter violent extremism
A Philippines-based advisor echoed Yohanes’ statement on the passage of militants between his country and Malaysia.
“I think one factor is the historical connections between Sabah and Mindanao as well as the people living on both sides of the border,” the advisor, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are currently involved in the sensitive Mindanao peace process, told The Defense Post.
“This has resulted in the border becoming extremely porous, allowing illegal immigration and other activities.”
The advisor said Malaysia and the Philippines would have to monitor the movement of people more closely in the shared areas.
“I believe this is one of the objectives of the Malaysia-Indonesia-Philippines Trilateral Cooperation Arrangement, which includes joint maritime patrols in the Celebes Sea,” the advisor said.
“While that initiative is specific to countering the spread of violent extremism, the governments would also have to deal with other important and related issues like human trafficking.”
However, the advisor said Sabah remains a sensitive subject for both Malaysia and the Philippines due to the unresolved territorial claims of the Sultanate of Sulu.
“I feel this prevents them from discussing boundaries and immigration, etc,” they said. “For instance, there is no Philippine consulate in Sabah despite the large population of Filipinos residing there because it would be interpreted as the Philippines recognizing Sabah as part of Malaysia.”
The Filipino advisor said a peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro people in Mindanao, if successful, could make insurgencies less attractive in the region and therefore, less militants’ crossborder travel.
They said if the peace process continues to move forward, meaning commitments in the peace agreements are realized gradually, there will be little space for terrorists and violent extremists to maneuver.
“The purpose of the peace process is not to solve the issue of violent extremism, but for finding a solution to the struggle of the Moro revolutionary fronts for their right to self-determination,” they said.
“Nevertheless, the dividends of the peace process could help deter disenfranchised Moros from joining Islamic State-pledged groups by showing to them that peacebuilding can address their grievances.”
“While the peace process focuses on the Bangsamoro region, should it become successful in reaching its goal, it would have a positive impact on the rest of Mindanao.”
Nevertheless, the Filipino expert believed this should go hand-in-hand with the Philippine government’s more comprehensive program for improving governance and delivery of basic needs and socio-economic development in the region.
“Foreign fighters, particularly Indonesians and Malaysians, would then have a difficult time getting support in Mindanao if the peace process progresses,” they said.
“Traffic of militants through Sabah would then be reduced.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post originally said that all the routes taken by militants to Mindanao were based on information received from the Armed Forces of the Philippines. This was incorrect and the post has been edited and updated to reflect that. The Defense Post regrets the error.
It was further updated at 1340 GMT to add Lai Yew Ming’s comments.