The Sabah connection

THERE is a Sabah link to the deadly suicide bombings at Jolo cathedral in 2019 and the church in Makassar in 2021.

The perpetrators of the bombings that killed 23 and injured more than 100 in the southern Philippines and wounded 20 people in Indonesia are connected to an Indonesian family who lived in the interior of Sabah for about two months.

The rise of familial extremism, defined as personal ties that connect militants across the region, is responsible for the suicide attacks two years apart in the two neighbouring countries.


“The attacks in both Indonesia and Philippines can be categorised as an action mobilised by a group with strong family ties and that was organised by two cross-border groups, namely JAD (Jemaah Ansharut Daulah) in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines,” says Stanislaus Riyanta, a security and terrorism expert based in Jakarta.

Former Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Hazani Ghazali said the police closely monitors foreign threats in the state.

“The three nations – Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines – exchange intelligence and we coordinate with them. We have arrested foreign terrorists in the state based on intel exchange,” says Hazani, who was promoted to Internal Security and Public Order Department director on Thursday.

The Indonesian couple responsible for the Jolo suicide bombings, Rullie Rian Zeke, 35, and his wife Ulfah Handayani Saleh, 32, blew themselves up during mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo on Jan 27, 2019.

Aftermath: Police inspecting the area near a church attacked by JAD fighters in Makassar in March this year. — APAftermath: Police inspecting the area near a church attacked by JAD fighters in Makassar in March this year. — AP

Back in their hometown of Makassar, the capital of Sulawesi, Indonesia, Rullie and Ulfah were cell members of JAD, an Indone-sian group with connections to the Islamic State (IS). The couple earned a living selling nasi kuning (yellow rice). They joined JAD because of kinship ties with the group’s leadership in south Sulawesi.

Stanislaus says the leader of JAD in Makassar was Mohammad Rizaldy S., the 46-year-old brother of Ulfah.

On Jan 6 this year, Indonesian security forces killed Mohammad Rizaldy and his 23-year-old son-in-law Sanjai Azis in a raid in Makassar. The authorities also captured 18 JAD members, including Ainun Preety, the daughter of Rullie and Ulfah.

Two months later, Muhammad Lukman, 26, and his wife Yogi Sahfitri Fortuna @ Dewi, 26, were killed when Yogi detonated a bomb outside Makassar’s Sacred Heart Cathedral at the end of the Palm Sunday service on March 28.

Muhammad and Yogi were part of the JAD cell in Makassar. Cell leader Mohammad Rizaldy had solemnised the marriage between the two suicide bombers in August 2020.

“It was revenge for the killing of Mohammad Rizaldy and Sanjai. Muhammad Lukman and Yogi were angry that the JAD did not do any bombing in the few past years, and yet Indonesian police had killed two JAD members,” says a regional intelligence source whose identity we cannot reveal.

Stanislaus explains that the Makassar suicide bombers were pursued by Indonesian authorities tracking JAD members in the capital of Sulawesi.

“They took action in the form of jihad – rather than getting caught, they chose suicide bombing,” he says.

Indonesian police have identified Saefullah (alias Danial or Chaniago), who has close contact with pro-IS groups in Indonesia, especially JAD, as the mastermind of the Makassar attack. Saefullah, an Indonesian believed to be in Afghanistan or Pakistan, is also connected to the 2019 Jolo attack.

The Jolo suicide bombers were influenced to travel from Sulawesi to nearby Sabah by Andi Baso, 21, who later became their son-in-law.

“Andi is thought to have influenced and arranged the journey and actions of Rullie and Ulfah,” says Stanislaus.

He says Andi is a JAD figure with strong connections to IS and Abu Sayyaf – a group with which the Indonesian radical group has a long relationship. Andi received instructions from JAD mastermind Saefullah, says Stanislaus.

The source says Andi is an intermediary: “Saefullah did not give instructions directly to Andi but conveyed them through Suryadi Masud, an influential Indonesian militant based in Jakarta.

“Andi is not the main person. There is a cut out, someone who tells him: you meet so and so, and he goes to the meet. He gets instructions directly from Indonesia,” he says.

On Nov 13, 2016, Andi planned a church attack that killed a toddler in Samarinda, East Kaliman-tan. Pursued by Indonesian security forces, he fled to neighbouring Sabah in late 2016 or early 2017. He ended up in Bingkor, Keningau, a district in Sabah’s interior, about 120km from Kota Kinabalu. In Bingkor, the fugitive worked odd jobs to raise funds to finance his illegal activities.

In November 2018, Rullie and Ulfah, the Jolo suicide bombers, and their children – Rezky Fantasya Rullie @ Cici, 17; Ahmad @ Ibrahim, 11; and Aisyah, nine – travelled from Makassar to Tarakan, then Kalabakan and finally Keningau, where they lived for less than two months before heading for their final destination – Jolo island to carry out the suicide bombing.

“I don’t think Saefullah’s orders (to Rullie and Ulfah to go to Jolo) were direct, but of course, there was coordination with the Abu Sayyaf.

“The driving factor was not someone’s instructions but the tight situation the couple was in, so they finally chose to take action as a form of jihad,” says Stanislaus.

“After failing to get to Syria and then being deported to Indonesia, Rullie and Ulfah fled to Sabah. This wouldn’t have been an easy thing – they certainly didn’t want to be considered desperate and they didn’t choose to be considered ‘martyrs’.”

In March 2016, the couple and their children travelled from Indonesia to Turkey, where they tried to enter Syria to join IS fighters.

“But when they crossed from Turkey, they were caught and deported to Indonesia. After that, they decided to go to the Philippines – they were smuggled there through Malaysia by migrant workers in oil palm plantations in Sabah. Once in the Philippines and after joining the Abu Sayyaf, they carried out the Jolo bombing,” explains Stanislaus.

The source says Rullie and Ulfah were low-level JAD foot soldiers.

“They were already indoctrinated. There was no need to motivate them to come over to Sabah and then travel to Jolo. They were identified as potential suicide bombers.

“Then Andi and the Jolo bombers were connected as they are part of the JAD cell in Makassar,” he says.

In November 2018, Andi married the Jolo bombers’ 17-year-old daughter Rezky in Bingkor, Sabah: “It was an arranged marriage. If you are a JAD member, you want your daughter to marry another JAD member.

“It is like a cult system. Intermarriage among themselves. No outsiders because they don’t have an understanding of the mission,” the source explains.

For the Jolo mission in Jolo, Rezky was not forced to fight for the Abu Sayyaf against Philippines security forces because “once you are married, you follow what the husband wants you to do”, he says.

In December 2018 in Bingkor, Ulfah, her children Rezky and Ahmad, and son-in-law Andi, together with two other JAD fighters, pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Rullie had previously pledged loyalty to al- Baghdadi.

In the middle of that same month, Rullie headed for the southern Philippines. A few weeks later, Ulfah and all three of her children as well as Andi travelled to Jolo via Sabah. They journeyed from Sandakan to Taganak in southern Philippines, to Bongao, the capital of Tawi Tawe province, and then to Jolo island.

The source says the Indonesian couple went to Jolo prepared to carry out suicide bombings – “But they did not know where and when. Their host, the Abu Sayyaf, decided where and when.”

The Rullie family lived in Patikul in the Philippines with the Sawadjaan group, also known as Jemaah Abu Sayyaf, which was under Hajan Sawadjaan. Hajan’s nephew is Mundi Sawadjaan, an upcoming subleader who wanted to make a name for himself.

“Any foreign militant – whether Indonesian, Syrian, Uyghur or Egyptian – who comes to Jolo has to report to either Hajan Sawadjaan or Mundi Sawadjaan to get protection,” says the source.

According to him, Mundi facilitated Rullie and Ulfah’s mission to attack the Jolo cathedral by providing suicide bomber vests and logistical support as the Abu Sayyaf subleader wanted to be the next IS emir in the southern Philippines.

“To be a leader, you must do something radical. By doing this, the name of Mundi will surface. If he is the number one wanted man in the Philippines, he will become more popular. So he can get more support,” says the source.

He contends that it is inaccurate to say Hajan is responsible for the Jolo cathedral bombings.

“Hajan was number one in the hierarchy of the Sawadjaan group, and he did not need to prove anything. Whereas Mundi is coming up, and he needs to prove himself so he can get more members, more money and more power,” he says, adding that, generally, the Abu Sayyaf does not carry out suicide bombing.

The Jolo and Makassar suicide bombings are the handiwork of the JAD cell in Makassar, says Stanislaus.

“There is kinship and family relationship – the Makassar JAD group is mostly united because of ideological ties and kinship ties,” he says.

Sabah is the transit point that connected the JAD fighters in Makassar with the Abu Sayyaf gunmen in Jolo. And the results of that connection were two tragic bombings.

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