KUALA LUMPUR: Sabah is now becoming the focal point of terror activities in the country with fugitive militant Dr Mahmud Ahmad leading an Islamic State (IS) terror cell that has combined forces with the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) to bring in recruits from all over the region into the state.
The cell is using Sabah as a transit point to bring in recruits from peninsular Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and even Rohingyas from Rakhine state to Marawi City, Mindanao in southern Philippines.
Marawi City is the stronghold of ASG, which is led by Isnilon Hapilon. The militants from all these countries gather in Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan in Sabah before the cell secures them safe passage to Marawi City.
Dr Mahmud’s plot was uncovered following the arrest of three foreign men – one from Philippines and two from Bangladesh – along with a Malaysian woman, all believed to be members of the cell. The suspected militants were detained following raids by the Special Branch Counter Terrorism Division in Sabah and Kuala Lumpur on Jan 13 and Jan 19.
Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar said Dr Mahmud’s cell has combined with the ASG.
“Like Dr Mahmud, Isnilon has also “bai’ah” (sworn allegiance ) to IS supremo Abu Bakar Al-Baghdadi. Aside from Dr Mahmud, two other prominent cell members are Darul Islam Sabah member Amin Bacho and Joraimee Awang,” he said.
Intelligence gathered indicates that Dr Mahmud, a former Universiti Malaysia lecturer, was planning to use Sabah as a transit point for new IS recruits from South-East Asia and south Asia before they are taken to the southern Philippines, added Khalid.
Sources said Dr Mahmud has been resolute in uniting different militant groups in South-East Asia, including from southern Thailand, Indonesia, southern Philippines and Malaysia to form an official South-East Asian IS faction.
“He is the main IS recruiter, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia.
“Aside from training with the ASG, Dr Mahmud also teaches classes on jihad and “mati syahid” (martyrdom) for IS members in southern Philippines,” the source said.
The latest arrests signal a growing IS threat in South-East Asia.
“All the countries in the region must remain on guard and step up security to thwart any possible attack,” another source revealed.
It is learnt that the arrested cell was relatively new and the “handler” – a 31-year-old Philippines national – had only managed to secure safe passage for an Indonesian man into southern Philippines.
The Filipino was picked up in Kota Kinabalu on Jan 13. He was working as a watch peddler.
“Initial investigations showed he was taking orders from Dr Mahmud,” he said.
The woman, a 27-year-old, is from Selangor and was recruited by the Filipino via social media, added Khalid.
“She was arrested along with the first suspect in Kota Kinabalu. She flew into Kota Kinabalu from Kuala Lumpur and we believe she was planning to fly to Sandakan before travelling to southern Philippines,” he said, adding that the woman claimed she was planning to marry her recruiter.
Khalid said the other suspects were Bangladeshi nationals, aged 27 and 28, who were arrested in Kuala Lumpur.
“They have connections to IS cells in Bangladesh as well. They, too, were recruited by the first suspect,” he said.