Despite persistent military operations, Abu Sayyaf Group remains resilient and is reportedly increasing activities within and along the coast of Sabah, Malaysia. The Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) issued an alert in late October that Abu Sayyaf Group was operating in Sabah’s waters. The warning stated that the organization was looking to loot foreign vessels and kidnap high-value individuals and vessel crew members (Daily Express, November 1). The threat, however, is not limited to Sabah’s waters, as evidenced by recent security operations on the ground in Sabah and Putrajaya.
Abu Sayyaf Group has faced stiff resistance from the Philippine army—particularly in its stronghold of Jolo—over the past several years. The organization has lost both significant territory and revenue streams. The group, however, remains resilient and is looking toward Malaysia for revenue and recruitment, including the recruitment of young children.
Esscom’s alert followed an incident off the coast of Semporna Town in Sabah on September 11, when two unidentified kidnappers with M-16s captured two Indonesians from a fishing vessel. The incident was the first confirmed kidnapping in the area in more than two years. Authorities noted that while the kidnappers remain unidentified, it is likely that either Abu Sayyaf Group was behind the incident or that the kidnappers delivered the individuals to the group. Police officials also believe that local illegal immigrants—likely from the Philippines—supplied the kidnappers with information on the targets (Channel News Asia, September 18).
Malaysian security forces have carried out numerous security operations in recent months to crackdown on terrorist groups and sympathizers. During operations between October 30 and November 12, Malaysia arrested eight militants, the majority of which belonged to Abu Sayyaf Group (Channel News Asia, November 16). Inspector General of Police, Fuzi Harun, noted that among those arrested, the majority were Filipinos living in Malaysia and that they were involved in kidnapping-for-ransom and recruiting children to use as human shields in Basilan. An unnamed 35-year-old Filipino man that was arrested was also reportedly involved in the beheading hostages being held by Abu Sayyaf Group. Also among those arrested was another unnamed individual who is reportedly an Abu Sayyaf sub-commander with close ties to notorious senior group leader Furuji Indama (The Sun Daily, November 16).
Concerns over an increase in Abu Sayyaf activity in Malaysia grew further after intelligence reports indicated that Hatib Hajan Sawadjan, an Abu Sayyaf sub-commander known for involvement in kidnapping, escaped a battle with the Philippine Army in Jolo on November 16 (Straits Times, November 22).
While Malaysian authorities have reportedly thwarted at least 10 other kidnapping attempts and made several high-profile arrests, there are thousands of illegal Filipino immigrants in Sabah. Many of them have relatives in Abu Sayyaf or those that are vulnerable to coercion. The arrest of an Abu Sayyaf sub-commander that had long been operating in Sabah coupled with the escape of Hatib Hajan Sawadjin suggests Abu Sayyaf activity in Sabah and its waters is likely to increase as the group seeks refuge from the Philippine Army as well as new members and revenue to support operations in Jolo.