The Diplomat reports that “a bolstered security architecture in Sabah and its surrounding waters is having an impact,” in light of recent developments that tag the area as a crucial jumping point of extremists and terrorists navigating the waters between Malaysia and the Philippines:
The threat from Islamist terrorism has surged in the past few years reflecting both regional developments and global trends, namely the emergence of the transnational jihadist group ISIS in 2014. This coincided with a new wave of piracy attacks launched by Abu Sayyaf off Sabah’s coastline, with 12 kidnapping incidents resulting in the capture of 33 hostages between 2014 and 2016. The spate of attacks led many countries to warn their citizens against travelling to Sabah.
Militants have also used Sabah as a launchpad to enter the conflict-prone southern Philippines. In 2016, senior ISIS-linked Malaysian militant Dr. Mahmud Ahmad funneled jihadists through the region, acting as chief recruiter for the Abu Sayyaf faction led by Isnilon Hapilon, which went on to participate in the Marawi siege. Intelligence sources say Ahmad had formed alliances with top regional militant leaders and played a key role in uniting Islamist groups in Southeast Asia under the ISIS banner. The five-month assault on Marawi last year, in which jihadists from across the region affiliated to a plethora of radical armed groups battled to forge a regional ISIS province, highlighted the need to address the issues of radicalization, terrorist recruitment, and people smuggling along the eastern Sabah coast.
The Malaysian authorities have responded once again by tightening security across the state. Since May last year, more than 230 arrests and 6,000 security checks have been made on land whilst monitoring of the coastal areas of the ESSZ has been expanded amid a climate of heightened vigilance. A dawn-to-dusk curfew for civilian vessels in waters off the ESSZ has been expanded indefinitely in an attempt to crack down on kidnapping incidents, whilst a new command post has been installed on the remote Ligitan island to boost the surveillance of waters close to Abu Sayyaf’s strongholds. Meanwhile Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi recently announced that 500 members of the People’s Volunteer Corps (RELA) will be deployed in 2018 to help the armed forces keep watch over the ESSZ.
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