Tawau is a quiet little place – and possibly the remotest city in Malaysia. Tucked away near the Indonesian border in the state of Sabah, it’s well known in diplomatic circles as a Malaysian transit hub between Indonesia and the Southern Philippines.
It’s also a favorite stop over for pirates, smugglers, mercenaries, illegal workers and the Darul Islam movement, whose roots can be traced back to Indonesia’s independence almost 65 years ago. Since then, Darul Islam has spawned a litany of Muslim militant groups like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).
Most who pass through continue on, but some stay to stock-up on supplies, reload and plan for another day as authorities found out when 13 suspected terrorists were arrested in Tawau last month under the Internal Security Act.
Among them were seven Malaysians, five Indonesians and a Filipino, all of whom were initially labeled as suspected members of JI and alleged to be gathering weapons and bomb making material from The Philippines to be used against the Singaporean Embassy in Jakarta.
“The arrests…raise fresh concerns over the threat of a terrorist attack utilizing small arms and targeting foreigners,” says Todd Elliott, a security analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Consulting.
He also says that according to his sources, it was likely not the first time the Umar group had attempted to smuggle firearms into Indonesia from the southern Philippines, allegedly with the assistance of corrupt Philippines police officers and Umar’s son, who is said to be a member of the Abu Sayyaf Group. Other plans included a plot to kidnap a police officer to exchange for other militants under detention and to “start activities that would be harmful to the country.”
The arrests and pending prosecutions have landed the authorities in an unwanted political mess.Local journalists and analysts have been warned not to speculate, and religious parties like PAS have been urged not politicize the arrests. Rights groups, meanwhile, are disturbed the police used the ISA to make the arrests after Prime Minister Najib Razak announced he would repeal the widely loathed law.
The Sabah branch of the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) reacted strongly, saying all 13 were members or supporters and called on police to either release or charge them.Under the ISA, police can detain indefinitely without reason.
PAS was rebuked for admitting foreigners to a Malaysian political party with Chai Kim Sen, Youth Secretary General of the Chinese dominated MCA, saying it “should be left to the police to decide whether the persons arrested are missionaries or terrorists.”
“The security of our country is at stake here…PAS and its allies in Pakatan Rakyat should not politicize the issue further by making up lies and distorting the truth,” he added, referring to opposition groups.
The Abolish ISA Movement and human rights group Suaram then took aim, condemning police and the government for using the ISA, which they said was regrettable and contradicted Razak’s pending abolition of a law introduced by his party after Malaysia gained independence in 1957.
“What is the rationale behind the detention? Is the prime minister trying to fool the people of Malaysia with his hypocritical attitude? The PM should be ashamed of this arrest,” they said in a joint statement.
JI is largely defunct, splinter groups have emerged to replace it and they have been prominent in Indonesia, where attacks have focused on small local targets like isolated police stations and even a mosque. The 13 were arrested as they swore allegiance to Kaltim, also known as the Abu Umar group.
Following the Tawau operation, orchestrated out of Bukit Aman police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, the suspects were linked to Abu Umar, who ran the Kaltim Group out of Kalimantan and was arrested in July. The Kaltim group was recruiting locals to train as militants in Sulawesi.
Elliot says Umar had an extensive jihadi pedigree “and is considered fanatical even among his peers” after he helped found the Abu Bakar battalion, a splinter group of Darul Islam, in Mindanao where he trained in 1998.
Umar was initially detected a year later amid a plot to assassinate Indonesia’s then-defense minister. He was then linked to bloody attacks in Jakarta, Ambon and Poso, where sectarian violence soon flared. In 2006, Kaltim was linked to a plot to kill a Tawau assemblyman.
“The accusations clearly fit the known modus operandi of the Abu Umar group,” Elliott says.“The Umar group emerged (back) on the radar of the authorities after several of its members were arrested for attempting to smuggle firearms, including handguns and M-16 assault rifles, from the southern Philippines through Tanjung Perak Port in Surabaya in July.”
He says at that time, the International Crisis Group warned the Umar group had a network in Greater Jakarta and that dangerous members remained at large. A month later, it said Shia Muslims and non-Muslims had been singled out attacks.
Umar is also known as Ichwan Zulfikar. His July arrest was made along with 11 others for their role with banned terrorist outfits. It was during those arrests that authorities uncovered plans for an attack against the Singaporean Embassy in Jakarta.
Behind the scenes operations by Umar included movement of JI members from Indonesia through Malaysia to Mindanao. Bali bombers Dulmatin, who was shot dead by Indonesian police last year, and Umar Patek, a key JI strategist arrested in Pakistan earlier this year, were among them.
“Despite the recent raids and arrests, it must be assumed that at least some members of the Umar group and its associates remain at large and are in possession of firearms, which could be used to launch attacks such as the one alleged by police to be targeted at the Singaporean Embassy.
“Terrorism developments in Indonesia in recent years have raised concerns that some militants could be turning their attention to firearm-style attacks, similar to what occurred in Mumbai, India in 2008 when 164 people were killed,” Elliott says.
In Jakarta, it’s been planned before.
Elliott notes that in 2006, several people were arrested for helping to maintain a now-defunct extremist website that gave instructions on how to go out and find and kill foreigners in Jakarta.
“The website gave specific tips and advice on how and where to carry out terrorist attacks. Places suggested as being ideal were roadways leading into shopping centers and offices, traffic jams and queues to enter toll roads,” he says.
Ancol in North Jakarta, the Senayan golf driving range in South Jakarta, Planet Hollywood and the then Jakarta Hilton, were pointed out as places where foreigners could be found and murdered.
The “War on Terror” in Southeast Asia has wound down this year after hundreds of militants were captured or killed mainly by Indonesian authorities. However, clearly pockets of Islamic hotheads still exist, often in quiet little towns like Tawau.
Whether they are the seedlings of an era to come, or simply the remnants of a very nasty decade that unfolded after the September 11, 2001 strikes on New York and Washington, remains to be seen.