Malaysia deservedly scored high praise with the arrest late last year of 13 suspected terrorists in the isolated town of Tawau on the east coast of north Borneo. Among them were seven Malaysians, five Indonesians and a Filipino who were stocking up on supplies.
Their arrest and the potential carnage that has remained on the drawing boards were detailed in The Diplomat in December.
According to Todd Elliott, a security analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Consulting, the operation by Malaysian Federal Police had “raised fresh concerns over the threat of a terrorist attack utilizing small arms and targeting foreigners.”
Now, sources close to the operation are saying that their success was limited as three key suspects evaded arrest. These suspects are now believed to be hiding on Jolo in the Southern Philippines, where they met up with members of their long-time affiliate, the Abu Sayyaf.
The three who escaped are Zulkifli Khir, Amin Bacho and Jeknal Adil, all Malaysians and members of militant groups such as Darul Islam Sabah.
Zulkifli, a former head of Kumpulan Militant Malaysia (KMM), fled to Indonesia in mid-2000 to escape a Malaysian crackdown on militants. He reportedly joined the Abu Sayyaf group not long after and has trained their members in bomb-making. The Abu Sayyaf had been battling Filipino and U.S. armed forces based in the southern Philippines.
Zulkifli has been described as one of the last remaining key terror suspects in Southeast Asia. He’s on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list for his role in a string of terror attacks in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. He fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and has a $5 million bounty on his head.
He was also a protégé of Jemaah Islamiyah bomb expert Dr. Azahari Husin, who was killed by Indonesia’s anti-terrorism unit in November 2005. Zulkifli is additionally wanted for his role in leading the KMM in a Southern Bank robbery in Malaysia almost 11 years ago as well as for the murder of Assemblyman Joe Fernandez in early 2000.
Little is known about Amin Bacho or Jeknal Adil, however Bacho has been a priority for regional authorities for at least the last four years. None of the three have shown any signs of retiring. The 13 arrested in November had sworn allegiance to Kaltim (also known as the Abu Umar group). They are alleged to have been gathering weapons and bomb making material from the Philippines, running it through Malaysian Borneo, and planning on using them against the Singaporean Embassy in Jakarta.
With much of the “War on Terror” in Southeast Asia consigned to the history books, the mopping up operations from that era will continue around the Southern Philippines and in the east of Malaysia and Indonesia. Zulkifli Khir will no doubt be a focus.