In the early hours of December 4, Malaysian special forces were dispatched alongside maritime police officers to investigate reports of a small boat acting suspiciously in waters off the coast of Lahad Datu, a town on the eastern edge of Sabah state. Sabah was the site of a deadly siege by a ragtag band of Islamist fighters – who had arrived by sea under the cover of darkness – almost five years previously.
As the security forces reached the vessel, they soon came under fire and a brief gun battle erupted. The vessel sped off into the open water, but when troops caught up with it several minutes later they discovered the boat’s single occupant fatally wounded, having sustained multiple gunshot wounds. The deceased militant was later identified as a member of the notorious Abu Sayyaf group, based across the Sulu Sea in the southern Philippines and responsible for a spate of kidnappings in the region.
The fatal clash was the only incident of its kind off Sabah’s coastline in 2017, yet it served as a stark reminder of the threat posed by Islamist militants to Malaysia’s easternmost state. This threat has always existed due to Sabah’s proximity to militant strongholds in the impoverished island chain dividing the Sulu and Celebes Seas, but the threat has now been raised further after last year’s five-month jihadist siege of Marawi city on the Philippines’ conflict-plagued southern island of Mindanao.
Whilst Islamic State’s attempts to carve out a regional caliphate have heightened fears of terrorist infiltration into Malaysia, the threat must also be placed within the context of Sabah’s history as part of an Islamic Sultanate prior to the colonial era, as well as within a more recent history of Islamist intrusions and hostage-taking incidents, which have periodically shattered the relative peace enjoyed by Sabahans.
In an era of growing threats, can the state’s authorities prevent similar crises from reoccurring and avert the kind of deterioration in security witnessed elsewhere in the backwaters of Southeast Asia?
Before the colonial period in Sabah, which was at the time known as North Borneo, the area came under the jurisdiction of the Islamic Sulu Sultanate, which ruled modern-day Sabah from 1658 until a contract was signed in 1878 leasing the territory to the British North Borneo Company. Sabah was then briefly occupied by the Japanese during World War II before returning to British administrative control as a formal colony. This arrangement lasted only until 1963, when Sabah opted to join the newly independent state of Malaysia. In the decades since, Malaysia has been accused of illegally giving thousands of Muslim immigrants in Sabah citizenship in the hope of securing favorable election outcomes, boosting the state’s population from less than 600,000 in 1970 to over 3.5 million today.
The government in Kuala Lumpur has also continued to make an annual payment of around $1,500 under the terms of the original 1878 lease agreement to the present-day Sulu sultan, who leads what is now a purely symbolic entity based in the former Sultanate’s heartland in the Sulu islands. The Philippine state, into which modern-day Sulu is incorporated, has also maintained a nominal claim to Sabah. Successive administrations have opted not to actively pursue that claim, for fear of damaging relations with Malaysia, which has played a crucial peacemaking role in the southern Philippines’ long-running Moro insurgency, fought between Muslim separatists and Manila for the last 40 years.
Despite its contested past, for decades Sabah remained relatively free from militant activity in the postindependence era. This period of calm abruptly ended in April 2000, when Abu Sayyaf militants stormed the resort island of Sipadan, kidnapping 21 tourists and resort workers. A six-month hostage crisis followed and focused the world’s attention on the increasingly lawless waterways separating Sabah from the Sulu archipelago. The hostages were all eventually released unharmed following the payment of large ransoms and a series of rescue operations launched by the Philippine armed forces.
A wave of Abu Sayyaf kidnappings followed over the next decade, before a new crisis in February 2013. The centuries-old dispute over the ownership of Sabah was revived when a group of around 200 armed men, loyal to the present-day Sulu sultan, arrived onshore and invaded Tanduo village, near Lahad Datu, in a bid to reclaim lost territory and re-establish the past Islamic sultanate. The situation developed into a drawn-out siege, which ended in brutal battles between the militants and the Malaysian security forces, resulting in at least 68 deaths as the men were ejected from Sabah.
Sensing a threat to the Malaysian state, the 2013 incursion sparked Kuala Lumpur into action. Soon after the siege ended, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced the creation of the new Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) to police a swathe of the state’s 1,400 kilometer-long coastline demarcated as the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZ). This beefed up security infrastructure remains in place today, and covers ten districts along the eastern coast, which are patrolled by police officers, army personnel, and members of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA). More police stations and detention centers have also been built in Sabah, whilst naval capabilities have been upgraded in an attempt to prevent similar incursions by armed groups.
Despite these measures, 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.
Regional cooperation with neighboring Indonesia and the Philippines has also helped restrict the movement of suspected terrorists. The three countries launched trilateral naval patrols in the Sulu Sea in mid-June last year, which were quickly followed by the initiation of regular air patrols in October to spot suspicious activity from the skies. The three nations have also agreed to enhance counterterror cooperation and intelligence sharing, and have established a network of maritime patrol bases to better-police their porous maritime border areas. To coordinate the effort Malaysia has set up a new naval command center in Tawau, whilst similar posts have opened at Tarakan in Indonesia and Bongao in the Philippines. Malaysia and Indonesia have also agreed to create an additional five joint command posts along the land border separating Sabah from Kalimantan state, to curb militant activity.
The Malaysian authorities are also keen to ensure that if an attack or kidnapping incident does occur, they are well-placed to respond. ESSCOM chief Hazani Ghazali said last month that his troops “frequently train and rehearse” to stay “at the leading edge of combat capabilities.” In December, ESSCOM held a counterterrorism drill at Sandakan airport focused on urban warfare techniques, replicating conditions faced by the Philippine military in Marawi. Just weeks earlier Malaysian special forces had participated in Operation Tiger Strike alongside U.S. troops. The six-day joint exercise was designed to test interoperability and saw officers take part in simulated amphibious combat scenarios.
Over the past few months, the bolstered security architecture in Sabah and its surrounding waters has produced some quantifiable results. The maritime curfew imposed throughout 2017 saw no kidnappings take place within the waters of the ESSZ during a calendar year for the first time since its formation five years ago. There has also been no repeat of the 2013 incursion and no major terrorist attack in the area, despite Islamic State’s stated wish to target Malaysia. The central government in Kuala Lumpur recently approved $64 million in funding for ESSCOM in 2018 adding to more than $80 million allocated last year, reinforcing its long-term commitment to ensure stability is maintained in Sabah.
If militants are present on any notable scale within Sabah, they appear to be lying low in the face of the enhanced security measures put in place, whilst the authorities have refuted any suggestion that local Muslim communities are harboring jihadist fighters from the southern Philippines. So far, the knock on effects of the instability to Malaysia’s east appear to have been limited, and Sabah’s tourism industry continues to thrive. The economic benefits derived from a stable environment make the region’s power brokers all the more determined to avoid a deterioration of security akin to Mindanao.
In the post-Marawi era, the authorities in Sabah know they must exercise continual vigilance and remain on a heightened state of alert, amid fears of terrorist infiltration driven by the risk of fighters returning not only from Mindanao, but also from the Middle East as ISIS loses territory there. Despite suffering a blow in Marawi, Islamic State’s lingering regional ambitions remain a threat. A repeat of the 2013 Lahad Datu incursion cannot be ruled out in an era where nostalgic but bloody attempts to revive imagined past glories and utopian epochs continue to hold sway among radical Islamists.
Due to its geographical position, Sabah will remain at risk despite the best efforts of the security forces and law enforcement agencies. Its long and heavily indented coastline along with its proximity to the impoverished and lawless islands of the Sulu archipelago, awash with armed Islamist groups, will continue to make Sabah an attractive gateway for militants intent on not only resurrecting past territories, but with eyes on carving out new ones.
Michael Hart is a writer and researcher focusing on civil conflict and terrorism in Southeast Asia. He has written for publications including The Diplomat, World Politics Review, Asia Sentinel, Eurasia Review, Geopolitical Monitor and Asian Correspondent.