Tri-border cooperation vital to securing East Sabah, terrorism expert says

File photo shows marine police carrying out checks along the coastal waters of Semporna to prevent attacks by Philippine insurgents. — Bernama pic
File photo shows marine police carrying out checks along the coastal waters of Semporna to prevent attacks by Philippine insurgents. — Bernama pic

PETALING JAYA, April 5 — The latest kidnapping of four Malaysian crew members from a tugboat off the coast of Tawau has put three countries and the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) under the spotlight for failing to secure the area after previous similar incidents, says a terrorism expert. 

International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research head Prof Rohan Gunaratna said the countries in the area also failed to understand and respond to the nature of the threat.

“ESSCOM cannot stand alone as the problem is transboundary. It must be understood it is one component in a broad security zone,” he said.

“The tri-border area between Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia is overrun with various criminal and terrorist elements.”

Rohan said the three governments needed to develop a strategy to dominate, control and secure the Sulu Sea or face a destabilised border zone.

“The terrorists are engaged in hostage taking with the aim of eventually turning the area into a ‘safe zone’ to conduct attacks against these countries,” he said.

On Friday, four Sarawakians were kidnapped by gunmen who boarded the tugboat Massive 6 about 100km from Tawau. 

The remainder of the crew, three Myanmar and two Indonesians — one of whom is the captain — were allowed to leave.

Rohan also stressed the need for a military solution as the threat was serious and dealing with it was beyond the means of other agencies such as the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and marine police operating under ESSCOM.

“Attacks will become increasingly severe unless these groups are dismantled with military force, specifically the Malaysian Navy. There are no other options. Only a strong military response will stabilise the situation,” he said.

“These groups operating in the tri-border area, part of which is under ESSCOM, are capable of striking anywhere in South-east Asia and represent a serious threat to the region.”

Rohan said several hundred fighters had been trained for such a purpose and some were known to be linked to the Islamic State.

“The Malaysian government should lead the way in dismantling these groups as they have more leverage than the Filipino authorities,” he said.

He also suggested greater engagement between the public and government on security issues.

“The current threat landscape should be discussed and shared with the public. It is their responsibility to ensure the public is aware and protected,” he said.

National Defence University of Malaysia Assoc Prof Aruna Gopinath said the barter trade conducted by small vessels in the area needed to be temporarily stopped.

“The situation off Sabah is a classic example of the state versus irregular forces. It is difficult to tell friend from foe,” she said.

“Militants and criminal groups are taking advantage of the free passage and lax border controls in the area to scout and gather information used to carry out attacks.”

Aruna said the close proximity of several countries in the area, namely Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, made it difficult to carry out enforcement.

“We have no ‘hot-pursuit’ agreement and so militants or criminals are able to slip between jurisdictions because borders mean nothing to them,” she said, adding that they were cunning and capable of adapting to threats.

“Bear in mind many of these militants have grown in this environment. They know the sea and islands intimately as opposed to enforcement officers and navy personnel.”

Aruna also said ESSCOM’s ability to gather on ground intelligence was lacking and greater engagement with the public was needed.

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