Manila: Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have agreed to form an ad hoc body to arrest and repatriate a Malaysian Islamist and two dangerous associates who are reported to be hiding in the southern Philippines among two Filipino-Muslim rebel groups, sources have told Gulf News.
Militant training, bombmaking and other rebel activities have been undertaken in the region for years.
Representatives of the defence and homeland ministries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines called for the creation of the special body in June following reports that two Filipino-Muslim groups — the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) — had given safe haven to two Malaysian Islamists suspected of being behind the recent kidnappings of Malaysian nationals from Borneo near the southern Philippines, and the recruitment of Filipino-Muslims to join rebels in Syria and Iraq, a military source who requested not to be identified told Gulf News.
Malaysian and Philippine authorities received reports confirming that Zulkifli Bin Hir, also known as Marwan, a Malaysian engineer trained in the United States, has been living in Cotabato City, southern Philippines since 2013, the source said. Bin Hir is a protégé of Indonesian and Jemaah Islamiyah bomb expert and former head of the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM) Dr Azahari Hussain.
Marwan moved there last year, although the Armed Forces of the Philippines reported earlier that he was killed during an air strike on an Abu Sayyaf camp in Sulu province, southern Philippines on Feb 2, 2012, the source said.
The Abu Sayyaf Group gave Marwan sanctuary when he came to the Philippines in 2003, following the bomb attacks that killed 200 in Bali, Indonesia in 2002.
Marwan was wanted for his role in leading KMM in a Southern Bank robbery in Petaling Jaya in May 2001, for the murder of Malaysian lawmaker Dr Joe Fernandez in 2000, and the bombing of a Hindu temple in Pudu, also in 2000.
The US state department has a $5 million (Dh18.36 million) bounty on Marwan’s head.
The tripartite anti-terror operation of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines has also targeted Amin Baco, also known as Abu Jihad, who is a Malaysian national, the source said.
The operation will also seek to arrest two suspected Indonesian militants identified only by their first names, Qayi and Sa’ad, said the source.
It is not known if the Philippine government has forged a special agreement with the Singaporean government for the arrest of Mohammad Ali, also known as Muawiyah Anjala and Abdullah Ali, who was reported to be Marwan’s partner, another military source told Gulf News.
The US State Department has offered $50,000 reward for the arrest of Muawiyah, a member of the Jemaah Islamiyah, the same source said.
The anti-terror coalition of Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines became possible because in 2002, the three countries forged a trilateral agreement against terrorism.
They agreed that Southeast Asian countries needed joint military exercises to fight transnational crimes including kidnappings.
Singapore and Thailand have observer status in the agreement.
In June this year, Abu Sayyaf commander Khair Mundos, who was arrested by police near Manila’s international airport, confirmed during interrogations the presence of the wanted Southeast Asian militants in the camps of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Abu Sayyaf Group.
In June last year, Philippine authorities also confirmed their presence following the arrest of Marwan’s wife and two other Indonesian women who were suspected to be the wives of Qayi and Saad, in Sulu province, the same source said.
The BIFF, on the other hand, is the armed wing of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement that was established by renegade members of the mainstream Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2008.
At the time, the BIFF was against the continuation of the peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF.
In early 2014, the Philippine government and the MILF forged, after 17 years of peace talks, a pro-autonomy peace colony, with the help of Malaysia, a member country of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
All the identified Southeast Asian militants hiding in the southern Philippines belong to Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian conduit of the Al Qaida group once led by the late Osama Bin Laden.
Jemaah Islamiyah has been blamed for terror attacks in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore.
It has also been blamed for the bombings in Bali in 2002, 2005, suicide car bombing outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004, and the car bombing f the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta 2003, and several bombings in Metro Manila.
However, the group has reportedly been weakened. Umar Patek, a top Jemaah Islamiyah leader, was captured before Bin Laden was killed by A US special operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan on March 10, 2010.
Among other Jemaah Islamiyah leaders, Dulmatin was killed in 2010; Noordin Mohammad Top, a strategist, and fund-raiser was killed in 2009.
Jemaah Islamiyah founder Abu Bakir Bashir was imprisoned in Indonesia in 2003.