Malaysian experience in fighting separatism: the case of incursion in the village Lahad Datu
Ірина Крупеня
11.03.2017, 11:12

УДК 94:323.173(595.41-22)


У статті розглядається випадок сепаратизму в Малайзії, що відбувся в лютому 2013 року в селі Лахад Дату штату Сабах, а також ставлення влади Малайзії до загроз, що виникають перед східним узбережжям Сабаха, та каталізаторів, які полегшують контрабанду, викрадення людей з метою викупу. Даний інцидент призвів до застосування урядом Малайзії ряду стратегічних заходів, а саме: створення Командування безпеки в Східному Сабасі (ESSCOM) і Зони Безпеки Східного Сабаху (ESSZONE).

Ключові слова: Абу Сайяф (ASG), Бонгсаморо: ісламські бойовики за свободу (BIFF), Дарул Іслам (DI), Командування безпеки в Східному Сабасі (ESSCOM), Зона Безпеки Східного Сабаху (ESSZONE), іноземні бійці-терористи (FTF), викрадення людини з метою викупу (KFR), Регіональний центр Південно-Східної Азії по боротьбі з тероризмом (SEARCCT), Джемаа Ісламія (JI), Королівські війська Сулу (RSF).

On 11 February 2013, 200 militants travelled by boats from the island of Tawi-Tawi in the southern Philippines to Kampung Tanduo, a small village in Felda Sahabat, approximately 105 kilometres from the village of Lahad Datu in Sabah, Malaysia. The militants, calling themselves the Royal Sulu Force (RSF), were led by Raja Muda Agimuddin Kiram, the brother of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III, who claimed that Sabah was part of the Sulu Sultanate [1].

The group laid down three conditions for the Malaysian government: Malaysia must recognise the Sulu Sultanate; Malaysia must acknowledge that a part of Sabah belongs to the Sultanate; the group demanded that Malaysia pays a sum of USD$7.5 billion as compensation to the group given that Malaysia, in their view had been occupying Sabah since 1963 [2].

The Malaysian authorities didn't comply these demands. On 12 February 2013 Malaysian policemen surrounded the area where the RSF had gathered and began a negotiation process with the group to persuade them to peacefully return to their country. After two weeks of unsuccessful negotiations, the Malaysian security forces moved in and engaged in combat with the Sulu militants.

The incursion resulted in the loss of ten Malaysian security personnel while 68 RSF members were killed. Meanwhile, 443 other individuals were arrested for various offences during the incident. On 4 March 2013 was issued Press Statement by the Malaysian ministry of Foreign Affairs which has labelled the intruders as terrorists. At the same time Malaysian authority welcomed the Philippine's position to resolve "this challenge by the Sulu group against Malaysia's sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as dignity" [3].

After the incursion incident the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dato' Seri Najib Tun Razak on 7 March 2013 announced the establishment of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) with the aim of protecting the eastern part of Sabah. Additionally, on 25 March 2013 was created the security zone known as the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZONE) [4].

This case in the village Lahad Datu was seen by the Malaysian government as well as the international community as "wake up call" on the vulnerability of Sabah towards internal and external threats. At the same time this incident showed the unpreparedness of Malaysian security forces in facing such security breached due to intelligence failure, lack of interagency cooperation, lack of patriotism and nationalist sentiments amongst the locals, poor border control and management as well as unsecured waters and areas in Sabah's eastern seaboard. Nevertheless, Malaysia's authorities have found the common understanding with the Philippines concerning the non-state actors and took strong stance despite security human loss in order to secure territorial unity.

Understanding the threats to Sabah's eastern seaboard

Sabah's geographical location between the Philippines and Indonesia, coupled with an extensive coastal border and numerous off-shore islands make it ideal for the covert travelling of terrorists between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Terrorist group such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Darul Islam (DI), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Royal Sulu Force (RSF) and Daesh have been using Sabah as a transit point for various illegal activities including the smuggling of humans and weapons.

Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) - has established four regional commands or Mantiqi:

- Mantiqi I - Peninsula Malaysia and Singapore (for fund-raising);

- Mantiqi II - Java, Sumatra and other islands of Indonesia (for operation);

- Mantiqi III - Sabah, southern Philippines, Kalimantan and Sulawesi (for training);

- Mantiqi IV - Australia (for fund-raising).

JI had placed Sabah in Mantiqi III as one of the areas for training. In the 1990s early 2000s, JI had sent their newly recruited cadres to receive trainings in arms and bomb-making alongside the ASG and other militant groups in southern Philippines, another area in Mantiqi III. Due to the porous borders and sometimes lack of enforcement capabilities, JI managed to send their Malaysian and Indonesian members to receive training in southern Philippines through Sabah.

Darul Islam (DI) - is one of the oldest militant organisation based in Indonesia. The group has been using Sabah to conduct recruitment and fundraising activities, smuggling of humans and weapons as well as an entry point for their Indonesian members to receive military training in the southern Philippines [5, p.11-12].

Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) - had also been using Sabah to conduct their terrorists related activities such as Kidnapping-For-Ransom (KFR) and arms smuggling. Since 2000, the ASG has been targeting resorts in eastern Sabah to kidnap either tourists or resort workers. Between 2000 and 2015, the ASG had conducted at least eight kidnappings in Sabah. Among notable kidnappings in Sabah perpetrated by the ASG was the Sipadan Island kidnapping in April 2000, when it kidnapped ten western tourists and 11 resort workers [6].

Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) - is a breakaway group from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), headed by foreign-trained guerrilla, Omra Ameril Kato, a former MILF commander who is opposed to the peace negotiations between the government and the MILF. The BIFF broke away from MILF in 2008 after the botched signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain. In August 2014 the BIFT pledged its loyalty to Daesh and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In January 2015, Malaysian Defence Minister stated that Malaysian intelligence reported that Philippines terrorist groups such as BIFF and ASG have targeted the east coast of Sabah as the place to spread their ideology [7].

The threat of terrorist group to Sabah is further seen through the network between militants from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines that form the Southeast Asia Daesh branch in Syria and Iraq known as the Khatibah Nusantara Lid Daulah Islamiah. Such group could pose a threat in the future to not only Sabah but Malaysia as a whole via returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) from the three countries [5, p.16].

Daesh - have evolved from Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and stunned the world in the middle of 2014. Besides its unprecedented depth in utilising violence and its ability to enforce some form of government on large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, Daesh has been able to project itself in a manner that has been able to attract fighters at an unprecedented level on a global scale.

Among the most country in the world instead of term Daesh usually used the term Islamic State or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Among the Muslims, the term Islamic State, gives the group both credibility and legitimacy, which it neither remotely deserves and/or has earned. Among the non-Muslims, it further polarises and poisons the relations with the Muslims, aiding and assisting the group's devious intentions to bring about hostility, friction and conflict between two. On 2 December 2015, the Malaysian Deputy Home Minister, Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed confirmed in Parliament that Malaysia would not use the term Islamic State as it was misleading but would instead call the group Daesh [8, p.18-19].

With regards to the pull of Daesh in Malaysia, the statistics warrants concern. As of 25 March 2016, there have been 175 arrests that have been made in Malaysia with regards to the threat. 16 have been deported and 107 have been charged with 14 convicted. 17 have been killed, of which six died as suicide bombers [8, p.72].

In recent developments, terrorist group from Philippines such as the ASG, the BIFF and the Rajah Sulaiman Movement (RSM) have pledged their loyalty to Daesh [5, p.19].

Identifying the catalysts that facilitate smuggling and

kidnapping-for-ransom activities

The catalysts that concern the security of the eastern Sabah go far back to its history and are deeply rooted in the area's cultures and traditions. They include the following elements: the free movement of undocumented travellers (illegal immigrants) from the Philippines and Indonesia; water villages; sea gypsies or Pala'u; barter trading.

Illegal immigrants. In recent decades, the east Coast of Sabah has seen an influx of migrants, both legal and illegal, and this had led to a significant increase in the population of Sabah. This is clearly evident in the large increase of population from 653,000 in 1970 to 2.6 million in 2000. Among them, in 2000 around 600,000 people or 24% of Sabah's population were non-citizens. By 2010, this number increased to 889,779 people or 29% of the state's population of 3,206,742 people. The entry of these immigrants, mainly from the islands of southern Philippines as well as Indonesia, was due to a number of key factors.

One reason is the close proximity of Sabah to the Philippines' Sulu archipelago and Indonesia's Kalimantan. Second key factor is the political turmoil in southern Philippines. For decades now, the region has been experiencing civil unrest and violence from the activities of various terrorist groups such as the ASG, the New People's Army (NPA), separatist movements the MILF, MNLF, BIFF. Another contributing factor is economic opportunities for immigrants in Sabah where they serve as cheap labour in the services, plantation and construction industries. The final factor that has contributed to the large number of illegal immigrants in Sabah is the close family ties and social linkages that exist between the immigrants' home country and country of destination.

The problem of illegal immigrants in Sabah came to light particularly in the mid-1970s with the fear that its number would surpass that of the locals. The issue was again heightened by the 2013 Lahad Datu incident and the subsequent kidnappings in the eastern part of Sabah. It highlighted, most importantly, a more serious security breach to the state as a result of the migration and the immigrations were believed to be facilitating the conduct of Kidnapping-For-Ransom (KFR) and smuggling activities.

Water villages - which located on the eastern Sabah seaboard are home to many illegal immigrants and serve as ideal safe haven for criminal elements engaged in smuggling and KFR activities. The water villages are thus one of the sources of security breach in the area due to lack of surveillance and easy access to the numerous jetties built illegally along the water villages. When the militants invade Lahad Datu in 2013, the authorities were exposed to the intruders who were hiding in the houses in the water villages. These water villages are also known to be the hotbeds for kidnapping, intruders and terrorists as well as illegal immigrants to conduct their illegal activities.

Pala'u: The Eyes and Ears at Sea - are essentially stateless people who live a nomadic life at sea. Also known as Bajau Laut, they don't belong to any state and move from one place to another in search of sea-based food. As they are excellent divers and boat craftsmen, they have earned the title of "King of the Sea".

Their strategic location on islands and seas bordering Malaysia and the Philippines and their skills as seafarers, coupled with their lack of education and poverty, make them attractive target for exploitation by criminal groups and smugglers. That is why some members of the Pala'u community may be able to provide various critical services - act as "eyes and ears" of the criminal group, provide cover and refuge, facilitate the trafficking of illegal immigrants as well as the smuggling of goods and weapons, and operate as informers.

Barter trading - between Sabah and the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei existed even before the arrival of the British to North Borneo and the Spaniards' arrival in the Philippines. However, a tradition that began in the 15th century, has seen a considerable change from the act of exchanging goods for goods to purchasing of goods between these countries.

It is important to note that the attitude towards barter trading between Malaysia and the Philippines is in complete contrast. While Malaysia recognises barter trading as an economic opportunity with incoming foreign exchange, the Philippines on the other hand viewed it simply as smuggling activities. Despite the opposing take on barter trading, it still exists today and is concentrated in areas as Tawau and Sandakan.

In recent times goods exchanged or purchased at barter trading ports included sugar, timber, marine life, fruits etc. However, smuggling activities are also being conducted through barter trading. Illegal goods are being smuggled through the use of trading boats, known as Kumpits. Items that are being smuggled in from the Philippines include drugs, weapons, cigarettes and alcohol among other things. While goods being smuggled out of Sabah includes petrol, sugar and other subsidised goods. In addition, illegal immigrants are also being smuggled in by using the Kumpits through barter trade routes. In fact, terrorists of the 2013 Lahad Datu incursion who had come in stages were also using these barter trading boats to enter Lahad Datu. In a recent kidnapping in Sandakan in May 2015, the RMP mentioned that the kidnappers came to Sandakan by pretending to be barter traders to avoid detection from the authorities [5, p.25-32].

The Lahad Daru incursion and its impact on Malaysia's security

The diagram above shows that the external threats to Sabah's eastern seaboard came from various terrorist organisations such as JI, DI, ASG, RSF and Daesh, as well as organised crimes including KFR and smuggling activities. The Lahad Datu incursion in 2013 had served as a "wake-up call" for Malaysia. At the same time Malaysia's experience in fighting terrorism has shown the possibility of authorities to resolve the issue, identify the catalysts, secure the "Whole-of-nation" approach through establishment of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) and the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZONE), find the interstate understanding between Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia concerning non-state actors.

The Lahad Datu incursion is difficult to compare with Crimea incursion in 2014 which was supported by Ukrainian east state neighbour. But at the same time Ukraine can learn about the potential threats, catalysts which could divide the country and the importance of the "Whole-of-nation" approach/mechanism to return the lost part of own land. Malaysian experience shows that only the common interstate understanding between independent states can be right mechanism to fight non-state actors.


1. Philippines Aquino urges sultan to end Sabah stand-off [Electronic resource] / BBC News. - Access mode:

2. How do you solve a problem like Sabah? [Electronic resource] / BBC News. - Access mode:

3. Press statement [Electronic resource] // Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia. - 2013. - Access mode:

4. Fonbuena C. Malaysia forms Eastern Sabah Security Command [Electronic resource] / C. Fonbuena. - 2013. - Access mode:

5. Jawhar J. The Lahad Datu incursion and its impact on Malaysia's security / J.Jawhar, K. Sariburaja. - Kuala Lumpur: The Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT), 2016. - 82 p.

6. Patterns of Global Terrorism 2000 - Malaysia / United States Department of State. [Electronic resource] - 2001. - Access mode:

7. Ahmad Tarmizi J. Sabah's IS threat under control / Jastin Ahmad Tarmizi. // The Star. - 2015.

8. Koruth Samuel T. Radicalisation in Southeast Asia: a selected case study of Daesh in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines / Thomas Koruth Samuel. - Kuala Lumpur: The Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT), 2016. - 170 p.


Ph. D. Student of the Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine,

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine


The article deals with the case of separatism in Malaysia which happened in February 2013, in the village Lahad Datu, state Sabah; understanding by Malaysian authorities the threats to Sabah's eastern seaboard and the catalysts that facilitate smuggling and kidnapping-for-ransom activities . The incident then led to several strategic moves by the Malaysian government including the establishments of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) and the security zone called the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZONE).

Key words: the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) , Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) , Darul Islam (DI), the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), Easter n Sabah Security Zone (ESSZONE), Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) , Kidnapping-For-Ransom (KFR), the Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT), Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Royal Sulu Force (RSF).


В статье рассматривается случай сепаратизма в Малайзии, который имел место в феврале 2013 года в селе Лахад Дату штата Сабах, а також отношение власти Малайзии к угрозам, возникающим перед восточным побережьем Сабаха, и катализаторам, которые облегчают контрабанду, похищение людей с целью выкупа. Данный инцидент привел к принятию со стороны правительства Малайзии ряда стратегических шагов , а именно: создание Командования безопасности в Восточном Сабахе (ESSCOM) и Зоны Безопасности Восточного Сабаха (ESSZONE).

Ключевые слова: Абу Сайяф (ASG), Бонгсаморо: исламские боевики за свободу (BIFF), Дарул Ислам (DI), Командование безопасности в Восточном Сабахе (ESSCOM), Зона Безопасности Восточного Сабаха (ESSZONE), иностранные бойцы-террористы (FTF), похищение человека с целью выкупа (KFR), Региональный центр Юго- Восточной Азии по борьбе с терроризмом (SEARCCT), Джема Исламия (JI), Королевские войска Сулу (RSF).