TARAKAN — Warships from Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia held manoeuvres Monday (June 19) in waters plagued by insurgency and banditry off north Borneo, launching coordinated patrols in a region in which Islamic State (IS) influence is growing.
Helicopters and surveillance planes flew overhead as ministers and army chiefs from the countries attended ceremonies to launch the patrols, with security taking on added urgency after Islamist militants overran a town in the southern Philippines around a month ago.
“This trilateral cooperation is needed to anticipate the possibility of infiltration by IS-aligned militants from Marawi who are disguised as refugees,’’ Indonesia’s military chief, General Gatot Nurmantyo, said in a speech.
Philippine military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said the coordinated patrols aim to tighten protection along porous borders, and prevent abductions on the high seas.
They will also help prevent the movement of fugitives seeking haven in a different country or planning to provide assistance to jihadists, he said.
BG Padilla added that immigration procedures should also be strengthened, since they are the first line of defence in blocking militants who come in through the countries’ airports.
“The enemy we face right now is of a different breed, and the presence of foreign fighters in the area — a matter that we are trying to validate and prove based on whatever we can recover from the field — is part of that continuing concern,’’ he told reporters in the Philippines.
BG Padilla was referring to the reported presence in Marawi of foreign fighters, who he said bring a kind of terrorism that is common in the Middle East, but not practiced by local militants.
Thousands of troops and police are struggling to end the siege by Muslim militants aligned with the IS. Officials said the fighting has left at least 26 civilians, 257 militants and 62 security forces dead.
The spectacular collapse in security in the southern Philippines has also alarmed neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
Indonesia has deployed three Sukhoi fighter jets to help with security in case the militants try to flee southwards towards Indonesia, the head of the Tarakan air base, Colonel Didik Krisyanto, told the state news agency, Antara.
Yesterday, Indonesia also inaugurated a maritime command centre at the naval base of Tarakan.
Malaysian defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that the three countries would increase their sharing of information, because what had happened in Marawi could also happen elsewhere.
The neighbours would not allow IS “to set foot, even just an inch, in our region”, Mr Hishammuddin said. Maritime command centres will also be set up in Tawau in Malaysia’s Sabah state, in Borneo, and in Bongao in the Philippines.
“We see these functioning as a triangle, like a spider’s web, where everything inside the triangle will be monitored,” Gen Nurmantyo said of the centres.
The opening ceremony for the joint patrols, which was held on board an Indonesian warship, was also attended by security officials from Singapore and Brunei, who acted as observers. AGENCIES