4 nations in search for terrorist
Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore monitor people coming in while Philippine troops keep watch on southern islands.
Security authorities in South-east Asia went on high alert as they mounted a massive manhunt for Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, a top terrorist convict who bolted from a maximum security prison in the Philippines just days ago.
Amid concerns that the fugitive was trying to or could have already run off to Indonesia or Malaysia to plot a new wave of attacks, immigration counters around the region posted pictures of his boyish-looking face as police and intelligence agencies scrambled to hunt him down.
Flights bound for Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia were also being monitored given fears that the senior Jemaah Islamiah (JI) member might be trying to cross borders or attempt a hijacking.
The hunt for the skilled bomb-maker appeared most intensive in the Philippines. Troops on the southern island of Mindanao were ordered to intercept if he made contact with the Abu Sayyaf Muslim rebels, who are traditionally known to be close allies of the JI terror network.
The Philippine military was also keeping close watch on the island provinces of Tawi-Tawi, Jolo and Palawan, which enjoy a common sea border with Malaysia.
But some believe he could have already crossed the borders. Philippine armed forces spokesman David Lucero said: ‘Our southern backdoor is very open. Anybody can just go in and out.
‘Though we have joint border patrol operations with Malaysia or Indonesia, the area is too large relative to our capacity to monitor every incident in the area.’
Analysts said that from a practical standpoint, Malaysia or Indonesia would be the most ideal choice given their proximity to the Philippines. More importantly, there were still dormant JI cells that could offer him safe haven and logistics back-up for a terrorist strike.
In Malaysia, the authorities put its maritime patrol on full alert to check all boats and passengers entering Malaysia. Security levels were highest in Sabah, where there were concerns that Al-Ghozi could try to enter straight from the Philippines.
With its porous borders and sprawling size, observers said that Indonesia would probably be his ‘first choice’.
He could enter the country through any one of several points. This included the eastern islands of Sulawesi and Maluku, East Kalimantan and the Sangit Talaud islands near the Philippines.
Intelligence sources said the Islamic militant could also be targeting Manado in northern Sulawesi. He had spent time there years ago working in a bakery which he used as a cover to smuggle chemicals and explosives into the country, and also has a well-established network of militant contacts further down south of the island.
Police spokesman Edward Aritonang said that the government had increased checks at several border points. ‘Al-Ghozi is very dangerous and there is a possibility that he could team up with other JI militants in Indonesia.’
Al-Ghozi’s entry into Indonesia could help JI – now bereft of several of its top leaders who have been arrested by police in recent months – plan for fresh attacks in the country and the region.
Said a senior Indonesian intelligence official: ‘Al-Ghozi will be crucial to JI in terms of the leadership he can provide to an organisation that is badly hit with all the arrests.
‘But all this is just theory at this stage. One problem with the theory of Al-Ghozi entering Indonesia is that it would take him days to do so by boat. I don’t think he is that stupid to take the risk of being too long on the seas with all the border patrols.
‘The most likely scenario is that he could have got sanctuary in the Abu Sayyaf camp and is using it as a transit base before trying to enter Indonesia or any other country.’