Launch New CPI

It's clear, in the wake of the recent kidnapping in Sandakan, that EssCom (Eastern Sabah Security Command) can only deal with external threats like the Sabah claim.

The Sabah claim refers to Manila's position that EssZone (Eastern Sabah Security Zone) belongs to the Philippines via the defunct Sulu Sultanate. The Brunei Sultanate has denied ever handing over the right to collect toll along the waterways in the northern EssZone to the Sulu Sultanate.

Sulu collected toll along the waterways in the southern EssZone until it ceded this "right" to the British North Borneo Company for an annual purse of RM5, 000 which Malaysia pays to this day as per a 1939 High Court of Borneo in Sandakan decision.

Manila has since translated the purported collection (north) and collection (south) of toll along the waterways in EssZone, i.e. north and south, into a territorial claim. Watch "Sabah claim stays - Pres Aquino" on YouTube - Sabah claim stays -Pres Aquino:

Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman, furious at the latest kidnapping, has demanded that Putrajaya provide the state with choppers. Earlier, there were reports that the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) base in Labuan would be shifted to Tawau. Deputy Home Minister, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, has since said that it would be difficult to meet Sabah’s request for additional assets to boost security in the state.

All these efforts, the formation of EssCom, the demand for choppers, and the RMAF base being in Tawau, does not explain how they would help deal with internal threats like kidnappings-for-ransom.

There must be an internal mechanism to deal with such incidents which have an immediate effect on the tourism industry in particular, and fish farms. So far, the plantations and the timber areas have been spared. The alternative is the collapse of the lucrative tourism industry along the eastern seaboard of Sabah.

Bingkor Assemblyman Jeffrey Kitingan proposed, not so long ago, the setting up of a Sabah Department of Homeland Security. This is an expensive proposition. Besides, it's a sheer waste of scarce resources since only the EssZone was under threat, external and internal.

The right approach, cheaper and more effective, would be the establishment of elite Sabah Special Forces. These forces would need to be backed up a helicopter squadron and a Navy Seal (Sea Air Land) Team.

While the kidnappings-for-ransom threat was internal, there's an external dimension since the gangs which carry out such dastardly activities operate from the relative safety of nearby islands in the southern Philippines in cahoots with their informers and agents in EssZone. The latest kidnapping in Sandakan was a case in point. It lasted less than a minute. That shows the kidnappers had up to the minute intelligence. It's believed that someone posing as a customer at the Ocean King Seafood Restaurant sent a text message to the gang, waiting in a boat at the waterfront, that this was the moment to strike.

The police have seized all mobile phones from patrons in the restaurant. They are yet to disclose any details.

The modus operandi of the kidnappings-for-ransom gangs shows that only Special Forces, short of boots on the ground in a friendly neighbouring country, can deal with the typically Filipino phenomenon. Boots on the ground is an exercise in futility as the experience of the Philippines Army shows.

It's clear what the Special Forces would have to do: engage in kill or capture missions which will take the fight to the enemy i.e. the kidnappings-for-ransom gangs. The commander on the ground would have to make the decision on whether to capture, and failing that, kill the targets. Whether kill or capture, such missions cannot be considered successful unless they get a haul of intelligence which will be crucial for the next mission.

Any Special Forces mission must be preceded by covert human intelligence gathering activities on the ground, both in the EssZone and in the southern Philippines. If necessary, the human intelligence gathering activities can be extended to the rest of Sabah and to the Manila region.

Needless to say, the existence of the Sabah Special Forces must remain a top secret, classified under the Official Secrets Act (OSA), guessed about but never to be confirmed. We are not the United States.

Also, to prevent intelligence leaks, they must operate without the knowledge of the security agencies in Malaysia and the Philippines but with the consent of the Manila Government under a “hot pursuit” agreement. The Special Forces must report only to the Chief Minister in his capacity as the Chairman of the Sabah National Security Council (SNSC) and to the President of the Philippines when on Filipino soil. The other members of the SNSC must be kept out of the picture for obvious reasons.

It's not known how many kidnappings-for-ransom gangs, with links to Sabah, operate in the southern Philippines. The estimates vary from five or six gangs focused on Sabah only with the rest of an estimated 23 outfits operating in the southern Philippines. Another 20 operate in the rest of the Philippines. In Sabah, kidnappings are an activity outsourced to the gangs by militant groups in the southern Philippines.

In any case, whatever the number, it's clear what must be done. There's no other way forward. Once the first few gangs have been eliminated, it will strike fear and terror into the hearts of the remaining gangs. If they too persist in their foolishness, they will pay the ultimate price.