Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines will conduct joint naval patrols in the Sulu Sea from next week to curb cross-border kidnapping-for-ransom activities in the area, Indonesia's military chief said Monday.
The patrols in the waters between eastern Malaysia and the southern Philippines come as the three Southeast Asian countries have been stepping up their fight against such activities blamed on Islamic State-linked rebels based in the southern Philippines.
They will start next Tuesday, a day after defense ministers and military commanders of the three countries sign a memorandum of understanding in the Indonesian town of Tarakan, off the northeastern coast of Borneo, Indonesian Defense Force Commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo told reporters late Monday.
It was not immediately clear whether the memorandum will include a proposal for these three countries to allow cross-border hot pursuit of suspected criminals.
Since early last year, dozens of Indonesians and Malaysians have been abducted by armed men linked to the notoriously violent Abu Sayyaf rebel group in the Sulu Sea.
Abu Sayyaf claims to promote an independent Islamic state comprising part of Mindanao island and the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines. Besides kidnappings for ransom, it has engaged in bombings, assassination and extortion, making it one of the Philippines' most serious security threats.
The militants have been fighting side-by-side with the Islamic-State-linked Maute Group, whose members have been engaged in fighting with Philippine troops in the city of Marawi, on Mindanao island, since May 23.
Indonesia has reacted by tightening border security and sending military reinforcements to its eastern islands, according to Maj. Gen. Ganip Warsito, commander of the Merdeka Regional Command supervising the provinces of North Sulawesi, Central Sulawesi and Gorontalo.
"So far, we haven't found any indication of infiltration (of IS-linked militants) from the Philippines to Indonesia," Ganip told reporters.
But he said Indonesia is vulnerable due to the existence of terrorist sleeper cells in most of its provinces, though unlike the case of the Philippines, they lack weapons.
"In the Philippines, they have already had weapons, besides radical ideology. So once a small force infiltrates into those in Indonesia, the sleeping cells will be easily awake," he said.