LAHAD DATU, Sabah—The whereabouts of the 72-year-old Agbimuddin Kiram who led the armed Sulu intrusion into Tanduo village here in February remain a mystery.
Agbimuddin, the younger brother of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram, disappeared without a trace after he “fled” Lahad Datu on March 11 as Malaysian security forces recaptured Tanduo in a massive police and military offensive.
Security forces are certain that he fled to an island in Tawi-Tawi province in southern Philippines close to Sabah, but family members insist he is in Lahad Datu waging a guerrilla war.
Tawi-Tawi officials believe that Agbimuddin is with a network of sympathizers and has kept a low profile to avoid being detained by the government, which has ordered his arrest for waging a war with a foreign country.
It has also been speculated that Agbimuddin, a former assistant district officer of Kudat, Sabah, in the early 1970s, was killed by his bodyguard in Tanduo and buried in an unmarked grave sometime after the Malaysian air and ground offensive to flush out the Sulu intruders began on March 5.
In an interview with The Star newspaper of Malaysia, Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib said the police believed Agbimuddin was still alive and was hiding in an island in his home country.
“Agbimuddin is definitely not in Lahad Datu. They can fly kites if they want to keep insisting that Agbimuddin is in Lahad Datu, hiding and moving from one place to another,” Hamza said when asked about the persistent claims by the Sulu sultanate’s spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, that Agbimuddin is still in Sabah fighting a guerrilla war.
But Hamza did not rule out the possibility that Agbimuddin was still planning to wage a guerrilla war against Sabah.
Hamza said he suspected that Agbimuddin’s family members were insisting that he was still in Sabah because he had made many promises (before the intrusion) to his followers, who were now dead or facing criminal charges in Malaysia.
“So to prevent him from being killed (in Philippines), they have to say that Agbimuddin is in Lahad Datu and still fighting,” he said, adding there had been no clashes between followers of the Sulu sultanate and security forces in Sabah since the intrusion was put down in early April.
Tanduo has since been closed to the public, with a security base set up at the seaside village and the state government working to relocate more than 20 local families in the area.
Agbimuddin and about 200 followers of the sultan of Sulu crossed the Sulu Sea from Tawi-Tawi in early February to reclaim Sabah, the Sulu sultanate’s ancestral land.
Hiding in forest
In a telephone interview with The Star in Manila, Idjirani, who is the brother-in-law of Agbimuddin, insisted that Agbimuddin was still “somewhere in Lahad Datu” waging a guerrilla war against Sabah.
Idjirani, however, did not know the exact location of his brother-in-law.
“I know that he is hiding in a forest and has adopted guerrilla tactics and is moving from one place to another around Tanduo,” he said.
Idjirani claimed that he frequently spoke to Agbimuddin.
“In fact, I spoke to him two days ago. He called us and told us that there was an encounter between the Royal Sulu Army and the Malaysian security forces in Mile 9 in Lahad Datu on June 16 and Labian on June 18,” he said.
Idjirani said he believed that Malaysian security forces could not locate Agbimuddin because he was no longer using his cell phone.
“He is no longer using his cell phone, unlike in March (during the aerial bombings). He realized that using his cell phone would lead to detection,” Idjirani said.
He said Agbimuddin and his followers were seasoned fighters.
“Even though the Malaysian forces have more firepower they cannot defeat them,” Idjirani said, adding that the Malaysian security forces were careful not to engage the Sulu group in direct confrontations.
Thirty-five followers of Agbimuddin were arrested by Philippine authorities after they returned from Lahad Datu, and recently the National Bureau of Investigation recommended various criminal charges—including waging war with a foreign country—be brought against Agbimuddin and his followers who entered Tanduo between Feb 9 and 12.
Seventy-three fighters from Agbimuddin’s group were killed (59 bodies have been recovered) in the nearly eight-week armed showdown with Malaysian security forces.
Malaysian police have arrested 184 people and charged 31 with various criminal offenses, including waging war against the Malaysian king. Their cases are now in court.