However, what they never expected was the strong response that our security forces displayed in defending the honour and sovereignty of our nation.
While Kampung Tanduo has been cleared of terrorists, we must not be lulled into a sense that the crisis is over. We may have won the battle, but the war still goes on.
Before we continue our vigilance against any future intrusion, we should identify who the key players are and how they are reacting to the intrusion.
Known key players today are the Philippine government, MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) under the leadership of Murad Ibrahim, MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) under the current chairman Muslimin Sema, former MNLF chairman Nur Misuari and Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).
While there are other groups that have certain level of influence over the population in southern Philippines, most could not muster sufficient force and influence to be considered as key players.
For the sake of simplicity, we will not look into how the current Philippine government and its predecessors weigh in on the issue. Their stance has been consistent, that the Sabah issue is on the backburner and their actions are constrained by the Philippine Constitution which explicitly barred the nation from using war as an instrument of foreign policy.
The same constraint, however, does not apply to the rebels who are the main players in southern Philippines. We will examine them one by one.
He is the founder of MNLF. In 2007, he was accused of terrorism by leading an MNLF unit against a Philippine army installation in Sulu in 2001. To escape the charges, he fled by sea to Sabah, hoping the Malaysian government would empathise with his predicament.
Unfortunately for him, the Malaysian government had him arrested and extradited back to the Philippines. He was subsequently imprisoned and his hold over MNLF began to loosen. In 2008, he lost his position as chairman in MNLF to Muslimin Sema.
At the end of last year, he led a unit of MNLF to attack Abu Sayyaf and rescue several hostages held by them. Apparently, the action was more to regain his former prestige, which could backfire on him.
On Oct 7 last year, MILF under the leadership of Murad Ibrahim signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government to form the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Established by Hashim Salamat, MILF was previously part of MNLF. Disgusted with the excesses by former chairman and founder Nur Misuari, then the governor of ARMM's first incarnation, they split off and restarted the war against the Philippine government and MNLF. Continuous warring and the fall from grace of Nur Misuari brought them to peace talks.
Knowing that peace can only be achieved by involving all key parties, MILF invited all key parties to the obtain their input for the peace deal. Among the invitees was the so-called sultan, Jamallul Kiram. However, he chose to ignore the peace deal.
Because of Murad's willingness to push for peace in Mindanao, he was given observer status to Umno's general assembly held last year.
As MILF is a key beneficiary of the peace deal, it stands to lose most if Malaysia pulls out from being the facilitator to the peace deal. Thus, it was not surprising that MILF was the first rebel group that declared that it did not support the incursion by the self-proclaimed Royal Sulu Army.
While MNLF is no longer the largest rebel group in southern Philippines, it still commands a large combat force. Its forces consist of mainly Tausugs or Suluks.
They benefited the most from the first peace accord signed in 2001 when Nur Misuari was its chairman. His fall from grace had brought disrepute to the group, but it has been slowly regaining the respect that it once commanded.
It is believed that MNLF contributed the most to the forces of the so-called sultan Jamalul Kiram in Lahad Datu and Semporna. When Malaysian forces began the offensive action against the ragtag terrorists, there was talk that MNLF forces will try to infiltrate Malaysia to assist their beleaguered brethren. This was until stories of atrocities committed against dead police officers began to filter back to Mindanao.
The MNLF leadership was quick to issue a statement to declare that they disagreed with the incursion and the actions taken by RSA. This declaration caught Nur Misuari off guard.
ASG shot to prominence in 2001 when it stormed Sipadan and Ligitan Dive Resort and took 21 hostages, mainly tourists and workers on the island.
ASG is also a progeny of MNLF. Now numbering around 500 to 1,000 men, it espouses a firebrand type of Islam. Believed to be linked to al-Qaeda via Jemaah Islamiyah, it is known for its brutality in combat.
The group's relationships with other rebels in the region are ambiguous. It is known to be tolerated by MILF as some of the MILF ground commanders and ASG are related.
While the group is still trying to carve an influence for itself in southern Philippines, it will more likely not be swayed by the call to arms by Jamalul Kiram III and Nur Misuari.
While the last few men of RSA are slowly being hunted by the might of Malaysian army, bonded by the shared bloodline, some Tausugs will still brave the seas that divide the two nations in the false hope that their presence will be able to relieve the pressure on the remnants of RSA. Some will be driven purely by vengeance.
We need to be vigilant towards such attempts. We have succeeded against not one communist insurgency, but two communist insurgencies consisting of four separate groups. We will succeed against this threat from RSA.
While these Tausugs may be baying for the blood of Malaysians, we should not forget nor question that there are thousands of Tausugs and Suluks who are loyal Malaysians, with many sworn to protect the nation from enemies, domestic and foreign, related by blood or not.
Republished by the NST on 14 March 2014 at http://www2.nst.com.my/opinion/columnist/key-players-on-lahad-datu-stage-1.234306.
In honour of those who were killed defending this country during the Lahad Datu crisis:
ASP (G/17992) Zulkifli bin Mamat - VAT69 - KIA 1st March 2013, Kampung Tanduo
Sjn (113088) Sabaruddin bin Daud - VAT69 - KIA 1st March 2013, Kampung Tanduo
Supt (G/10768) Ibrahim bin Lebar - Special Branch, Bukit Aman - KIA 3rd March 2013, Kampung Simunul Jaya, Semporna
ASP (G/15053) Michael Padel - Special Branch, IPD Tawau - KIA 3rd March 2013, Kampung Siminul Jaya, Semporna
Sjn/D (110204) Baharin bin Hamit - Special Branch, IPD Tawau - KIA 3rd March 2013, Kampung Siminul Jaya, Semporna
Sjn (124082) Abdul Azis Sarikon - 14 Bat PGA - KIA 3rd March 2013, Kampung Siminul Jaya, Semporna
Kpl/S (12675) Salam Togiran - IPD Tawau - KIA 3rd March 2013, Kampung Siminul Jaya, Semporna
L/Kpl (160475) Azrul Tukiran - 14 Bat PGA - KIA 3rd March 2013, Kampung Siminul Jaya, Semporna
L/Kpl 1163468 Abu Hurairah Ismail - 7 RAMD, KIA 12th March 2013, Sungai Nyamuk
L/Kpl Ahmad Farhan Ruslan - KIA in accident.
* all were posthumously promoted to the next rank.