September 23-24, 1985: Moro pirates attack in Philippines

Moro pirates from the Philippines ambushed a town in the Malaysian province of Sabah in September 1985 killing 21 people.

This may be a first: not a single significant terrorist attack was registered on September 24.

LAHAD DATU, MALAYSIA — If I were to mention the word ‘pirate’ to you I would bet that the first image to come to your mind would be Johnny Depp in his signature role as Jack Sparrow in the Walt Disney series of films entitled Pirates of the Caribbean, based on a ride at Disney World.

To say that Sparrow and his cohorts were represented as harmless caricatures of real pirates would be an understatement. Spoiler alert: this was a work of fiction! Throughout history, pirates have been anything but harmless, raiding coastal towns, killing, raping and destroying everything in their path. Then again, Disney was never one to get history even remotely right (don’t even start on the accuracy of Pocahantas!).

If we were to put pirates and piracy in a category of activity I would imagine it would be pure criminal behaviour. Pirates are, after all, all about lucre and treasure, aren’t they? There does not appear to be any real link to ideology or such, which would put this in the terrorism box.

Hence, today’s featured attack is a bit of a cheat as it is NOT terrorist in nature. Despite my searches, I could not come up with a single real instance of violent extremism for September 24 over the years. Not a single one. Still, in order not to have a gap in this series ‘Today in Terrorism’, here goes.

On this day in 1985

On this day in 1985 Moro pirates from the Philippines attacked the town of Lahad Datu in Malaysian province of Sabah, beginning the night before (September 23) and started shooting at random targets, eventually killing 21 people and wounding another dozen or so. They also stole $200,000 from a bank and local airlines office.

While I was walking around a coastal road, I saw eight men dressed in combat uniforms carrying M16 and machine guns running towards the centre of the town. Gunfire was then heard with men running towards me. I then hid in a cafe with the proprietor, huddled under a table and heard the continuous gunshots and explosions

Eye witness

The pirates tried to escape but were met by Malaysian Marine Police, which killed and wounded several. The attack was similar to other actions by these criminals in the past.

To reiterate, this cannot be seen as a terrorist attack, no matter how ‘terrifying’ it was to the inhabitants of Lahad Datu. And yet I feel somewhat good about NOT having to write about yet another violent extremist attack. I fear that by tomorrow we will be back to the same old same old.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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