Philippines: a new roots for ISIS?

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The Moros (“Moors”), as the Muslims of the southern Philippine region of Mindanao are called, are known for their intransigence. For centuries, they fought the Spanish, Americans and Japanese for their independence.

Today, they are fighting Manila too.

Some 120,000 people have died, and millions have been displaced, in the past 40 years of insurgency. (Muddying the picture, a separate communist insurgency is also sporadically waged in parts of Mindanao by the New People’s Army, which is thought to consist of some 3,200 fighters.)

Yet many Moros, like Musa, are not victims of a heavy-handed central government but the casualties of infighting among their own kin.

The battle at Zamboanga, which led to the destruction of Musa’s home, started off when factions of one rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front, wanted to signal their displeasure with the peace negotiations with Manila then being carried out by another rebel group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

It took 3,000 troops to end the rebel occupation of several districts of the city, in an operation that saw 51 insurgents killed and drove 70,000 people from their homes.

Now those talks have stalled and, in the frustrated void that has followed their collapse, extremism has taken root.

Several Moro outfits have pledged allegiance to terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and carried out attacks in its name.

One of those groups is the Abu Sayyaf militia, whose head Isnilon Hapilon — now styled Sheik Mujahid Abu Abdullah al-Filipini — has been appointed ISIS’s leader in the Philippines. Presently, the Philippine army is attempting to strike at the group’s jungle stronghold on the island of Basilan. In one of the bloodiest days for the armed forces in years, 18 soldiers were killed and over 50 wounded on April 9. ISIS claimed responsibility for the killings. Shortly after, Abu Sayyaf beheaded two Filipino hostages. (The group is also holding 10 Indonesians, two Canadians and a Norwegian captive.)

“It’s very likely that [Abu Sayyaf] will declare a satellite of the caliphate in the coming year,” says Rohan Gunaratna, an international terrorism expert at S. Rajaratnam School of Security Studies in Singapore. “Once that is done, it will be much more difficult to dismantle these groups.”

Already, up to 1,200 Southeast Asians have joined ISIS in the Middle East. Experts now worry that an ISIS stronghold in the southern Philippines will act as a regional lure, providing extremists from across Asia with a place to gain combat experience, before they set act to attack Asian targets or even targets further afield. The Jakarta attack in January 2016 that killed four civilians was just a taste of what could come, says Greg Barton, chair in global Islamic politics at Deakin University in Melbourne.

Now the Philippines has become the latest ISIS target for expansion after the jihadi group released its first propaganda video of a terror training camp in the Filipino jungle.

Several jihadi commanders are shown urging Filipinos to travel to Syria to join ISIS before revealing the group have already started their own terror camp in the Philippines. 

The footage shows the ‘soldiers of the Caliphate in the Philippines’ working on their fitness and agility by completing a series of assault course drills.

Scroll down for video:

A small group of recruits, each wearing similar black clothing and masks, are shown climbing up rope ladders, crawling under barbed wire and practicing with weapons

A small group of recruits, each wearing similar black clothing and masks, are shown climbing up rope ladders, crawling under barbed wire and practicing with weapons

Recruits are forced to crawl under a fence of barbed wire as a commander lets off occasional gunshots

Recruits are forced to crawl under a fence of barbed wire as a commander lets off occasional gunshots

A small group of recruits, each wearing similar black clothing and masks, are shown climbing up rope ladders, crawling under barbed wire and practicing with weapons.

The Filipino government has long said that support for ISIS in the Philippines was limited to local bandits claiming allegiance to the group.

However, the latest propaganda video suggests that the jihadi group has earmarked the Philippines as a potential site for establishing further new bases.

The new video comes after eight members of a criminal gang that pledged allegiance to ISIS were killed in a firefight with the military in the southern Philippines last month.

The hour-long battle took place in Palimbang, a remote town in the south – home to the predominantly Catholic nation’s Muslim minority and the scene of decades of conflict.

The Philippines has become the latest ISIS target for expansion after the jihadi group released its first propaganda video showing a jihadi training camp in the Filipino jungle

The Philippines has become the latest ISIS target for expansion after the jihadi group released its first propaganda video showing a jihadi training camp in the Filipino jungle

Many of the structures used in the assault course appear to have been made by hand out of bamboo

Many of the structures used in the assault course appear to have been made by hand out of bamboo

The Filipino government has long said that support for ISIS in the Philippines was limited to local bandits claiming allegiance to the group

The Filipino government has long said that support for ISIS in the Philippines was limited to local bandits claiming allegiance to the group

The bandits were from Ansar al-Khalifa, a small group that declared its support for ISIS in a video circulated on the Internet last year, regional military spokesman Major Filemon Tan said.

The larger Abu Sayyaf group has also pledged its allegiance to ISIS and is holding at least four foreign nationals hostages.

The group is demanding millions of dollars in ransom for their safe release and have released several videos threatening them with execution.

Tan told AFP that five black flags similar to those used by Islamic State fighters were recovered from the bandits after the clash.

Criminal gangs operate kidnap for ransom and extortion activities alongside Muslim and communist separatist campaigns in the restive south.

Several jihadi commanders are shown urging Filipino to travel to Syria to join Syria before revealing the group have already started their own terror camp

Several jihadi commanders are shown urging Filipino to travel to Syria to join Syria before revealing the group have already started their own terror camp

The new video comes after eight members of a criminal gang that pledged allegiance to ISIS were killed in a firefight with the military in the southern Philippines last month

The new video comes after eight members of a criminal gang that pledged allegiance to ISIS were killed in a firefight with the military in the southern Philippines last month

One alleged jihadi supporter holds a banner while one of the recruits carries out a jumping exercise

One alleged jihadi supporter holds a banner while one of the recruits carries out a jumping exercise

While the relatively new Ansar al-Khalifa had extorted from businessmen and stolen cattle from farmers, it had no proven links with Islamic State – also known by the acronym ISIS – national military spokesman Colonel Restituto Padilla said.

‘This group is trying to ride on the popularity of the ISIS, but they’re not really ISIS,’ he told AFP. ‘We view them as mere criminal gangs.’

Tan said the military was verifying intelligence reports that one of the eight killed was an Indonesian national.

 

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