By Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Philippine security officials have been placed on heightened alert following a report that a group allied to the Islamic State (IS) was targeting churches and establishments for bomb attacks in the north, officials said Tuesday.
Intelligence officials told BenarNews that a group calling itself Suyuful Khilafa Fi Luzon (SKFL) was scouting for targets to make its presence felt in an area where IS-linked groups are not known to operate. To date, IS affiliates have mostly been concentrated in the country’s south.
Little is known about the group, but loosely translated, its name means “soldiers of the caliphate in Luzon.” Most of its members were once allied with the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM), the sources said.
The RSM, composed of Filipino Christians who converted to Islam, pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda two decades ago. Government forces subsequently killed its leaders, leading to the apparent collapse of the RSM.
The new group has aligned with IS, according to the intelligence officials.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo confirmed Tuesday that the military was on heightened alert in the north, amid intelligence reports that members of the SKFL group were plotting attacks. The national police earlier in the day said troops were on the ground checking to determine if an IS-linked group was preparing attacks.
In addition, President Rodrigo Duterte is aware of the threat, Panelo confirmed.
“The president said that he was afraid that this ISIS group would reach here. The fear and apprehension will always be there for as long as terrorism led by this godless group is still present,” Panelo told reporters, using another acronym for the Islamic State.
A directive from the military last week that was leaked to the media showed it had ordered intelligence units to “heighten intelligence monitoring” because of reports that IS was targeting public establishments and Roman Catholic churches.
The report, which was confirmed by the military on Tuesday, said the attacks would be spearheaded by Filipino militants with the help of two Sri Lankan bombers who were supposed to train them.
Panelo said the report was subject to validation, but he did not deny it.
“That’s raw intelligence. That’s precisely why the president is praying because it would be really bloody. We know that the ISIS group is so brutal in slaying people and we will be fighting back – and that will mean bloody encounters,” Panelo said.
IS-claimed terror attacks on hotels and churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, April 21, killed more than 250 people. Shortly afterward, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi praised the attacks in his first video appearance in five years.
Military seeks to ‘contain the threat’
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said troops were investigating details of the report.
“Our standard operating procedure dictates never to take chances by dismissing the information outright or believing it as gospel truth. Because no matter how doubtful or credible information is, we do verification. We have to take, as we have been instituting, appropriate security measures in either case,” Arevalo said.
“Our intelligence personnel, in cooperation with other relevant government agencies, are vigorously pursuing leads to validate the veracity of the report, deter its occurrence if found true, secure and protect the people and contain the threat,” he added.
Anti-terror analyst Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said he was aware of reports about the new SKFL group. Citing intelligence sources, he said the group appeared to be small but “can make big trouble by training suicide bombers.”
“I saw the intelligence report and the churches under bomb threat locations are called ‘crusader cities’ in Luzon,” Banlaoi told BenarNews.
He said militant groups in the country’s south, including Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, had welcomed the entry of foreign militants there, in part to cause chaos after the country’s main Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, gave up the fight for independence and signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014.
Previously, Banlaoi was among the first to identify as foreigners those involved in the Jolo church bombings.
In January, at least 23 people died and dozens of others were injured in a twin suicide bombing inside a Catholic church in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province. Officials in Indonesia recently confirmed the attacks were carried out by an Indonesian couple.
The attack was planned by Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who took over as new IS leader in the Philippines after Isnilon Hapilon was killed in the battle of Marawi two years earlier.
More recently, three civilians and three soldiers were killed when two suicide bombers blew themselves up on June 28 outside a military camp on Jolo.
Richel V. Umel in Iligan City, Philippines contributed to this report.