By Richel V. Umel and Dennis Jay Santos
The Philippines faces a protracted fight against Islamic State extremists, President Rodrigo Duterte warned in a speech to police brass after security forces were alerted this week to potential militant bomb plots in the north of predominantly Catholic country.
Speaking to newly promoted police generals in Manila on Thursday night, Duterte said he needed more Special Action Force commandos to deal with the threat from pro-Islamic State (IS) militants.
“I just also have to remind you that we are facing so many fronts. I need more soldiers. I would need about an additional seven to 10 battalions of SAF troopers. Because we have a bigger problem,” Duterte said. “We thought all the while that it would somehow wane.
“You know we have IS. That will never end in the days to come. When I say in the days to come, it could be years,” Duterte said. “This is a religious struggle.”
While he said he did not want to alarm the nation, the president said he possessed information that IS militants from the Middle East had found their way to the region.
Duterte did not name the source for the information, but he made the comments three days after government security forces raised the alarm about a new terrorist group plotting to bomb targets in the northern Philippines.
The group, identified as Suyuful Khilafa Fi Luzon (SKFL), was scouting for targets to make its presence felt in an area where IS-linked groups were not known to operate, officials said. To date, pro-IS groups in the Philippines have mostly been concentrated in Mindanao, the country’s main southern island.
Some SKFL members previously allied with the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM), composed of Filipino Christians who had converted to Islam and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda two decades ago, sources told BenarNews earlier this week. Government forces subsequently killed its leaders, leading to its apparent collapse.
The new group has aligned with IS, according to the intelligence officials.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said that while the alert remained in place across the north, an intelligence report about SKFL – which he has initially said was valid – had so far yielded negative results. But “we should never let our guard down,” he told reporters.
In January, 23 people were killed and dozens of others were injured in a twin suicide bombing inside a Catholic church in Jolo, the capital of southern Sulu province. Officials in Indonesia recently confirmed that the attacks were carried out by an Indonesian couple working with IS Filipino militants.
Officials allege that the attack was planned by Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who took over as IS leader in the Philippines after Isnilon Hapilon was killed in the battle of Marawi nearly 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.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato, Philippines, contributed to this report.