By Felipe Villamor and Jeoffrey Maitem
Islamic State (IS) has chosen Mindanao island as a “strategic ground” for recruiting fighters after being routed in its Middle Eastern strongholds last year, the leader of the largest Muslim guerrilla force in the southern Philippines warned on Tuesday.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) lost 24 guerrillas in 2017 as it helped the Philippine government fight a faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which pledged allegiance to IS and was trying to control a vast marshland area in the south, MILF Chairman Murad Ebrahim said in Manila.
“The fight against violent extremism is real,” Murad said while speaking at the annual conference of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).
“As the battlefields in the Middle East are cleared, and the bases of the ISIS are constricted, we will increasingly find them in our midst as they seek new strategic grounds where the hold of the government is weak, such as in Mindanao,” he said, using another term for Islamic State.
IS did not care about the “national liberation agenda” of Filipino Muslims but was playing on the “frustration and resentment of the people, especially the young” to lure them into extremism, Murad said.
“The reality now is that they are using the possible failure of the peace process to recruit more people,” Murad said, adding that IS could partner with smaller Philippine militant organizations in the south, such as the Abu Sayyaf Group and BIFF, to spread its extremist ideology.
The 12,000-strong MILF was the country’s largest separatist force until it signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014 and dropped its bid for full independence in exchange for expanded regional autonomy.
Congress was supposed to ratify the Bangsamoro Basic Law to outline an autonomous region for MILF. But its passage has been delayed in a Congress dominated by Christian lawmakers, who fear that giving too much power to the minority Muslims could lead to trouble.
Last year, MILF helped the military go after IS-linked groups that took over the southern city of Marawi in a five-month siege, which left more than 1,200 people dead – a majority of them militants.
Murad said the chances of something like Marawi happening elsewhere cannot be overlooked. MILF would keep helping the Philippine military go after IS-allied groups.
The destruction of Marawi was unprecedented, said Murad, stressing the need for a more concerted effort to prevent another siege from happening elsewhere in Mindanao.
Another foreign suspect arrested
MILF’s own “undercover people” recently confirmed the presence of a Canadian man who had infiltrated ranks of Abu Sayyaf in the nearby island of Jolo, Murad said. He declined to give the man’s name, but said MILF had shared its information about the Canadian to the Filipino police and military.
Murad’s revelation came after Philippine authorities arrested a Spanish national last month in Basilan island, a known Abu Sayyaf stronghold in the south. On Monday, police presented another foreign national, Fehmi Lassoued, and his Filipino girlfriend, as suspects in an alleged terror plot.
Seized from Lassoued and Anabel Salipada were handguns, ammunition and bomb making components, as well as an IS black flag, authorities said. Police said Lassoued was born in the United Arab Emirates but was of Libyan and Tunisian descent. He had also lived in Syria.
Lassoued had traveled to Malaysia, Turkey and the Philippines during the past two years and entered Philippine territory on a fake Tunisian passport, the police said, adding that a foreign intelligence ally had alerted local authorities about his presence.