COTABATO CITY, Philippines: It was mid-morning when two cars suddenly drove up and parked next to each other outside Notre Dame University, one of the oldest universities in Cotabato City.
Eight to 10 young men came out of the cars. One of them draped the black flag of Islamic State (IS) behind his back and walked up and down the street together with his friends.
“It was like a parade to show off the flag. People stopped to stare at them,” a local resident who witnessed the incident told Channel NewsAsia.
“The parade lasted about 10 minutes before they returned to their cars and drove off,” said the resident, who declined to be named.
The incident last month unnerved the community and left people worried that pro-IS groups on Mindanao island in the southern Philippines may be trying to stage another Marawi-style attack to take over a city.
“I must plan for an exit strategy, like get a job in another city in case the worst happens,” said the resident.
On May 23, pro-IS groups led by the Maute Group, founded by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, and Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) attacked Marawi, located some 155km away from Cotabato City.
It took the Philippine military five months before it could seize control of the city from the militants on Oct 17.
The siege killed more than 1,100 people, including 920 militants, 47 civilians and 165 troops, and displaced another 400,000 people.
Both Maute brothers and Isnilon were also killed.
But that has not ended the battle against militants in the region as those who have escaped have raised concerns where they have resettled. Among those cities where militants have sought refuge is the southern city of Cotabato.
COTABATO HEAVILY INFILTRATED BY MILITANTS FROM MARAWI
Concerns about the threat of spreading violence in the southern Philippines have been raised across the region, with comments from Singapore's Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam typical of what has been said.
“You've got the situation in Marawi, you've got the situation in Rakhine State (in Myanmar), and it's going to attract fighters, extremists, would-be terrorists to go to these places to fight,” he said in September. “And once they come to this region, then they will try to spread out to other targets too," he added.
Analysts believe that while the situation in Marawi has been brought under control by the Philippine military, the threat is far from over.
“Cotabato City is in serious trouble. It is badly infiltrated by pro-IS groups,” said Professor Rommel Banlaoi, head of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
“Many of the (IS) escapees from Marawi, including one Maute brother, are being sheltered in Cotabato City where they are actively recruiting new recruits,” Prof Banlaoi added.
The Marawi siege exposed the depth of IS penetration into southern Philippines, where it plans to set up a Southeast Asia caliphate.
Former Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militants told Channel NewsAsia in an interview that Mindanao is the only place in ASEAN where IS can carve out a wilayat, or province, given its porous borders, large ungoverned spaces and abundant guns, ammunitions and explosive materials available for sale in the black market.
PRO-IS GROUPS FLUSH WITH LOOTED CASH FROM MARAWI
“The pro-IS groups are trying to stage another Marawi-style attack in other cities. They have lots of money to fund more attacks as they looted billions of pesos from Marawi during the siege,” a senior security source told Channel NewsAsia.
Residents of Marawi typically do not trust banks and many of them stash their cash in vaults kept in their homes, according to the source.
“The money was looted from the vaults installed in the homes of individuals and there were many of them,” the source added.
Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Eduardo Año said IS gave the Maute group at least US$1.5 million for the Marawi siege.
As IS loses territory in the Middle East, its funds are expected to dwindle and some believe it will not have the same resources to fund attacks in Philippines.
But according to the security source, money and weapons looted from the Marawi siege are “more than enough” for IS groups to stage terror attacks in the Philippines.
“IS groups have more than enough money. They also receive funds from wealthy individuals in the country. Not only that, they also looted weapons from Marawi so they do have weapons as well,” the security source added.
While it would be difficult for the IS groups to take over an entire city like in Marawi, they have the capacity to take over parts of a city, according to the security source.
“I also expect IS-inspired lone wolves to target Metro Manila for attacks,” the source added.
PUSH FOR SUICIDE BOMBINGS
Inside buildings abandoned by IS militants in Marawi city, the military is finding a treasure trove of information on terror plots outlined in documents left behind by the militants.
“I am looking at three major scenarios based on confiscated documents found in various buildings in Marawi city,” said Prof Banlaoi of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
“One of the activities they (IS) want is to promote suicide bombings by lone wolves, the use of IEDS (improvised explosive device) and the use of fire bombs,” added Prof Banlaoi.
"The targets for attacks are Davao City, the hometown of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, to send a message of “retaliation,” he said. “The other targets are the provinces of Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, General Santos City and Zamboanga.”
Apart from recruitment, IS groups are also focusing on conducting training, particularly for bomb-making, he said.
HEAVY CLASHES IN JUNGLE
As urban dwellers brace for possible IS-inspired attacks, heavy clashes are taking place in the jungle marshlands in Maguindanao province between IS and the military.
Maguindanao is located just outside of Cotabato city. The military has joined forces with its former enemy, the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest armed group in Mindanao, to fight against the IS groups.
Abi, a MILF fighter, spent one month in the jungles fighting 500 IS militants in Datu Salibo, Maguindanao province from Sep 3 to Oct 2.
He described the IS fighters as “very well-trained and well-armed.”
“There were many IS fighters and they were very well-trained, well-armed and well-organised. They had many guns, ammunitions, explosives and bombs. They rigged a large area with bombs,” said Abi, shaking his head with disbelief as he recounted his experience.
“These IS fighters are experts in making bombs. They also had snipers,” said Abi as he sat beneath a tree on the outskirts of Cotabato City. He also saw fighters as young as 13 years old.
“The fighters were dressed in black and sported long beards and long hair. They flew the black flags of IS in their area,” said Abi.
“Every single fighter had a bullet-proof vest on … they must have a lot of money to be able to afford those vests,” said Abi.
As he was speaking, Abi threw a quick look around his surroundings.
“IS spies are everywhere. There are many of them. One needs to be careful,” he said.
“IS is offering people 100,000 pesos (US$1,950) to join them. They also promised new recruits they would get a monthly allowance of 30,000 pesos,” said Abi. “Many people on Mindanao island have been recruited by them.”
According to the military, clashes in Datu Salibo erupted on Aug 2 when the pro-IS Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) tried to hoist the black flag of IS in the area.
BIFF is a splinter group of MILF.
“Heavy fighting ensued. Air support was also called in,” Lieutenant-Colonel Gerry Besana, Joint Task Force Central spokesman, told Channel NewsAsia.
“Fifty one BIFF members were killed ... while the MILF lost 20 men,” said Besana. While there is a lull in military operations, the battle is not yet over. “We expect operations to resume within the next 15 days,” Besana added.
MILF PROVIDES MILITARY INTELLIGENCE TO COUNTER IS
The participation of MILF in the fight against terrorism in Mindanao has provided crucial mass support, said Prof Banlaoi.
“And having the MILF on your side is already a good advantage. They provide military support, intelligence support, they know the terrain, they know people in the terrain as they are fighting their former brothers,” he added.
According to Prof Banlaoi, at least 21 militant groups have pledged allegiance to IS. Of the 21, four are deemed to be the most dangerous.
The four are:
- Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters
- Abu Sayyaf Group faction previously led by the late Isnilon Hapilon
- Khilafah Islamiyah Mindanao (KIM)
- Ansarul Khilafah Philippines (AKP)
As IS territories began to crumble in the Middle East, the global terror group called on its followers to make their way to the southern Philippines, the new land of jihad.
Malaysian police have arrested at least five men for attempting to travel to southern Philippines to join the pro-IS faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)
“To date, we have arrested one Malaysian, two Indonesians, two Bangladeshis who tried to make their way to southern Philippines to join the pro-IS faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG),” Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of counter-terrorism division of Special Branch, told Channel NewsAsia.
Special Branch is the intelligence arm of the Royal Malaysian Police.
And while more suspected extremists are being held, there are claims that new destinations are in the spotlight.
Indonesian Ali Fauzi, a former MILF fighter and member of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the terror network behind the 2002 Bali bombings, told Channel NewsAsia, Indonesians were heading for Zamboanga city and Basilan island in southern Philippines.
“I’ve heard that a group is heading towards Zamboanga, Basilan island and its surrounding area," Fauzi told Channel NewsAsia.
"They (militants) feel much safer there as many locals will protect them,” he said.