KUALA LUMPUR: The Islamic State (IS) extremist group's new video calling for Muslims in Southeast Asia to wage holy war in the Philippine city of Marawi is both “powerful" and "dangerous”, Malaysia's top counter-terror cop told Channel NewsAsia.
“This video is powerful and moving. It will inflame passions and inspire IS followers in Malaysia, Indonesia - all of Southeast Asia - to go to southern Philippines to wage jihad,” said Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, counter-terrorism chief of Malaysia’s Special Branch - the intelligence arm of the Royal Malaysian Police.
The release of the video comes as fighting between government troops and IS-linked militants entered its fourth month on Wednesday (Aug 23).
The video showed young men setting fire to a church and destroying a large crucifix and several statues of Mother Mary, evoking scenes of destruction of thousand-year old artefacts in Iraq’s Mosul Museum when IS took over the city in 2015. They are also seen ripping up photos of Pope Francis.
“For a Muslim fanatic, the sight of a crucifix being destroyed will excite and stir their passions …. to fight,” Ayob said.
In the video, a fighter identified as Abul-Yaman from Marawi, makes a call to Muslim brothers in East Asia, especially those in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand and Singapore to migrate to the city “to perform jihad”.
Marawi is the provincial capital of Lanao del Sur on Mindanao island in the southern Philippines. It is known as an Islamic centre in the Catholic-majority country.
"Since the Marawi siege started, we have seen increased activities from IS cells in Malaysia trying to enter into the southern Philippines. Their preferred route is Sandakan, Tawau and Lahad Datu in Sabah,” said Ayob. He added that several suspected fighters were caught but did not give a figure.
A Muslim scholar from Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), denounced the video. “Southeast Asia and East Asia are peaceful territories, that peace must be defended. True jihad in this wilayah (territory) is one where jihad is waged to forge peace, not enmity and war,” said Ahmad Suaedy, a Muslim scholar from NU and executive director of The Wahid Institute.
“Marawi is a peaceful place whose (practice of) Islam is one of dialogue. Return Marawi to its place as a land of peaceful Islam,” Suaedy said.
The siege of Marawi began on May 23 when the military stumbled upon Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of the militant Abu Sayyaf’s IS faction. The military moved in, triggering clashes which to date have killed close to 700 people, including 528 militants, 122 soldiers and 45 civilians.
Observers say the ferocity of the fight took the Philippines’ government by surprise, as officials there initially said the fight would be over in a matter of weeks.
"The fact that this has lasted three months - it is a psychological and propaganda victory for IS militants,” said Ayob Khan.
Nasir Abas, a former leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the militant group blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings, expects the Marawi siege to drag on.
“The fight will be prolonged as Philippines has never been able to end Abu Sayyaf and other insurgent groups,” Nasir - known for setting up a militant training camp in Mindanao in the 90s - told Channel NewsAsia. “Separatists have existed in the Philippines for decades,” he added.
Analysts have warned that the southern Philippines is a problem for the entire Southeast Asian region as a combination of ongoing insurgencies and large swathes of ungoverned land make for fertile ground for IS to carve out territory.
“I think the real driving force for militants from across Southeast Asia to the southern Philippines, is that it is only in the southern Philippines where militants actually control territory,” said Professor Zachary Abuza from the National War College of Washington DC.
“Since the defeat of MIT (East Indonesia Mujahidin) in Sulawesi (Indonesia), no militant group or cell in Malaysia or Indonesia actually controls physical space. You can't be a wilayah, a province of the caliphate, without territory. So establishing that 'Darul Islam' (Islamic State) from which you can emanate out from is essential,” said Abuza who specialises in Southeast Asian insurgencies and terrorism.
MIT is a militant group based in Poso, Sulawesi, which has largely been broken up by the Indonesian police and military in 2016.
According to Abuza, Mindanao, after years of steady improvement, “is once again a black hole”.
“The devolving security situation there is not a Philippine security concern, but a Southeast Asian one," he said. "States that never before thought that their interests could be threatened in any way by IS, such as Vietnam, have had ships attacked and nationals taken hostage."
Two Vietnamese sailors were kidnapped and beheaded by Abu Sayyaf last July.
According to Abuza, at least 65 hostages from six countries have been kidnapped by southern Philippines militants since 2016.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest of all insurgent groups, is seen as a major factor in helping to turn the tide given its size, influence and territory which it controls, according to Abuza.
The slow pace of peace process has frustrated young MILF members and some of them have migrated to IS-linked militants.
Abuza said there is a need to speed up the peace process to stem MILF’s members from joining pro-IS militants.
The MILF's peace process has been on indefinite hold since January 2015. Frustration amongst the rank and file is growing, and despite President Duterte's public commitment to the peace process, I have every reason to be very sceptical that he will delive,” said Abuza.
"As such, frustrations will mount. The MILF is unable to either stem the exodus of members who are now joining pro-ISIS militants, or at the very least, are no longer the only game in town for young recruits."
MILF on Wednesday said it has lost at least 10 fighters in battles to stop a "growing force" of IS supporters.