KUALA LUMPUR: As Islamic State (IS) loses ground in the Middle East, some of its fighters could relocate to the southern Philippines from where they could plan attacks around the region, security experts have warned.
Counter-terrorism expert Sidney Jones said in a recent paper on the IS threat published by the Lowy Institute for International policy that pro-IS extremists may use bases there to plan hits in Mindanao and Manila, or train operatives to carry out attacks elsewhere in the region.
“It is unlikely that hundreds of foreign fighters will flee there as Islamic State is pushed back, but even a dozen could cause serious damage,” added Jones, who is also director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC).
Malaysian police share the view that the southern Philippines is unlikely to be the destination for significant numbers of IS operatives currently in the Middle East, but there is nonetheless some cause for concern.
“Those who are currently in Syria and Iraq are unlikely to go to the southern Philippines. But those who are planning to carry out jihad may go there,” Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, chief of counter-terrorism for Special Branch, the intelligence arm of the Royal Malaysian Police, told Channel NewsAsia.
On Tuesday (Apr 4), Singapore’s Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said that the potential “locus” of IS’ threat could move to the southern Philippines, which is becoming an area that is difficult to control despite the best efforts of the Philippine government.
SABAH A JUMPING OFF POINT?
According to a former militant, Ali Fauzi of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the group behind the 2002 devastating Bali bombings, some Indonesian IS returnees will relocate to the southern Philippines.
“Some Indonesian IS members whose passports were not confiscated by IS in Syria and Iraq will move there,” Ali told Channel NewsAsia.
“They will transit first to Malaysia before going to the southern Philippines to avoid detection,” said Ali, the younger brother of two Bali bombers who were executed for their role in the attack.
According to Ali, the Indonesians could use Sabah as a jumping off point into the southern Philippines, given its porous borders and proximity to the Philippines.
“This is the route I used to use myself when I travelled to southern Philippines to purchase weapons from Indonesia. I used Sabah as the jumping off point via the towns of Tawau, Semporna, Sandakan,” Ali added.
IPAC’s Jones described Sabah as a “vital gateway (for) Islamic State militants”.
Since late 2014, extremists from Indonesia and Malaysia and a few foreigners from further afield have been working with pro-IS groups based in Mindanao and Basilan, according to Jones.
Several of those groups formed an alliance in early 2016 with the blessing of IS central command and swore loyalty to a Basilan-based leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Isnilon Hapilon, as amir (leader). They had reportedly planned to announce the establishment of a Southeast Asian province (wilayat) of Islamic State, based on the island of Basilan, off the southwestern tip of Mindanao, according to Jones.
“It never happened, for reasons that are unclear, but Southeast Asian IS leaders in Syria have been urging their followers at home to join the jihad in the Philippines, and local leaders have been recruiting as well,” said Jones.
“The number of foreigners working with the alliance remains small (officials say less than 10), but they include highly educated men with good funding networks, including several from peninsular Malaysia,” she added, pointing out that there is a low threat of IS setting up a caliphate in the southern Philippines.
A former Universiti Malaya lecturer Mahmud Ahmad, who underwent training with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, is currently believed to be an important fund-raiser for the group and recruiter for Malaysian IS members in southern Philippines, according to Malaysian police.
MILITARY OPERATIONS "NOT EFFECTIVE"
Since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power, the security situation has worsened with a spike in kidnappings in the Sulu archipelago.
There were 18 hostages when he assumed office in June last year. Now there are 31, of which 25 are foreigners, reported the local press. An elderly German hostage was beheaded last February.
Duterte threatened to impose martial law on Mindanao island in March as part of the efforts to fight militants.
He also stepped up military operations against suspected IS camps in 2016-17, killing many fighters and wounding Abu Sayyaf's leader Hapilon earlier this year, said Jones.
However, Jones believes that military operations are not the solution to the highly complex problem of militants in the southern Philippines, who are guided by a combination of terrorism and warlordism.
“Military operations aren't effective because they're a simple solution to a very complex problem. In Mindanao, extremist affiliations are intertwined with clan loyalties and old-style warlordism,” she told Channel NewsAsia.
“This means that often, local government officials belong to the same extended families as extremists. Military operations may produce a high kill rate but they also are likely to breed determination for revenge. An important part of the solution, but it's a long-term one, is improving local governance,” she said.