Philippine government forces have made significant gains in weakening the Islamic State militant threat in the south, the country’s military chief and other generals said Tuesday as they pushed back against a recent Pentagon report that painted a different picture.
Counter-extremist operations carried out by the Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom) have diminished the capabilities of Abu Sayyaf and other southern extremist groups aligned with IS, Gen. Gilbert Gapay, the head of the armed forces, told BenarNews.
“WestMinCom has accomplished so much as far as degrading. Maybe we have not yet defeated (them yet) but we have degraded their capabilities, especially the Abu Sayyaf,” he said.
Government forces have succeeded to degrade the Abu Sayyaf militant ranks by up to 70 percent since last year, Gapay said. He did not give estimates of the group’s current strength, but military sources had earlier placed its troop levels as ranging from 300 to 500 fighters.
“We have neutralized many terrorists,” Gapay said. “And surprisingly many have surrendered. Just think, these brutal and violent people were surrendering to us in the government. Meaning, they do not believe anymore [in] the cause of the movement and why they were doing it, and now they are returning to the folds of the law.”
Gapay was commenting on a report released on Aug. 7 by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Counter-extremist efforts, it said, appeared to have had little impact on the “the capabilities, size, financing and operations” of the Philippine branch of Islamic State and locally affiliated groups after the United States launched a multi-million-dollar aid package to support Manila in those efforts.
The U.S. government started the program, known as Operation Pacific Eagle – Philippines (OPE-P), in September 2017, when Philippine government forces were battling pro-IS fighters who had taken over the southern city of Marawi.
The United States deployed military advisers and drones to help the Philippines retake the lakeside city, kill the top leaders of the militant siege and flush out their forces a month later. But IS-linked fighters and groups have lingered and carried out attacks in the Philippine south. These include a suicide bombing that killed 23 people at a church in southern Sulu province in January 2019.
“In general, efforts to reduce extremism in the Philippines do not appear to have made a substantial difference since the launch of OPE-P. ISIS-EA and the other violent extremist groups in the Philippines that either coordinate with or share members with ISIS, have remained about the same size and strength for the last few years,” Sean W. O’Donnell, the DoD’s acting inspector general, said in the quarterly report to Congress about the aid program. He used a different acronym for IS in referring to the terror group’s East Asia branch.
“These groups continue to operate in the southern Philippines where separatist groups and extremist groups have existed for decades. Since the outset of Lead IG reporting on OPE-P in 2018, we have seen little progress in improving the economic, social, and political conditions in that part of the country,” he added.
And although IS continues to carry out “sporadic, mostly small-scale attacks,” the Philippine military, with the backing of the United States, “continues to conduct counterterrorism operations that keep ISIS-EA from spreading, and continues to rely on U.S.-provided intelligence, air assets, and other support to conduct counterterrorism operations,” O’Donnell said as part of the 56-page document.
The report, covering the second quarter of 2020, was the 11th quarterly report since the Pentagon first began reporting to Congress about the aid program in February 2018. The latest report, however, did not go into detail to explain why counter-extremist efforts had not made a substantial difference against IS and associated groups in the southern Philippines.
‘We have gained a lot’
Gapay, the Philippine military chief, disputed the comments by the Pentagon’s inspector general.
“[I] would say his remarks are not true. In fact, it’s to the contrary. We have gained a lot as far as our anti-terrorism campaign is concern,” Gapay said.
Gapay made the comments days after a senior Abu Sayyaf militant commander, Abduljihad “Indang” Susukan – who was wanted in connection with 23 cases of murder in the kidnappings of foreign hostages by the militant group –was taken into custody by Philippine authorities after he voluntarily surrendered on Aug. 13.
Galpay spoke to BenarNews on the sidelines of a ceremony at Camp Basilio Navarro in Zamboanga, where Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana was leaving his duties as the WestMinCom commander to take a new post as head of the Philippine Army.
“Substantial gains” had been made against IS since the military pushed the group’s fighters out of Marawi in October 2017, Sobejana told BenarNews.
Intelligence work had led to the slaying of key Abu Sayyaf and IS fighters, so much so that “the communication between the foreign and the local terrorist groups was cut off,” he said.
The report from the Pentagon also touched on this point, saying that “operational ties between the core ISIS group in Iraq and Syria … and ISIS in the Philippines have been significantly weakened.
When asked to respond Tuesday to the criticism from the Philippine military, Dwrena Allen, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon, replied: “We stand behind our report.”
Analyst: comprehensive approach needed
Meanwhile Rommel Banlaoi, a counter-terrorism expert at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, agreed with the U.S. assessment. Militants in the south, led by the Abu Sayyaf Group, were capable of carrying out terror plots, he said.
“The ASG has the intention and strong capability to mount violent attacks, especially suicide terrorism,” Banlaoi said.
“Dealing with IS needs a more comprehensive approach that empowers the most affected communities against terrorism,” he said, adding that the Philippines needed ongoing American support to defeat threat from Islamic militancy in the south.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines.