President Rodrigo Duterte is expected to meet in Malaysia on Monday with new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for talks over anti-terror cooperation, months after the Philippines defeated militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) in Marawi, his spokesman confirmed.
Duterte is scheduled to depart this weekend to Malaysia where will be ringside on Sunday when Philippine boxing hero Sen. Manny Pacquiao challenges World Boxing Association welterweight champion Lucas Mathysse of Argentina in a bout in Kuala Lumpur.
“This is a private trip,” Philippine presidential spokesman Roque told BenarNews.
“He will meet with Dr Mahathir on the 16th. Mindanao and ISIS are top talking points,” he added, using another acronym for the extremist group.
A Malaysian analyst said he expects the two leaders to be friendly during the meeting.
“At the moment both sides are quite cordial. Malaysia was instrumental in brokering the southern Filipino peace process and the Filipinos remember that,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior adviser for international affairs at the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute in Kuala Lumpur. “We were also grateful that the Filipino government essentially took the same side as us in condemning and countering the Sulu invasion five years ago.”
“It’s important for both sides to be friendly mainly because of the repercussions of the southern Filipino unrest which often spills over to Sabah or at least its surrounding waters.”
In May 2017, Filipino militants led by Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged local leader of the Philippine branch of IS, attacked the southern city of Marawi, beheading Christians, burning businesses and launching deadly hit-and-run attacks against the military in a battle that last five months.
Hapilon’s force was backed by Southeast Asian militants, including Indonesians and Malaysians, and fighters from the Middle East and elsewhere.
Two Malaysians are believed to have helped plot the Marawi siege, Mahmud Ahmad and Amin Baco, who were believed killed as the Philippine military closed in on the militants. Their bodies have not been found and authorities in the nearby eastern Malaysian state of Sabah recently included their names on a list of wanted militants.
Mahmud is believed to have funneled funds used by Hapilon in carrying out the Marawi attack, an audacious plot that caught the Philippine government by surprise.
After the battle broke out, regional governments, including Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia helped in tightening their border patrols in a bid to control militants escaping from Marawi or reinforcements from arriving in the southern Philippines.
The United States and Australia also helped in crucial intelligence gathering by flying drones over the city, which remains in tatters nine months later.
In June 2017, within weeks of the outbreak of fighting in Marawi, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia launched joint maritime operations to patrol the waters of their common sea borders against the militant threat. In October 2017, they expanded those operations to include trilateral air patrols.
New IS leader
The IS Philippine branch is believed to be headed by Human Abdul Najid (also known as Abu Dar), who has a bounty of 6 million pesos (U.S. $112,000) on his head.
Abu Dar was born in Mindanao but studied at an Islamic school in the northern Philippines. He underwent explosives training in Afghanistan in 2005, according to military intelligence.
He returned to Mindanao in 2012 and founded the militant group Khilafa Islamiyah Mindanao (KIM), which operated in areas near Marawi.
Before the Marawi siege last year, Abu Dar was aiding foreign fighters – including Malaysians – in getting into Mindanao, where many are believed to have settled in areas near Marawi, Philippine military officials said.
Now on the loose, Abu Dar has been moving to recruit other fighters in Mindanao using the remaining funds from the Marawi attack. They are preparing to launch small bombing attacks in the south, security analysts said.
Rommel Banlaoi, of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said foreign militant stragglers are in Mindanao, and Dar could be moving to consolidate their force.
“Malaysian foreign terrorist fighters along with some Indonesians are other foreign nationals linked to the IS continue to pose serious threats to Philippine security, peace and order,” said Banlaoi, who has followed the Muslim insurgency.
Richel V. Umel in Iligan City, Philippines, and Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.