Government forces are tracking down at least seven foreigners who are working with the new Islamic State militant leader in the volatile southern Philippines, the country’s defense chief said Thursday.
The seven are believed to be under the protection of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, a little-known commander of the Abu Sayyaf Group, officials said. He took the reins of the local Islamic State (IS) chapter after leader Isnilon Hapilon was killed in the 2017 battle of Marawi, according to Filipino and American officials.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters in Manila that the government was looking at raw information that at least a hundred foreign militants had entered the country and were operating in the south.
But of that total, he said, “we only confirmed seven foreign fighters” that were being tracked by the military’s Western Mindanao Command (WesMinCom), which is based in southern Zamboanga city.
“We cannot find them so we consider those as just information and it cannot be confirmed,” Lorenzana said of the 100 militants. “We do not know if they are really there or not.”
“According to the WesMinCom there are seven foreigners. I think the nationalities are Egyptian, Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean. So we have the names of a couple but we are not going to give (this) out yet until we get all the names of everybody,” Lorenzana said during a program launching new vessels for the coast guard.
“Initial reports say they are with the group of Sawadjaan in Jolo,” the defense secretary said.
Regional military chief Lt. Ge. Cirilito Sobejana said troops were already tracking down the militants, but he declined to give more information, saying it may jeopardize the operation.
“We are doing something about this report,” Sobejana told BenarNews, adding that authorities decided to reveal some of the militants’ alleged nationalities as part of the military’s increased awareness campaign in the south.
“We are doing something about it and [this] increases the vigilance level of our people so everybody should be observant now,” he said.
The revelation came shortly after police and military intelligence troops arrested three Pakistani nationals over the past two months.
One of those arrested, Waqar Ahmad, 36, was a suspected bomber with IS. He was arrested following an anti-terror blitz that also led to the capture of two Filipino terror operatives in Manila. Ahmad was deported and turned over to Pakistani authorities.
The two other Pakistanis, identified as Salid Ali, 28, and Rahim Zada, 42, were also captured in Zamboanga, where Ahmad was also arrested.
The two had entered the country illegally through the southern Sulu Islands, and apparently were among those being pursued by authorities.
They were arrested after two suicide bombers, one of them a Filipino, launched an attack that left three soldiers and three civilians outside a military camp in the island province of Sulu in late June. IS claimed responsibility for that attack.
In January, an Indonesian husband and wife team, blew themselves up at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral Catholic on Jolo Island, which is part of Sulu, killing 23 people in one of the country’s worst attacks in years.
On Tuesday, Indonesian police named the couple as Rullie Rian Zeke and Ulfah Handayani Saleh, who were deported from Turkey in 2017 after they allegedly tried to cross its border to enter IS-controlled territory in Syria.
The two apparently left to join IS via Turkey in March 2016, taking their three children with them. But Turkish authorities caught them in January 2017 and deported them back to Indonesia, where government officials enrolled the couple in a short rehabilitation program before releasing them.
It was not clear, however, how the two managed to sneak into the Philippines, but local police earlier caught five Filipino accomplices who said that the Indonesian couple had apparently sailed to Jolo from the nearby island of Lampinigan.
The two met with Sawadjaan who plotted and financed the church bombing in Jolo, according to Philippine police sources.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines.