Nearly two dozen pro-Islamic State groups are actively recruiting members in the southern Philippines, six months after Isnilon Hapilon and his group were defeated in the battle of Marawi, military intelligence sources told BenarNews on Monday.
Immediately after the Marawi siege ended, fighters were believed to have escaped and splintered into smaller groups scattered across the main southern island of Mindanao, they said.
“They are now aggressively reorganizing, recruiting and retraining to re-establish their desire to have a foothold in Southeast Asian region,” according to one intelligence brief seen by BenarNews.
Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of Islamic State militants in the Philippines, aided by fighters from the local Maute group and from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, took over the Islamic city of Marawi in May 2017 with the aim of establishing a caliphate.
They kidnapped women and children, beheaded Christians and fought running gun battles with the military for five months, reducing the city to a wasteland of pockmarked and ruined homes. At least 200,000 people fled during the worst conflict the south has seen in recent years.
The battle ended in October after Filipino forces finally killed Hapilon and leaders of the Maute gang, but President Rodrigo Duterte said up to 200 other militants had escaped.
Under the black flag
The intelligence sources said several high-ranking suspects had been captured recently, including Indonesian Mushalah Somina Rasim (alias Abu Omar).
The 32-year-old militant was arrested last month as he was allegedly recruiting for Ansarul Khilafa Philippines (AKP), also called Khalifa Islamiyah Mindanao, an IS-sympathizer group in the south whose members are mostly trained in bomb making, the sources said.
Rasim was believed to have had meetings with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a group that splintered from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a peace deal with the government in 2014.
The intelligence brief said the BIFF group has three factions, but only one of them, led by Abu Turaipe, openly declared support for IS. His groups has been engaged in hit-and-run attacks with the military. In clashes two weeks ago, troops killed 15 militants.
MILF spokesman Von al Haq told BenarNews he is aware that certain groups are believed to have allied under the black flag of the IS, ostensibly to avenge their loss in Marawi. He said at least 23 groups had sprouted across Mindanao, but whether they have the capacity to carry out deadly attacks remains to be seen.
“We are not discounting the 23 IS-linked groups in Mindanao but we are looking into that matter. As of now we don’t have full authority to take any action on this problem,” al Haq said.
He said that MILF fighters could eliminate these militant groups once the autonomy law is passed in May under the group’s peace deal with Manila.
The 12,000-member MILF dropped its bid for self-rule to settle for an expanded autonomy when it signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014.
The law, called the Bangsamoro Basic Law, outlines the basic structure of the proposed autonomy in Mindanao, the country’s mineral-rich southern third where many areas remain mired in poverty because of the insurgency.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Bienvenido Datuin said troops were not discounting the possibility of another Marawi-like siege in the region.
“We are trying to confirm the veracity of that information. Informal reports came in regarding the matter and I referred it to our intelligence community and operations and people on the ground. We are trying to confirm that,” he said.
The intelligence brief seen by BenarNews said the 23 groups are:
1. Ansar Dawlah Fi Filibbin (ADFF)
2. Rajah Solaiman Islamic Movement (RSIM)
3. Al Warakarul Islamiyah Battalion
4. Jama’at Ansar Khilafa
5. Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)
6. Ansharul Khilafa Philippines Battalion
7. Bangsamoro Justice Movement
8. Khilafa Islamiya Mindanao (KIM)
9. Abu Sayyaf Group (Hapilon faction)
10. Syuful Khilafa Fi Luzon
11. Jama’atul Tawheed Wal Jihad (IS Lanao in Butig)
12. Ma’rakah al-Ansar Battalion
13. Dawla Islamiyyah Cotabato
14. Dawlat al Islamiya Waliyatul Masrik
15. Ansar al-Shariah Battalion
16. Jamaah al-Tawhid wal Jihad Philippines
17. Jundul-Tawhid Battalion (ASG Sulu)
18. Abu Dujanah battalion
19. Abu Khubayn battalion
20. Jundallah battalion
21. Abu Sadr battalion
22. Jamaah al Muhajirin Wal Anshor (Philipina)
23. Islamic State of Marawi
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato, Philippines contributed to this report.