Dozens of foreign militants have fanned out in the Philippine south to evade capture, a military commander said Wednesday, as an analyst warned that extremists could mount a large-scale attack reminiscent of the Islamic State siege of Marawi in 2017.
Government forces should watch out for more attacks from foreign extremists who have infiltrated the southern region and are moving to radicalize locals, said Jose Antonio Custodio, a security and defense analyst at the Institute for Policy, Strategy and Development Studies, a Philippine think-tank.
“A non-neutralization of the ISIS foreign militants will allow them to increasingly radicalize local groups and then this may lead to more Marawi-style attacks or suicide bombings,” he told Benar News, using another acronym for Islamic State and referring to a five-month siege carried out in the southern Philippine city by militants linked with IS.
The military commander for Western Mindanao, meanwhile, said troops were searching the region for about 60 suspected foreign militants, including people from Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Morocco and Afghanistan.
“They are scattered in our areas. They don’t have popular support. In due time, using our capabilities, we will neutralize them,” Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said, reiterating an earlier pledge that the foreign fighters would be accounted for by year’s end.
He said the foreigners were believed to be in areas where Philippine militant groups, including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), were operating.
BIFF, numbering hundreds of fighters, split from the 12,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2008 and has since pledged allegiance to IS. Earlier this year, MILF assumed the leadership of an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines as part of peace agreement with Manila.
Sobejana said a first batch of MILF fighters who trained under the military had been deployed to certain areas in the south to help government security forces catch the foreign suspects.
“Their role will be important as the role of every member of security forces. They will help us fight terrorism so that peace will be restored,” Sobejana said of the MILF fighters.
Custodio also commented on the new role for the MILF fighters.
“We can only hope that they will be effective. That will depend on the quality of training, the trust on them put by the military, the manner in which they are deployed, the competence of the AFP commanders and the reliability of the initial vetting process,” Custodio said.
Foreigners were among the hundreds of militants who laid siege to Marawi two years ago, but Philippine authorities have increased their vigilance for more militants from abroad infiltrating the south after an Indonesian couple killed 23 people in suicide bombings at a church in southern Jolo island in January, according to officials from both countries.
The two bombers had aligned with Abu Sayyaf fighters under the command of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, touted as the new IS leader here following the death of Isnilon Hapilon in Marawi, authorities said.