Philippine Military: 4 Suspected IS-Linked Militants Killed in Clashes in Southern Province

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Cotabato, Philippines
2021-03-29
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Philippine Military: 4 Suspected IS-Linked Militants Killed in Clashes in Southern Province A soldier examines debris inside a Catholic church in Jolo, Sulu province, after two bombs exploded, killing more than 20 in the Philippines, Jan. 27, 2019.
[Western Mindanao Command handout via AFP]

Philippine troops killed four suspected pro-Islamic State (IS) militants in clashes over the weekend in the southern province of Maguindanao, the military said on Monday.

Troops from the 1st Scout Ranger Battalion clashed with 40 members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), under the command of Ustadz Karialan (alias Imam Minimbang) in the village of Saniag in Ampatuan town on Saturday, said Maj. Gen. Juvymax Uy, commander of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division. 

“The villagers alerted the army about the presence of the terrorists in their community,” he told reporters, adding that “three militants were killed.” 

Hours later, security forces clashed with another band of BIFF fighters, led by Salahuddin Salman (alias Abu Saif), in the mountains of Salman, also in Ampatuan, leaving one suspected militant dead. 

Regional military spokesman Lt. Col. John Paul Baldomar told BenarNews by phone that four soldiers were also injured when a landmine exploded as they pursued the suspected militants responsible for occupying a village in Saturday’s encounter. 

“We have recovered 17 homemade bombs as well … we have taken full control of seven camps they used as a training facility and bomb factory,” Baldomar said, adding that the remains of the dead militants had been recovered and turned over to local officials. 

“Our troops used artillery fire in driving away the militants,” he said. 

Last week, 14 suspected BIFF fighters were killed in clashes with troops. 

BIFF is a breakaway faction of the former rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a peace deal with the government and currently heads a transitional government in a Muslim autonomous region in the south. 

Murad Ebrahim, who leads MILF, heads the transitional authority that has power over the newly created Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BAARM).

BIFF has a few hundred members and is concentrated largely in central Mindanao Island, officials said. It has pledged allegiance to IS. While the group did not send guerrillas to fight in the southern city of Marawi in 2017, it launched diversionary attacks at the time. 

A five-month siege in Marawi by pro-IS fighters and a battle that ensued with government forces killed an estimated 1,200 enemy combatants, soldiers and civilians.

Warning

Francisco Lara Jr., a consultant to the conflict monitoring group International Alert, warned that the recent clashes could be a preview of more violence in the Mindanao region as the island gears for an election in 2022.

“This may be an effort to demonstrate the Karialan group’s superiority over other extremist groups in the area and hence gain more recruits and support,” said Lara, who has followed the Mindanao conflict through the years.

“[O]r it can be part of a ‘slow burn’ or a gradual yet deliberate escalation of violence that leads to a major political battle before or during the 2022 election.”

The Philippines is also scheduled to elect a new leader next year, as President Rodrigo Duterte can serve only one six-year term.

Lara said the violence from extremist groups such as BIFF and the “shadow economies” from drugs and weapons would mix and feed into the violence surrounding regional politics. 

“BIFF will continue to be a threat, despite the unceasing military campaign against it and reports of surrender among its members, as it continues to receive funding from other armed groups, including ISIS,” he said using another acronym for the Islamic State. 

“The group also receives protection money from local politicians, businessmen, and violent entrepreneurs involved in deadly shadow economies,” he said, without naming names. 

If left unchecked by security forces in the south, the current violence could spiral out of control and take on the pattern similar to what led to clashes that destroyed Marawi in 2017, Lara said.

MILF and the military must work together to defeat these groups, Lara said. For MILF, it would mean “disregarding kinship ties” in going after BIFF, some of whose fighters were once MILF commanders, he added. 

In January, suspected BIFF militants carried out two roadside bombings in the southern Maguindanao and North Cotabato provinces that killed at least three people and left scores wounded. 

In 2019, BIFF was blamed for a series of bomb attacks, including on a town market and at a restaurant, in the nearby town of Isulan, wounding eight and 18, respectively. 

The latest incidents occurred after Ebrahim, head of the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority, publicly announced that he had made preliminary contact with members of BIFF as well as the Abu Sayyaf Group to persuade them to come into the fold of the law. 

Security forces in the southern region have been on heightened alert after twin suicide bombings -carried out allegedly by Abu Sayyaf operatives - in August 2020 killed 15 people on Jolo, an island in the southern Sulu province.

More than a year earlier, 21 people were killed in another twin suicide attack that targeted a church in Jolo town. 

Abu Sayyaf’s IS faction is a small group known for kidnappings and beheadings.

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