President Rodrigo Duterte said the Islamic State (IS) would never gain a foothold in the Philippines, as he assured his countrymen that local militants blamed for a deadly January attack on southern Jolo island would be crushed, according to a transcript released by his office on Wednesday.
Duterte made the statement when he visited Jolo on Tuesday to mark the country’s Day of Valor holiday during which he pinned medals on soldiers wounded in recent encounters with IS-linked Abu Sayyaf militants.
His visit coincided with the death of a Malaysian who was rescued by security forces last week from his Abu Sayyaf captors but succumbed to his wounds. An Indonesian hostage was also rescued, while a compatriot had also died.
“I am especially pleased with our military’s recent accomplishments against the Abu Sayyaf Group. Your efforts have brought us even closer to our ultimate objective of totally crushing the violent extremism at its roots,” Duterte told soldiers, according to the transcript.
“With this, I can confidently declare that ISIS will never gain a foothold anywhere in the Philippines,” he said, using the other acronym for IS, which has been routed by U.S.-backed forces from its last territorial possession in the small Syrian town of Baghouz last month.
Duterte met with top military commanders on the island, where an estimated 10,000 troops have been chasing after the Abu Sayyaf, a mix of bandits and self-styled militants who had pledged allegiance to the IS.
Last January, the group’s leader, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, allegedly planned the bombings that killed 23 people and wounded dozens of others at a Catholic Church on Jolo. Police said Sawadjaan planned the attack using an Indonesian couple who blew themselves up. That account, however, has been questioned by Indonesian anti-terror authorities.
Continuing clashes on Jolo on Tuesday left two Abu Sayyaf gunmen dead, including Nasser Sawadjaan, believed to be a nephew of the militant leader. Also killed was Barak Ingog, described by the military as a man who played a role in the church bombings.
Intelligence operatives believe that Nasser’s uncle is the new IS regional leader in the Philippines, succeeding Isnilon Hapilon who was killed two years ago during the battle of Marawi.
During his visit, Duterte promised to provide better equipment to the troops, who have in recent years received anti-terror training from their U.S. counterparts.
“There is the ISIS that we have to worry here … in this part of Sulu, up and down Basilan [province]. We’ll just have to fight and fight,” Duterte said, assuring soldiers and their families of “utmost” protection.
Battle in two fronts
The military has been battling the Abu Sayyaf in two fronts – in Sulu, where the militants are holding several hostages, and in Basilan, where the gunmen last year carried out an audacious car bomb attack that left 13 dead. That attack was also claimed by the IS.
Col. Noel Detoyato, the military’s public affairs chief, said on Wednesday that counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency operations would continue as the nation prepares for the annual observance of Holy Week.
“Field units has an implied task of supporting the police during Holy Week to secure travelers and places of worship during the season of Lent,” Detoyato said.
“While doing this, primary mission of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency will still be in the forefront of the military field units,” he said.