Updated at 4:16 p.m. ET on 2020-04-30
Islamic State-linked groups in Indonesia and the Philippines have taken advantage of the coronavirus pandemic by launching attacks or conducting recruitment drives, a think-tank and a conflict-monitoring group said in separate reports this week.
But security forces from the two neighboring nations said Wednesday they were well-equipped to deal with any resurgence of militant activities.
Nearly two weeks ago, Abu Sayyaf militants killed 11 government troops and wounded 14 others in the deadliest firefight in months in the southern Philippines while in Indonesia, the MIT militant group in Central Sulawesi province staged a series of attacks over the last two months leaving one of its key leaders dead, BenarNews has reported.
“The renewal of violence in Poso, Central Sulawesi in March and April 2020 is the direct result of local extremists seeing Covid-19 as an ally in the war against Islam’s enemies,” the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) said in a report.
“The arrival of the virus gave the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia (Mujahidin Indonesia Timur, MIT) a new hope that victory was near, and buoyed by the addition of new recruits, it began a series of attacks,” the think-tank said in the report released Tuesday.
It cited at least three MIT attacks in March and April.
On March 27, MIT leader Ali Kalora attacked a group of police officers on motorcycles as they were transporting food supplies in the Central Sulawesi district of Poso. No one was killed, but the police were forced to flee and left behind their motorcycles and the food, IPAC said.
“The success of this operation raised MIT morale further,” it said, adding that on April 8, some MIT members abducted a farmer named Daeng Topo, accusing him of being a police informant, then beheaded him.
In a video seen by BenarNews recently, a man believed to be Ali Kalora was shown urging militants and supporters to attack security forces. He also warned that civilians who had helped the security forces would be killed.
“Thogut [the oppressor] will fall with coronavirus and this war, God willing,” he said. “It will happen soon.”
On April 15, two suspected MIT members on a motorbike shot and wounded a policeman outside a bank, but other officers arrived and the two men sped off, the report said. Police stopped and shot dead the two men at a checkpoint, IPAC said.
Footage from a surveillance camera seen by BenarNews showed one of the men pointing a gun at the officer as he parked his motorcycle. One of the attackers shot him in the chest, while the other tried to seize his weapon.
The belief of Indonesian militants that the pandemic was weakening the economies of countries was enough to convince MIT, a tiny group of combatants, that they could eventually defeat government forces, the IPAC report said.
In the southern Philippines, pro-IS militants have snatched the opportunity to bolster their ranks, while security forces have been sidetracked with other tasks in helping the government battle the highly contagious and deadly virus, according to London-based International Alert, an NGO that advocates for conflict resolution.
International Alert said in a report released Monday that it could not “discount the possibility of the resurgence of violent extremist activities as a tactic in a period when the country’s security forces have been redeployed in primary urban centers to implement quarantine measures.”
The IS-linked Abu Sayyaf Group “were conducting recruitment and training activities while stocking up on food supplies and other vital commodities,” International Alert said. It cited community reports and noted that these activities were happening during the fasting month of Ramadan, now underway.
The report cited the April 17 attack by Abu Sayyaf days ahead of the Islamic holy month that left 11 soldiers dead and more than a dozen wounded.
On Wednesday, security forces clashed with about 20 suspected Abu Sayyaf militants in a mountainous village in Sulu, killing one of the extremists, the Philippine Star said, citing local military commander Maj. Gen. Corleto Vinluan Jr. One soldier was wounded, it said.
‘Not taken off guard’
Police and military chiefs in Indonesia and the Philippines expressed confidence that their forces were ready to respond to threats of resurgent militant activity.
said Wednesday they were well-equipped to deal with the resurgence of militant activities.
In Central Sulawesi, Inspector-General Syafril Nursal, the provincial police chief, told BenarNews that the Indonesian militants “indeed see the pandemic as an opportunity.”
“However, we have not been taken off guard and our operations [to hunt the militants] are continuing despite the COVID-19 outbreak,” he said.
National police spokesman Brig. Gen. Argo Yuwono said security forces had anticipated threats from militant groups during the pandemic.
“These include dealing with MIT threats in Poso,” he told BenarNews, referring to the regency in Central Sulawesi where the militant group operates.
This month, clashes between security forces and the MIT have killed three wanted militants in Poso, police said.
MIT’s strength in the jungles of Poso was reduced to 13 members, after several of its fighters were killed or captured in recent months, authorities said.
IPAC also said that the revival of MIT under Ali after the death of their leader, Santoso, in 2016 showed that the police-led deradicalization program in Poso had little effect.
“The program successfully turned several former prisoners away from extremism but did not stop recruitment, did not weaken pockets of local support for MIT and did not stop a few communities that had long been involved in conflict from seeing police as the enemy,” the report said.
In the Philippines, Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the military’s southern forces, said they had strengthened operations against militants after the group appeared to boost its recruitment drives.
The Abu Sayyaf Group, according to Sobejana, lately was using old footage of beheadings of their captives as part of their propaganda.
“Rest assured our focused military operations will not falter, we have enough forces to hunt and pound these terrorists, and we will compel them to lay down their arms and return to the fold of the law,” Sobejana told reporters Wednesday.
In 2017, pro-IS fighters seized the southern city of Marawi, provoking a five-month battle with government forces in which more than 1,200 people were killed, most of them militants.
While extremists who survived the aerial bombings were chased out of Marawi, many have since been engaged in recruitment drives to build up their forces, military officials said.
With troop redeployments due to the coronavirus fight, downgrading pursuit operations against the militants could affect army morale and increase the likelihood of indiscriminate attacks, according to International Alert.
“Getting mired in a wider military campaign to seek justice and retaliate will negatively affect the deployment of troops that are currently being harnessed to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic,” the NGO said.
Indonesia recorded 260 COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, bringing the national tally to 9,771, said Achmad Yurianto, a spokesman for the government's coronavirus task force. The death toll rose to 784 after 11 new deaths were reported overnight, he said.
Philippine heath authorities also confirmed 254 new infections from the virus during the past 24 hours, taking the nation’s total cases to 8,212, with death toll at 558 after officials reported 28 new fatalities.
CORRECTION: An earlier version contained wrong information about when 11 Philippine soldiers were killed in the firefight with Abu Sayyaf militants.