Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday ordered security forces to “shoot on sight” Abu Sayyaf extremists straying into Palawan, an island southwest of Manila popular with tourists, following intelligence reports and a U.S. warning that militants were preparing a fresh wave of kidnappings.
Philippine military Western Command Chief Lt. Gen. Raul del Rosario also placed troops on heightened alert, after the American embassy in Manila posted a travel advisory a day earlier saying it had received credible information that terrorist groups may be planning to conduct kidnapping operations targeting foreign nationals in tourist hotspots on Palawan. The British and Canadian embassies later incorporated the U.S. warning in updating security advisories for the Philippines on their websites.
“My order to security forces is to shoot them on sight,” Duterte told reporters before leaving for Cambodia to attend the World Economic Forum in Phnom Penh. “It is a problem of security. If there is a clash, make sure to kill them.”
Del Rosario emphasized that the American security advisory had not been validated, but said the U.S. Embassy would not issue an alert to its citizens without any basis.
“The report has not been validated. But you know how protective the U.S. is of their citizens,” del Rosario said.
The security status has been heightened and an inter-agency task force has been created, he added. Naval and coast guard vessels have been deployed for “target hardening” to ensure that no Abu Sayyaf members could sneak into Palawan and snatch victim, del Rosario said.
Intelligence reports indicated that a group of Abu Sayyaf militants would enter Palawan’s Coron town, famed for its stretches of beaches and about 400 kilometers (240 miles) northwest of the southern islands that are considered strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), he said.
The U.S. embassy in Manila issued its travel advisory late Tuesday, warning its citizens to stay away from Palawan and its tourist attractions, including a subterranean river that is popular among foreign tourists.
“U.S. citizens are advised to carefully consider this information as they make their travel plans and to review personal security plans, avoid large crowds and gatherings, and remain vigilant at all times,” the advisory said.
Last month, the American embassy also issued an advisory for Bohol, a province in the central Philippines, a day before a group of Abu Sayyaf gunmen landed in the area, triggering violence.
The group launched a raid as senior regional officials were to gather in nearby Cebu island for a conference ahead of a summit by Southeast Asian leaders in Manila.
At least nine Abu Sayyaf militants were killed in the firefights, while two others, including a senior policewoman who allegedly planned to aid the fleeing gunmen were arrested days later.
Superintendent Maria Christina Nobleza was caught with suspected Abu Sayyaf member Renierlo Dongon, who was wanted for a 2012 restaurant bombing that killed two in the south. The two are being held and interrogated by police.
Among those slain was senior Abu Sayyaf leader Muamar Askali (alias Abu Rami), who became notorious for earlier beheading foreign hostages, including 70-year-old German yachtsman Jürgen Kantner in February and two Canadians seized last year
An army lieutenant and three others, including a policeman, died in the initial clash.
It was the first time that the Abu Sayyaf, or “Bearers of the Sword,” had traveled north of their traditional southern strongholds and infiltrated Bohol, 915 km (571 miles) south of the Philippine capital Manila.
Philippine security forces prepare to engage Abu Sayyaf militants in the village of Napo in Bohol province in the central Philippines, April 11, 2017. [AFP]
Abu Sayyaf in Palawan
But it won't be the first time for the Abu Sayyaf to travel to Palawan, which is accessible by speed boat from its known strongholds in the south.
In May 2001, the gunmen launched a daring raid into the Dos Palmas resort and took a group of Filipino and western hostages, including three Americans. One of the Americans was beheaded, while one was killed during a military rescue attempt a year later. The third American was freed.
Military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo said the security forces respected the U.S. travel advisory, but insisted that "we have not monitored any threat specific to Palawan."
"But whether there’s indeed a threat or not, our position is we take all reports seriously, we keep our monitoring and vigilance, and are taking all precautions," he said.
But there will be no additional troop deployments, he said, even as troops were told to maintain a high level of alert against the Abu Sayyaf, whom he said were "thinking enemies."
"We would like to cite the Bohol experience where we defeated and frustrated the attempts of that terror group through the cooperation of the local government, the local residents, and security forces," he said. “Security is a shared concern and responsibility of everybody.”
The Abu Sayyaf, once believed to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, has recently declared allegiance to the Islamic State.
It is considered one of Southeast Asia’s most brutal militant groups, with its forces numbering in their low hundreds.
It has managed to survive for a long time by entrenching itself in poverty-ridden, areas in the remote southern islands of Basilan and Jolo and employing the youths there as hired guns.
Over the years, however, the military said Abu Sayyaf has deteriorated into a criminal gang rather than a strictly Islamist group.
The group frequently shows videotaped beheadings of its hostages via the Internet. In 2004, it was blamed for bombing a ferry on Manila Bay, killing more than 100 in the worst terrorist attack in the Philippines.