At least five foreign members of the Islamic State extremist group are hiding with local Abu Sayyaf militants in Sulu province in the southern Philippines, the country’s military chief said Thursday as he ordered an intensified manhunt.
Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Noel Clement gave the order a week after security forces killed three suspected militants, including two would-be suicide bombers from the Middle East, in a gunbattle in Sulu’s Indanan town. Authorities also recovered 16 pipe bombs when they arrested a suspected Filipino militant during a follow-up operation there.
“The marching orders to the troops is to capture them all because if we look at their purpose in coming here, it is to conduct terroristic activities, in particular to stage bombings,” Clement told reporters in Zamboanga city, referring to the foreign militants.
Clement was visiting the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) here, meeting with regional officials to assess regional security in the southern Philippines.
He said foreign terrorists were believed to be hiding with an Abu Sayyaf Group faction under the command of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, a local militant leader considered by U.S. and Philippine intelligence as the new IS leader in the south after Isnilon Hapilon was killed at the end of a militant siege of Marawi city two years ago.
An increase in suicide bomb attacks in Sulu and its municipal capital, Jolo, was a sign that Abu Sayyaf fighters had been indoctrinated to the new terror tactic, Clement said, emphasizing that Filipino militants were previously not known for carrying out such attacks.
Foreign militants with the support of Sawadjaan’s group have already carried out at least two successful suicide bombings.
In January, an Indonesian couple blew themselves up at Jolo’s main Catholic church, killing 23 people and wounding more than 100 others during a Sunday Mass. In June, two Filipinos – the first Filipino bombers – detonated their explosives outside an army camp in Jolo, killing five people, including themselves, and wounding 22 others.
Clement said the military was also closely monitoring attempts by foreign fighters who fought for IS in the Middle East to penetrate the southern Philippines. Intelligence operatives are already closely coordinating with Indonesian and Malaysian authorities to track these fighters, he said.
The three nations began trilateral maritime and aerial patrols along the Philippines’ porous southern borders in June 2017 after pro-IS militants launched the Marawi siege.
“If ever there are reports, let’s say from Malaysia or Indonesia, they will share the information [with us], so we can prevent the terrorists from crossing, and the same is true also if there are reports of fighters here going to their respective country,” Clement said.