The Philippines is facing the threat of a new wave of terror attacks following the recent cathedral bombing which killed 23 people, security experts have warned.
A new counterterrorism strategy is urgently required to combat an influx of Daesh-inspired foreign fighters who are expected to launch further raids over the coming months.
Rohan Gunaratna, a professor of security studies at Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore, told Arab News that since the five-month siege of the Philippine city of Marawi in 2017, the threat from Daesh-linked militants has spread to other regions of Mindanao.
The Philippine authorities declared victory against Daesh in the country after government forces won a bloody battle to liberate Marawi from insurgents led by the Maute Group.
But Gunaratna said that, since then, the regeneration of Daesh in the Philippines has created an environment for the flow of foreign terrorist fighters into the country. And unless the government immediately addresses the situation, he warned of more attacks like last month’s deadly bombing of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Jolo, on the southern province of Sulu, which also injured more than 100 people.
“The Philippines is facing a new phase of threat influenced by foreign fighters, ideologies, and funding,” Gunaratna said. “Manila needs a new counterinsurgency strategy to restore strategic peace in Mindanao. Otherwise, the progress made to create a Bangsamoro entity (an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao) will be negated.”
He said the strategy should be to contain, isolate and eliminate the four Daesh-centric groups that pose a terrorism threat to the Philippines.
“They present a long-term threat to the stability to the region. There is no better opportunity than to do so immediately after the Sulu attack,” he added.
Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, in Jakarta, Indonesia, backed up Gunaratna’s views.
Jones said it was a mistake to think “that military means could defeat an ideology that has taken root among some groups in Mindanao.” The militants driven from Marawi have remained active, he told Arab News.
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has already admitted that the country has been monitoring foreign fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia, Morocco, Yemen, and Pakistan who are in Sulu, Basilan, and Central Mindanao. There have also been reports of the presence of a foreign fighter from Singapore and a suspected Egyptian suicide bomber.
Lorenzana said Daesh-linked groups in the Philippines had been actively recruiting foreign fighters, and an intelligence report obtained by Arab News recently also indicated that one commander had been communicating with potential recruits via social media.
The Philippines is working closely with foreign governments, particularly the US, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, in the fight against terrorism, said Lorenzana.
In a forum at the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Monday, Lorenzana said that the US had been swift to help following the cathedral bombing. “They helped us immediately, but they were (also) helping us track these terrorists even before the bombing,” he added. Singapore had also offered information on possible perpetrators.
Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are “infested by terrorists,” Lorenzana said. “But we are all in this together and we have agreed to fight this together.”
The defense chief pointed out that in some cases Islamist militants were kidnapping people and bringing them to Sulu to train as fighters.
Meanwhile, the Philippine National Police (PNP) announced on Monday that one of the main suspects in the Jolo bombing, Kammah Pae, and four others are now in police custody.
Aside from Pae, the four other suspects are all said to be members of the terror cell Ajang Ajang, part of the Abu Sayyaf group.