Jakarta attack

Militants in Mindanao 'pose threat to region'

Philippine marines conducting an operation near the site where weapons and ISIS flags were recovered in Palimbang town, Mindanao, on Nov 28, 2015.
Philippine marines conducting an operation near the site where weapons and ISIS flags were recovered in Palimbang town, Mindanao, on Nov 28, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

The latest terrorist attack in Indonesia's capital Jakarta signals an evolving threat to the region coming from deep in the jungles of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

While the Philippine military remains adamant that Islamist militants in Mindanao are nothing more than bandits, most analysts warn that the threat is real. Some have predicted an attack in the region similar in scale to recent lone wolf attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, as the militants appear to move closer to declaring a South-east Asia "wilayat", or province, of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Reiterating the military's assessment following the ISIS attack in Jakarta, President Benigno Aquino said yesterday: "Is there a credible threat? Is there a specific threat? There is none."

But he acknowledged there is a "general threat", as he disclosed that the Philippines has been coordinating with intelligence agencies in the Middle East to monitor Filipinos there who ISIS is reportedly trying to recruit.

General Lloyd Austin, head of the US military's Central Command overseeing Middle East operations, has warned that ISIS has lately been keen on planting roots in the Philippines and elsewhere, as it comes under increased pressure in Iraq and Syria.

Security expert Richard Javad Heydarian said ISIS is providing a "new impetus" for "relatively marginal" extremists in the Philippines to "rebrand and reorganise themselves", so the government should "ramp up cooperation with moderate elements in major Islamist and Moro groups".

A stalled peace process to end a Muslim insurgency in Mindanao is fuelling support for extremists among Muslims in Mindanao, he said. In March 2014, the Philippines and the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed a peace pact to end 40 years of war in Mindanao. But the proposed Bill implementing the agreement is unlikely to become law before President Aquino steps down in June.

For defence analyst Jose Antonio Custodio, local militants are keen on securing recognition from ISIS only because of the money and the logistical support it brings. "Ask (the Abu Sayyaf bandits) about the Sunni-Shi'ite split and they will probably just stare at you, and may even shoot you," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2016, with the headline 'Militants in Mindanao 'pose threat to region''. Print Edition | Subscribe