Philippine Islamic rebel group forms task force to counter ISIS recruitment

Philippine marines raiding the site of a criminal gang that pledged allegiance to ISIS, on Nov 26, 2015.
Philippine marines raiding the site of a criminal gang that pledged allegiance to ISIS, on Nov 26, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - Islamic rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has formed a task force to counter recruitment by the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Philippines.

Mr Mohagher Iqbal, the group's chief negotiator, said videos released last month by local Islamist groups that have pledged allegiance to ISIS were "authentic". But he said the MILF, which signed a peace deal with the government in 2014 after fighting a decades-long secessionist war, had yet to verify whether there is already a "formal ISIS organisation" in the restive southern island of Mindanao.

The task force the MILF is forming will consist of "Islamic preachers" tasked to counter "ISIS distortions" of the Quran and Islamic teachings, he said.

Mr Iqbal said ISIS is seizing opportunities as Muslims in the Philippines "are frustrated", especially after the peace pact his group brokered with the Philippines had been bogged down in congressional warnings.

President Benigno Aquino had hoped a Bill creating an autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao, the cornerstone of the peace deal, would become a law before he steps down in June this year.

But a botched operation to arrest Malaysian extremist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, last year provided opportunities for opposition lawmakers to stonewall the proposed law.

Over 40 police commandos who engaged hundreds of Muslim fighters, including some who belonged to the MILF, were killed in that operation.

Recent intelligence reports suggest that the Philippines is becoming a breeding ground for Islamist fighters seeking to join ISIS. Two videos released last week sought to show the militants' purported strength. One showed what appeared to be a training camp on a clearing in the middle of a jungle somewhere in Mindanao.

The other claimed that four battalions of militants from the Philippines and Malaysia have merged into a single unit under a leadership council now being steered by Abu Sayyaf ideologue, Isnilon Hapilon.