Philippines 'turning into ISIS breeding ground'

A Philippine Navy boat patrols Manila Bay overlooking the Manila skyline as a security preparation for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting.
A Philippine Navy boat patrols Manila Bay overlooking the Manila skyline as a security preparation for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Philippines is becoming a breeding ground for Islamic fighters seeking to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to recent intelligence reports.

A three-minute video posted on Sunday showed a group of men, clad mostly in black and with the ISIS flag as the background, coaxing Muslims to travel to Syria and fight for ISIS.

A spokesman said they were members of Ansar Khalifa Philippines, a group believed to be sheltering at least three South-east Asian extremists who have returned after fighting with ISIS in Syria.

The video also showed footage of what appeared to be a training camp in the middle of a jungle somewhere on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

Dozens of men carrying assault rifles and grenade launchers could be seen scaling 6m walls, swinging across monkey bars and crawling on dirt roads beneath barbed wires, as men fired live rounds above their heads.

The group's spokesman urged Muslims to wage war on "infidels" who he said had been desecrating Islam by attacking Muslim traditions, such as growing beards and wearing hijabs and niqabs.

"If you can, my brother, plant explosives in their vehicles and homes, or poison their water and food sources," he said. "Kill them, kill them all wherever they may be: Luzon, Visayas or Mindanao."

Reacting to the video, the Philippines' National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia dismissed the purported training camps as nothing more than propaganda. "ISIS has no training camps in the Philippines," he said.

His response reiterates the military's view that ISIS' presence in the Philippines "is very remote, very small".

But for regional security expert Richard Javad Heydarian of De La Salle University, the Philippines "should stop downplaying and adopting a dismissive attitude towards the potential expansion of ISIS in Mindanao".

There has been growing evidence that ISIS already has deep roots among several militant groups in Mindanao. Last week, the military confirmed that Malaysian sundry goods shop owner Mohammed Najib Husen was among 26 Abu Sayyaf bandits killed in operations launched by the military in Basilan province, 1,800km south of Manila. He was among three high-value Malaysian targets who fled to the Philippines to train with the Abu Sayyaf and recruit fighters for ISIS.

Last month, security officials reported killing eight Islamic militants, including Indonesian Ibrahim Alih, who also went by the name Abdul Fatah, linked to a suicide attack on the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2015, with the headline 'Philippines 'turning into ISIS breeding ground''. Print Edition | Subscribe