MANILA • A large gathering of Muslim missionaries provided cover for dozens of foreign militants to sneak into the Philippines and reinforce a local extremist group that last week seized large parts of Marawi, a densely populated Muslim city in the southern island group of Mindanao.
A former diplomat who had worked in Cairo told The Straits Times that there was a "johor" - an international and local gathering - convened by Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni missionary movement in Marawi just days before the attacks.
"There were thousands who attended," he said, and among them were dozens of missionaries from abroad. According to raw intelligence reports, many of the foreigners came to answer a call from Malaysian lecturer-turned-militant Mahmud Ahmad to rescue Isnilon Hapilon, the badly injured top man for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in South-east Asia, and to sneak him out of Mindanao. Among them were 28 Malaysians.
"Initially, nobody knew what happened to them but, after the deaths of two Malaysians in firefights with (the Philippine military), we can conclude they took up arms," a Manila-based intelligence official was quoted as saying by Malaysia's Sunday Mail.
Malaysia's federal special branch department director Fuzi Harun said yesterday that it would take time to verify this information.
"Based on our intelligence, there are only six Malaysian fighters, aged between 35 and 45, in the southern Philippines... Of this number, four were directly involved in the Marawi attack.
It is not easy to detect militants as they would pose as part of a tabligh (religious) centre," he said, adding that the four had been in the Philippines "for a while now".
Last Tuesday, about 100 militants led by Mahmud attacked Marawi, after a botched raid by security forces on a flat where Hapilon was believed to be hiding.
The militants seized much of Marawi, setting fire to buildings and taking hostages.
Eleven Indonesians who attended the Tablighi Jamaat meeting were evacuated from Marawi, after Indonesia's Foreign Ministry cleared them of involvement in the Marawi siege.
Philippine officials confirmed last Friday that militants from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore were involved in the fighting.
• Additional reporting by Nadirah H. Rodzi in Kuala Lumpur