ISIS militants not flocking in droves to South-east Asia, says top US counter-terrorism official

In a photo taken on Nov 14, 2019, Ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counter-terrorism at the US State Department Nathan Sales speaks during a briefing in Washington, DC. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - Islamic State militants who fought in Syria and Iraq are not flocking to South-east Asia "in droves", as they opt instead to press their fight closer to the Middle East - in Africa - a top United States counter-terrorism official said on Friday (Nov 22).

"We know that an ISIS core, the remnants of ISIS in Syria, had been encouraging their fighters to leave and fight again, to take the fight to other regions," Mr Nathan Sales, who leads the US State Department's counter-terrorism bureau, told reporters in Manila.

He said there had been "a clear indication of an interest" among militants to head to South-east Asia.

"But truth be told," he said, "it's not one of the regions that ISIS fighters seem to be heading to in droves."

Mr Sales said west Africa's Sahel region - a semi-arid zone south of the Sahara that includes parts of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger - presents a more pressing concern for the US-led global coalition against ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this part of the world "would be a preferred initial area of focus" for the coalition.

Across the Sahel, a combination of porous borders, intercommunal tensions and ill-equipped domestic armies has exacerbated a problem that regional and international forces are now struggling to contain. The violence has left thousands dead and millions displaced.

Groups with ties to ISIS and Al-Qaeda have linked up with ethnic militias to exploit communal tensions and weaken governments in the region.

The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara is active in Mali and Burkina Faso.

A faction of the Boko Haram terrorist group, meanwhile, is in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

Most insurgent attacks in the Sahel are attributed to Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, or JNIM, formed in 2017 following the merger of at least three Al-Qaeda-linked groups.

ISIS fighters are also finding sanctuary in east Africa, particularly with Al-Shabaab and another Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia.

Mr Sales said while ISIS fighters are not making South-east Asia a primary destination, "it's incumbent upon us to make sure they're not able to, should they ever wish to".

"So far, we've not seen a huge problem. But we have to make sure we keep it that way… We have to make sure these budding Al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates are kept from metastasising further," he said.

Mr Sales was in Manila to discuss a counter-terrorism centre that Washington and Manila are setting up, which will coordinate efforts to prevent extremists from slipping through borders, and to cut financing via front organisations and charities for terrorist groups.

Counter-terrorism expert Rommel Banlaoi, head of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said the US' threat assessment should not diminish South-east Asia's importance in the fight against ISIS.

"ISIS, under the new leadership, still regards South-east Asia as a 'land to wage jihad'. ISIS continues to consider South-east Asia as a safe haven foreign fighters can use as an alternative home base, aside from Middle East, Africa countries," he said.

Estimates by security officials of just how many ISIS fighters from abroad are in the Philippines have been nebulous.

At the height of the five-month siege of the southern city of Marawi city in 2017, hundreds of foreign extremists were said to have fought alongside local militants.

After the war, reports emerged that the number of foreign fighters in the war-torn southern Philippines was down to 100.

In July, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that only seven remained.

The Philippines, however, has lately had to deal with a spate of suicide attacks that experts say are being fomented by ISIS fighters now being sheltered by local militants.

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