Philippine security forces nab foreign ISIS 'commander'

Foreign national Fehmi Lassoued is presented to members of the media during a press conference at the Philippine National Police general headquarters in Quezon City, Metro Manila, on February 19, 2018, after being arrested allegedly in possession of assorted explosives and bomb-making paraphernalia. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - Philippine security forces have arrested a foreign national believed to be a unit commander of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Fehmi Lassoued was nabbed over the weekend with his Filipino girlfriend Anabel Salipada in Manila's Ermita district, police chief Ronald dela Rosa said yesterday.

Salipada, 32, is from Tupi town in Maguindanao province, a hotbed of Muslim insurgency in the war-torn southern island of Mindanao. Firearms and materials for making pipe bombs were seized.

Director-General dela Rosa said Lassoued was a "commander" and "government negotiator" of ISIS in Syria.

There have been conflicting reports about his nationality, with some media describing him as Tunisian, while others Egyptian. Lassoued said he was born in Dubai, and described himself as half-Libyan, half-Tunisian.

He has been in the Philippines since July 2016 and travelled "in and out of Manila" throughout his stay using a fake Tunisian passport.

He was presented to the media at the police headquarters yesterday, where he managed to say only that he "was ISIS before". Later at the justice department, he was allowed to talk to reporters, and claimed the police had set him up, and that he was not a terrorist but was travelling with a fake Tunisian passport because of problems he had back home. He said he had travelled to Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, Egypt and Syria.

He also denied plotting an attack. "If someone wanted to attack, why will he wait two years? " he said.

Lassoued is the second ISIS-linked foreigner to be arrested this year in the Philippines.

Last month, security forces nabbed suspected terrorist Abdelkhakim Labidi Adib, 20, from the Spanish province of Basilan, a stronghold of the small but brutal Abu Sayyaf group in Mindanao. Labidi Adib was described as an Abu Sayyaf "sympathiser" and a "campaigner" for an ISIS province in the Philippines.

Police director Oscar Albayalde said ISIS has already found "safe havens" across metropolitan Manila. He said police are monitoring known ISIS sympathisers in the city.

Metro Manila is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, serving as home to more than 13 million Filipinos.

In November 2016, security forces defused a powerful bomb found inside a rubbish bin near the United States embassy in Manila.

The bomb had the same "signature" as the one that exploded in September that year at a night market in Davao, home city of President Rodrigo Duterte. The attack, which left 15 dead, was blamed on the radical group, Maute.

Metro Manila suffered its worst terrorist attack in December 2000, when militants detonated bombs in five locations across the region, including at an MRT station, killing 22 in total.

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