Philippines starts inquiry into Filipino militants in Syria's war

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines is investigating the involvement of Filipino Islamists in the three-year civil war in Syria after two locals were reported killed fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group, an intelligence official said on Saturday.

A senior police intelligence official said Manila was also monitoring young Filipino Muslims who have gone to Syria and Iraq, and then tried to radicalise others on their return home.

The Philippines has been battling its own small but violent Islamist militant group, Abu Sayyaf, which has been blamed for kidnappings, beheadings and bombings in the south. Since 2002, a United States special forces unit has been advising and training local troops.

Thousands of fighters from dozens of countries have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with extremist groups, prompting the United States to draft a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding countries "prevent and suppress" the recruitment and travel of foreign fighters. "These are disturbing developments that could affect our internal security situation," the intelligence official, who declined to be named because he was not allowed to talk to the press, told Reuters. "We have scant data based on intermittent information made available from different agencies, including the Department of Foreign Affairs. We are now exchanging intelligence with our foreign partners so we can build our own data base."

Based on these exchanges, he said they have noted a gradual increase of foreign fighters heading to Syria coming from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Xinjiang, a troubled province in western China.

But the movement is not only one way, he said. Some locals who saw action in Syria, labeled themselves as "veterans" had returned to the south of the mainly Catholic state to spread extremist Muslim ideologies.

Documents seen by Reuters showed two Filipino Muslims had died in the Syria conflict in March. The Foreign Ministry also reported in May that about 100 Filipinos traveled to Iran to undergo military training and were subsequently deployed in Syria. "One of them was raised in Syria and the other was a local passport holder," said the intelligence official.

Mr Rommel Banlaoi of the Centre for Intelligence and National Security Studies said the threats from Islamic State militants in the Philippines "is real rather than imagined".

"ISIS is replacing Al-Qaeda as the champion of the world Islamic caliphate," Mr Banlaoi said, adding a video on YouTube last month indicated an Islamic caliphate in the Philippines has been established.

Militants from Abu Sayyaf, Khilafa Islamiyah Mindanao, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Muslim convert group Rajah Solaiman Islamic Movement had pledged support to ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq.

On Wednesday, Washington authorised air strikes for the first time in Syria and more attacks in Iraq in a broad escalation of a campaign against ISIS, which has seized large stretches of Iraq and Syria.

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