'High threat of terrorist attack' in Philippines amid fears of lone wolf attacks after Marawi victory

A bullet-riddled apartment house located in a residential area in Malutlut district, Marawi city, southern Philippines on Oct 27, 2017.
A bullet-riddled apartment house located in a residential area in Malutlut district, Marawi city, southern Philippines on Oct 27, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (REUTERS, AFP) - More than a week after the Philippines declared victory over pro-ISIS militants in Marawi, security officials on Friday (Nov 3) expressed concern over lone wolf attacks, with Australia issuing a “high threat” alert about travel to Manila. 

Skirmishes continued between soldiers and holdouts from the militant group that seized a lakeside town on the southern island of Mindanao. More than 1,100 people, including 165 troops, were killed in the five-month conflict. 

“One concern after Marawi is the possibility of threats from lone wolves,” defence department spokesman Arsenio Andolong told reporters, two days after an Uzbek plowed into New York pedestrians and bikers in what US officials called a terrorist act. 

The army remained on high alert after President Rodrigo Duterte said five cities in Mindanao were potential targets of Muslim militants after their defeat in Marawi, he added. 

On Friday, the Australian embassy issued a travel advisory, warning of “a high threat of terrorist attack” in the Philippines, including Manila, the capital. 

“Be alert to possible threats around locations that have a low level of protective security and places known to be possible terrorist targets,” it said.  It told Australians to reconsider travel plans to eastern Mindanao and avoid its central and western regions. 

The advisory was similar to one issued early this year, said military spokesman Major-General Restituto Padilla. 

“It was only a reiteration, there is no credible threat,” he added. 

Two days ago, army soldiers killed the righthand man of Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the emir of pro-Islamic State militants in South-east Asia, who was gunned down last month. His death hastened the collapse of the Marawi-based militant group, leading to its defeat.

But armed stragglers supporting ISIS and hiding out among Marawi's ruins still pose a threat to returning civilians, the military said on Friday.

"The main battle area, where most of the very heavy fighting occurred in the last few weeks prior to the liberation and the cessation of combat operation still harbours a number of stragglers," Padilla said.

"These so-called stragglers continue to pose a huge threat to our people in Marawi as has been proven by the events of the past few days," Padilla told reporters in Manila.

Hundreds of local and foreign gunmen who had pledged allegiance to ISIS rampaged through Marawi, the principal Islamic city in the mainly Catholic Philippines, on May 23.

An ensuing US-backed military campaign claimed the lives of more than 1,100 people including around 900 militants, displaced 400,000 residents and reduced large parts of the city to rubble.

Padilla said the authorities were trying to confirm information provided by the captured suspect that more than 30 militants continue to hide out in building basements and tunnels.

Their hiding places were likely surrounded by booby traps and improvised explosive devices to prevent troops from approaching, he added.

The authorities were working "to ensure that not one of these terrorists may be able to escape because one terrorist who is able to escape has the potential of inflicting harm on many nationals - on many of our nationals", he said.

More than 6,000 Marawi residents have been allowed to return home to areas that were previously cleared by the authorities and did not suffer major damage, the authorities said on Friday.

However the main battle area remained closed indefinitely.

Officials have said the fight for Marawi marked the Philippines' longest urban battle, with defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana estimating that the government will need US$1.1 billion (S$1.5 billion) to rebuild the city.