Terror groups that continue to target the Philippines and its ASEAN neighbors

Noel T. Tarrazona
Noel T. Tarrazona - Special to Al Arabiya English
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A year after the Philippine military finished off at least 800 ISIS-inspired militants in the Islamic city of Marawi, four terror groups continue to remain a security threat for the Southern Philippines region, particularly the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and its ASEAN neighbors.

Military authorities identify four terror groups – Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the Maute Group, the Ansar al-Khilafa and the Abu Sayyaf group operating in the islands – as existing security threat to the region.

With this growing threat, the Philippine Police and the Philippine Army in the ARMM region this week signed a working agreement during a meeting at Camp Siongco, Maguindanao province, to secure areas from vulnerable attacks by terror groups who pledged allegiance to ISIS.

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Major General Cirilito Sobejana of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division and General Graciano Mijares of the Police Regional Office of ARMM represented the Army and Police organizations respectively to sign the collaborative security agreement.

The collaboration is part of the government strategy to eliminate all forms of terrorism particularly in the southern Philippines to comply with the President’s order. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte earlier this year directed the military to “destroy and kill” extremists who described them as supporters of “bankrupt” ideology.

Of the four terror groups, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) remains the most potent security threat not only to the Philippines but to neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam. The ASG is presently holding 10 captives – a Dutch national, a Vietnamese and eight Filipinos in Sulu. The group also remains a maritime threat known for abducting sailors from Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Despite the death of its leader Isnilon Hapilon, in the infamous Marawi battle last year, the militant group easily re-established itself again. Close to a hundred Abu Sayyaf fighters this week killed three marine soldiers in the on-going battle in the island province of Sulu. The ASG was established in the 1990s by mercenaries assigned in Afghanistan and evolved to become Southeast Asia’s most feared terror group.

A fearless fisherman who braves the seas despite ongoing military operation in the province. (Supplied)
A fearless fisherman who braves the seas despite ongoing military operation in the province. (Supplied)

Moreover, the Philippine military also identified the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) as another security threat since the militant organization boasts to have 5,000 armed fighters. The BIFF fighters were mostly members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a separatist movement, who accepted the Philippine government offer of self-autonomy.

Rejecting the MILF’s decision, the BIFF defected from the MILF and in 2010 the latter declared the BIFF a “lost command.” While the MILF and the Philippine government are talking peace to end the Mindanao armed conflict, the BIFF continues to exchange firefight hostilities with Philippine security forces.

MILF guerillas

In Lanao Sur, Omar Maute was responsible for the establishment of the Islamic State of Lanao or locally known the Maute Militant Group, a radical group, whose leaders were formerly MILF guerrillas.

While the Maute group claims to have hundreds of armed fighters, it dwindled to 30 members but military intelligence reports claimed, the group is actively recruiting more young people through social media after it suffered a heavy defeat in the Marawi battle last year.

Another militant group to watch is the Ansar Khalifa or Ansar al-Khilafah that was established in August 2014. The group is known for its viral video where its leaders pledged allegiance to ISIS.

ALSO READ: Muslim who shielded Filipino Christians in ISIS-held Marawi says he’s no hero

The militant group made headlines when Philippine security authorities held them responsible for the 2016 Davao City bombing. Two of its members were arrested when they reportedly planted a bomb in a trash bin adjacent to the US embassy in Manila.

While these militant organizations continue to pose threat to the Philippines, the military wonders why some natives in Muslim Mindanao continue to support ISIS and joining these organizations. Lt. Col Gerry Besana, told journalists, that despite the militant groups’ failure to hold territory in Marawi, the militant ideology continues to entice local sympathizers.

Rommel Banlaoi, a counter-terrorism research expert in the Philippines, told local journalists, that militant fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia were also reportedly moving to the Southern Philippines to support local militant organizations.

Thus, given this premise, reports are indeed true that right after the Marawi battle last year, local militant groups begun to bounce back and regroup again sending the government a message that their ideology is still alive and kicking.

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