Despite Islamic State’s failure last year to establish a caliphate in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, foreign militants continue to flock to the island of Mindanao, waiting in the wings to strike anew.
Security analysts and military officials say at least 100 foreign terrorist fighters are now holed up with a range of local armed groups that have pledged their allegiance to Islamic State.
Filipino troops needed five months to flush out Islamic State-allied Maute and Abu Sayyaf fighters from their positions in Marawi, which one year later has yet to rise from the ashes of the urban war that left its core in ruins.
Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, claims in an interview with Asia Times that Islamic State foreign fighters are now streaming into Mindanao and that the situation is “getting worse.”
His claim is based on information he collected over several months from state security agencies. “The entry of FTFs (foreign terrorist fighters) to the Philippines continues despite the liberation of Marawi,” Banlaoi told the Asia Times on October 30.
He also says that at least 60 have been identified by state agents through their aliases, while nearly 30 others are unidentified.
The figure is significantly higher than the 48 foreign fighters that the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ intelligence unit said were operating in Mindanao as of January 2018.
A repeat of last year’s months-long siege would be disastrous for the Philippines and the wider region. The urban war left some 1,100 individuals dead, mostly Islamist gunmen, including 32 foreign fighters, according to the Philippine military.
Over 350,000 civilians were displaced by the war that began on May 23 last year, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte to place all of Mindanao under rights-curbing martial law. The order will remain in effect until the end of this year.
Duterte, the country’s first president from Mindanao who claims to have meranaw (Marawi residents refer to themselves as such) roots, declared the liberation of Marawi on October 17, 2017.
More than one year on, though, some 70,000 civilians have yet to return to Marawi’s 250-hectare ground zero, a restriction that has fed local anger and resentment in evacuation centers that have emerged as militant recruitment grounds.
Foreign Islamic State fighters often pose as tourists, students overstaying their visas, foreign workers or economic migrants, and at least 10 of them have been arrested since the start of this year, Banlaoi said.
Foreign Islamic State fighters have recently arrived in Mindanao from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Morocco, Spain, France, Tunisia, Iraq, Somali, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China, he says, based on government monitoring of the movements.
Most are coming from neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia, using Mindanao’s maritime backdoor through the seas of Sulu and Celebes, known as the Sulawesi Sea in Indonesia.
The Malaysian terror suspects usually enter the southern Philippines through the province of Tawi-Tawi from the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo Island, while the Indonesians tend to come through the provinces of Davao Occidental and Sarangani from North Sulawesi.
The three neighboring nations share broad maritime borders in what is considered the second busiest shipping trade route in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“The FTFs regard Mindanao as the new land of jihad, safe haven and alternative home base,” Banlaoi said. “They join local groups to wage jihad in the Philippines on behalf of the Islamic State.”
The foreign Islamic State fighters are luring local militants with the promise of an East Asian Wilaya, or Islamic province, after the failure to establish one in Mindanao after their defeat in Marawi, Banlaoi said.
The Abu Sayyaf Group based in Basilan and Sulu, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters based in Maguindanao, the Ansar Al-Khilafa Philippines based in Sarangani, and the Abu Dar Group in Lanao del Sur, a remnant of the Maute Group, are all coddling the foreign fighters, he said.
Lieutenant Colonel Gerry Besana, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Western Mindanao Command, said Islamic State continues to inspire local Muslim armed groups despite their military defeat last year at Marawi.
He also said that foreigners who pledge allegiance to the Islamic State continue to join local Islamic militant groups, confirming Banlaoi’s assessment.
“Some of these foreign terrorists are coming in through our porous borders,” Besana said, referring to the Sulu and Sulawesi seas that the Philippines shares with Malaysia and Indonesia.
The military official said the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have intensified joint navy patrols in border waters in a multilateral cooperation to fight terror threats.
While acknowledging that security forces alone can not detect foreign terrorist fighters because of the nation’s long coastlines and rugged jungles in Mindanao, the official called on the public to report suspicious foreigners to authorities for verification of their identities.
Local militant groups have instead provided sanctuary to foreign terrorists in the past. That includes well-known Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan,” a bomb-making expert who was killed in Maguindanao province’s Mamasapano town in January 2015.
Marwan was given safe haven by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a Islamic militant group which has recently declared its allegiance to Islamic State and is accused of orchestrating recent bombings in the region.
Besana said foreign terrorist fighters are arriving in Mindanao because of Islamic State’s “waning influence in the Middle East and in other parts of the world.”
Preventing foreign terrorist fighters from entering the country is difficult for the military and other law enforcement agencies because they often disguise their identities. And while Islamic State aligned groups were defeated at Marawi, it’s not clear where or how they intend to strike next, Besana says.