THE United States and the Philippines are closely monitoring the recruitment of Filipinos by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the American ambassador said Monday.
“We know that there are foreign fighters who have gone to the Middle East from the United States, from the United Kingdom, from all over Europe, Australia and other places and so we’re concerned about it wherever it may happen,” said US Ambassador to Manila Philip Goldberg at a forum Monday.
“We and the Philippine government are watching it very closely and it concerns us,” he said.
A leaked confidential memo from the Foreign Affairs Department dated March 20 cited reports that said two Filipinos had died fighting alongside Syrian rebels.
The same memo said 100 Filipinos who travelled to Iran had undergone military training and were deployed to Syria, and that there was an increasing number of terrorist groups operating in Malaysia, Indonesia, Xinjiang in China, Thailand, and in Mindanao.
DFA spokesman Charles Jose said he was not aware of such a memo, but Goldberg said he was aware of the reports.
“ISIS as you all know is a different kind of threat, something that the whole world now faces and we have undertaken a very strong policy and series of actions to degrade and destroy this organization,” Goldberg said.
“We think what’s important for the Middle East is important for the wider world including any kind of possibility that there are fighters from other parts of the world that will go to the Middle East then return to their home countries, and I know that has been an issue that has been raised,” the envoy said.
Through the Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the US government and the Armed Forces of the Philippines are working together to monitor the terrorist recruitment activities, Goldberg said.
“I would directly relate it to EDCA. We have had good cooperation between the two armed forces,” he said, adding that the two countries have cooperated in the past “with great success” in dealing with transnational terrorist groups.
“It’s something that we all need to be concerned about and the United States is leading an international coalition to deal with ISIS,” he said.
Earlier, Jose admitted that the DFA has no capability to monitor Filipinos who travel to the Middle East to join the Islamic State.
In August, former President Fidel Ramos and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said that around 100 Muslim youths were joining the jihadists in Iraq.
But Marine Deputy Commandant Jose Cenabre, who had led a task force against the Abu Sayyaf Group, said it was farfetched to believe that Filipino recruits who went to the Middle East would return to sow terror at home.
Former Philippine Constabulary chief Ramon Montano, an anti-terrorism expert, agreed.
“That would not happen as Filipinos in Syria are fighting a different war compared to the one in which the Abu Sayyaf under its leader Abdurajack Janjalani participated in Afghanistan in 1979,” Montano said.
He said some 2,000 Muslims led by Janjalani, were recruited by the US Central Intelligence Agency from Jolo and Tawi-Tawi to fight alongside Afghan rebels against the Soviets.
Of the recruits, however, only 100 actually joined the fighting, Montano said. In Afghanistan, they met Osama bin Laden and joined his movement. They returned to Mindanao in 1990 and gathered radical Muslim rebels to resume the armed struggle for an independent Islamic state.
A separate intelligence reports said, however, that the country has already launched a probe on Filipino Islamists in Syria after two Filipino Muslims were reported killed fighting for the Islamic State militant group.
A senior police intelligence official said Manila was also monitoring young Filipino Muslims who have gone to Syria and Iraq, and then tried to radicalize others on their return home.
“These are disturbing developments that could affect our internal security situation,” the intelligence official, who declined to be named.
He said the intelligence community 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 Mindanao to spread extremist Muslim ideologies.
Rommel Banlaoi of the Center 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,” said Banlaoi, adding that 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 Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria emerged in Iraq in 2006, three years after the US-led invasion, spurred by global terror network Al-Qaeda.
Initially known as the Islamic State in Iraq, the jihadists launched deadly attacks on the Shi’ite majority, oppressed under toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, and American troops. Sunni tribes rose up against them.
Jihadists rallied to the rebellion in neighboring Syria in July 2011, at first joining forces with the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s Syria franchise, battling to topple the regime.
In April 2013, they announced the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and within months the group began to establish full control over areas that had fallen into rebel hands by driving out its competitors.
In January, deadly clashes erupted between ISIL and Al-Nusra and other rebel groups which refused to fight under the jihadists’ banner and instead accused them of atrocities.
In June, ISIL declared an Islamic caliphate in territory it controls in northern Syria and Iraq, renamed itself the Islamic State (IS) and ordered Muslims to obey its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Unlike other groups battling Syria’s regime, members of IS consider themselves to be running a state, complete with judicial, military, educational, diplomatic and financial institutions that they say follow Islamic law.
There are no precise figures, but the Central Intelligence Agency said IS militants in Iraq and Syria now have about 20,000 to 31,500 fighters on the ground.
IS recruits through social networks, but jihadists have also joined the group locally out of fear or lured by attractive salaries.
Many IS commanders in both Iraq and Syria are ex-members of Saddam Hussein’s army and are skilled fighters.
In Syria, IS controls about 25 percent of the country or 45,000 square kilometers of territory, while in Iraq it holds sway over 170,000 square kilometers, or 40 percent of the country.
Most of this land is desert.
In Syria, the “caliphate” announced in June spreads from Manbaj in the northern province of Aleppo, across the northeastern provinces of Raqa and Hasakeh to the eastern oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor and to the Albu Kamal border town with Iraq.
In Iraq, it controls Sunni regions in the north and west, including the second biggest city of Mosul.
IS has attracted Western jihadists through the use of spectacular “Hollywood-style” demonstrations of force -- brutal beheadings and a swift land-grab -- said Lebanese writer Hazem al-Amin. Other experts say IS’s brand of fundamentalist Islam has attracted followers, especially among the disenchanted.
Experts say that through a combination of racketeering, kidnapping for ransom and other criminal activities, as well as donations from wealthy private individuals in the Gulf, the group has built up a financial war chest that is the envy of militant organizations the world over. – With AFP
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