AFTER repeatedly denying that Filipino jihadists have joined the “holy war” being waged by the Islamic State (IS) of Syria and Iraq in the Middle East, the government admitted Friday the existence of a confidential memo on terrorist recruitment activities here.
The confidential memo on “Countering the threat of foreign fighters,” a copy of which was obtained by the Interaksyon news site, dealt with the possible involvement of Filipino fighters in Syria, two of whom were supposedly killed in March.
The memo was written by retired police general Felizardo Serapio Jr., now executive director of the Philippine Center for Transnational Crime, for Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, but Serapio did not reply to repeated calls for comment.
Other Palace officials also declined to comment, including Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda and National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia.
When Ochoa, who was the addressee of the memo, was asked about the matter, Assistant Secretary Emmanuel David Eva III replied in his stead and said: “We cannot comment on the matter as the subject of the memo is confidential and involves matters of national security.”
In the memo, Serapio said extremist proliferation in the Philippines “is a strongly troubling thought to contend with considering that only intermittent information are made available.”
He cited two reports from the Department of Foreign Affairs, which has repeatedly denied receiving reports of Filipino jihadists in Syria, claiming that at least two Filipino were killed while fighting for the terrorists.
“It further asserts a well-founded fear that some Filipino fighters, proudly pronouncing themselves as veterans, have already returned to the country and are teaching the cause of Islamic fundamentalists and extremists in Syria,” the memo read.
Last July, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) leader Samer Samsudin said about 200 Filipinos left the country in a “do or die” mission to fight alongside Islamic State rebels and were led by a BIFF leader identified as Mohamad Husin Aljabouree.
Samsudin said the BIFF fighters were able to slip out of the country from their hideout in Maguindanao by using the country’s backdoor to Malaysia, where they boarded a plane bound to the Middle East.
Also in July, videos of Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon showing him pledging allegiance to the Islamic State appeared on YouTube, but security officials said it was only a ploy for raise money.
In the memo, Serapio proposed the formation of a technical working group to create a database for the monitoring and profiling of jihadists.
On Friday, Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario said the department would hold discussions with members of the inter-agency security group on the issue of Filipinos joining wars in the Middle East.
Del Rosario said it was the Philippine National Police and other security agencies that are responsible for monitoring Filipinos who have gone to Iraq or Syria to fight for the Islamic State.
“I have to talk to the members of the inter-agency group who are monitoring this.. [the] security people as well as the PNP,” Del Rosario told reporters.
His statement follows reports of a confidential department memo dated March 20 to President Benigno Aquino III on the deaths of two Filipinos allegedly fighting alongside the Syrian rebels.
The memo stated that 100 Filipinos who traveled to Iran had undergone military training and were deployed to Syria.
The memo also said that an increasing number of the terrorist recruitment groups have been already been established in Malaysia, Indonesia, Xinjiang in the People’s Republic of China, Thailand, and the southern Philippines.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said he was not aware of such a memo, however.
In August, Jose admitted that the department had no capability to monitor the movement of Filipino recruits in Syria and Iraq because they can take many routes to get there.
“In Iraq and Syria, we already have a total deployment ban for a long time. We don’t let Filipinos leave if that is their destination,” Jose said.
But he acknowledged that these recruits could fly to another country before heading for the Middle East.
“How can the Philippine Embassy in Baghdad monitor Filipinos that are up in the mountains unless that have their passport renewed?” he added.
In August, former President Fidel Ramos and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said that about 100 Muslim youths are joining the Jihadists in Iraq.
Also on Friday, a BIFF field commander, Samer Samsuin, vowed his group would fight alongside Syrian rebels seeking to topple the Syrian government, but denied that two Filipino fighters had died in the conflict.
The BIFF said it has sent some 200 warriors to Syria and Iraq to help fellow Muslim rebels fight the governments of Syria and Iraq.
He also said they would not be sending additional fighters to Syria.
The Armed Forces Public Affairs Office continued to deny knowing about the recruitment of Filipino fighters.
“We have no information on that, we will look into it,” said Public Affairs Officer Col. Ramon Zagala.
On Friday, the US Central Intelligence Agency said Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria now have 20,000 to 31,500 fighters on the ground, much higher than a previous estimate of 10,000.
Among those in Syria are 15,000 foreign fighters including 2,000 Westerners, some of whom have joined IS, a US intelligence official said.
The figures were revealed one day after President Barack Obama vowed to expand an offensive against IS extremists, a plan which foresees new air strikes against IS in Syria, expanded attacks in Iraq and new support for Iraqi government forces.
“CIA assesses the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS) can muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria, based on a new review of all-source intelligence reports from May to August,” CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani said in a statement.
“This new total reflects an increase in members because of stronger recruitment since June following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity, and additional intelligence,” he said.
Senior US officials have voiced concern at the presence of foreign fighters among the Sunni extremists who hold Western passports, potentially enabling them to return from the battlefield prepared to carry out terror attacks in Europe or the United States.
IS militants have seized large swathes of territory in Iraq in recent months, displaying brutal tactics and releasing videos of the grisly executions of two American reporters.
The White House has insisted that President Barack Obama is authorized to strike IS in Iraq and Syria under a law passed by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
However Obama learned Thursday that he may have a wait on his hands before Congress signs off on his plan to train and equip Syrian rebels, a key plank in his strategy to destroy Islamic State radicals.
Also on Thursday the Pentagon announced that US combat aircraft will soon start flying out of a base in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq as part of a “more aggressive” air campaign against IS jihadists.
The use of Arbil air base reflects the broadening US offensive, though attack helicopters already have been flying out of bases in Iraq.
The announcement came on the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 -- a day that fell, in a trace of bitter irony, only hours after Obama’s remarks steeling Americans for a battle against Muslim fanaticism in the Middle East. With Francisco Tuyay, AFP
COMMENT DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted on this Web site are not in any way endorsed by Manila Standard. Comments are views by manilastandard.net readers who exercise their right to free expression and they do not necessarily represent or reflect the position or viewpoint of manilastandard.net. While reserving this publication’s right to delete comments that are deemed offensive, indecent or inconsistent with Manila Standard editorial standards, Manila Standard may not be held liable for any false information posted by readers in this comments section.