PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte said Saturday Abu Sayyaf Islamic militants were hungry to establish a caliphate, as he toughens his stance on the kidnap-for-ransom group accused of a deadly bombing in his home city this month.
Several units of the Abu Sayyaf in the strife-torn southern Philippines have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group but analysts have said they are more interested in funding than ideology.
“They are hungry for a fight to establish a caliphate in Southeast Asia. Caliphate is a kingdom for the Muslims,” Duterte said in a speech to soldiers at a military camp in Gamu, Isabela.
“The problem is that they do not talk on the basis of what school you can give them,” he said referring to previous local services the militants have asked for. “It’s either the caliphate or nothing.”
It was the first time Duterte confirmed suspicions that the terrorist Islamic State has established a presence in the country through Abu Sayyaf militants who have sworn allegiance to the global jihadist network.
Security forces have launched an extensive intelligence operations against jihadists in the country and applied stricter security procedures on public convergence points have been in place following reports that terrorist are out to pulled-off attacks in two key cities in Mindanao.
Security experts claim the terrorists have plans to stage an attack on still unknown targets in Cagayan de Oro City and General Santos City.
But the Armed Forces of the Philippines said it still has to detect any presence of the Abu Sayyaf in Metro Manila, despite threats from the terrorist group that is now the target of unrelenting military pressure in Basilan and Sulu.
“So far, based on our [intelligence] and monitoring, there is still no ASG [Abu Sayyaf Group] presence in Metro Manila and we hope to keep it that way,” said AFP public affairs office chief Col. Edgard Arevalo.
He also reiterated his message to the public to immediately report to authorities suspicious-looking persons and baggage in their areas so that proper action could be taken.
The AFP offensive against the ASG started last Aug. 25 shortly after the bandits beheaded 18-year-old Patrick Almodavar in Sulu after his family failed to pay their P1-million ransom demand.
Some 32 bandits have been killed in the ongoing operations in Sulu while scores have been wounded, as casualties among government troopers number 15 dead and 10 wounded.
The time of the supposed attacks in Cagayan de Oro and General Santos City are still uncertain but government forces has already conducted target hardening in the two key cities.
“The terrorist are just buying time for authorities to relax their security in order for them to launch possible attacks,” a source said who declined to be identified.
“That’s the nature of the terrorist. They will not proceed with their targets if the security is stricter,” the source added.
The possibility of a terror attack was also predicted by Philippine National Police chief Ronald dela Rosa days after the Davao City blast that left 15 people killed and injured 69 others.
“Because of the said incident in Davao, all major cities must be prepared. We don’t want to be panicky, it is better to be sure because we have an ongoing operations,” Dela Rosa said. “Maybe they [perpetrators] are formulating means to ease efforts on them.”
According to security experts, three clusters of terrorists have joined forces into one terrorist group in Central Mindanao and Northern Mindanao—the Daulat-al Islamiya, composed of the criminal Maute Gang, Alkhobar and the Khilafa Islamiya Mindanao.
The Maute group has been severely degraded after military operations but the Alkhobar has hundreds of members with links to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front while the Khilafa Islamiya Mindanao has also lied low after security operations.
Despite Duterte’s declaration, however, the Department of National Defense continued to deny formal links between the Abu Sayyaf and the Islamic State.
“They are ISIS inspired and not actually ISIS supported. They are just ISIS wannabes,” defense department spokesman Arsenio Andolong told AFP, using another name for the Islamic State.
Duterte, who has restarted peace talks with the country’s two major Muslim rebel groups since taking office on June 30, initially pleaded for peace with Abu Sayyaf but has since hardened his position and branded them as terrorists.
In Gamu, Duterte said “Mindanao is a very sticky issue,” adding that he had recently spoken with MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim and vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar, who told him they should revive the peace talks to avert terrorism.
Duterte said that he had also been in touch with Moro National Liberation Front founder Nur Misuari. The problem, however, was that Misuari was “ambivalent” and had “lost control over the young men of the Moro generation.”
“Abu Sayyaf no longer hungers for independence in Mindanao. They are no longer hungry for autonomy. They are hungry for a fight to establish a caliphate, a kingdom, in Southeast Asia,” Duterte said.
Duterte told soldiers to “reorient or reinvent” themselves, given that the Abu Sayyaf was following the trend of “urban terrorism.”
“Your eyes and ears have to be quick,” Duterte said, adding that soldiers also have to become intelligence operatives. “You’re up against explosives here.”
He urged them to study ways of profiling possible bombers and terrorists, even as he said he had given the go signal for Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana “to procure whatever is necessary” for the soldiers—including protective gear and weapons.