JUSTICE Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II confirmed on Thursday the arrest of an Arab couple in Taguig City last week on the suspicion they are members of the terrorist Islamic State.
Aguirre identified the couple as Kuwaiti national Husayn Al-Dhafiri and his alleged wife Rahaf Zina, a Syrian national, who claims to be pregnant.
He said operatives of the Bureau of Immigration and the Armed Forces of the Philippines arrested the couple on March 25 at Bonifacio Global City in Taguig and the suspects are now detained at the National Bureau of Investigation.
Aguirre said the BI’s Fugitive Search Unit and the AFP arrested the couple based on information provided by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The justice secretary said military intelligence indicated that Al-Dhafiri, also known as Warsh Al-Kuwaiti and Abu Muslim Al-Kuwaiti, was involved in explosives manufacturing and possibly involved in the operational planning of terrorist attacks.
Aguirre said Al-Dhafiri “has links to terrorism and is believed to pose a threat to the national security of the Philippines.”
BI Commissioner Jaime Morente, for his part, said he received reports that the two suspects made several trips to the Philippines in 2016 although the Kuwaiti government had already canceled Al-Dhafiri’s passport.
They are known to have travelled to Cebu and Davao in January this year, where they had stayed for three and four days respectively, Morente added.
Morente said the names used by the two suspects were not in the lookout bulleting when they entered the Philippines but they were not able to present corroborating identification papers when they were questioned by Immigration officials.
Aguirre said the two will be charged on the basis of Immigration laws as they are not properly documented.
The two officials confirmed the arrest of the two suspects shortly after an international conference in Singapore where security experts claimed that veteran Islamic State fighters from Southeast Asia are returning from the Middle East and are expected to rebase in Mindanao.
Instability and the easy flow of weapons have made Mindanao and nearby Philippine islands attractive to extremist groups, said speakers at the Milipol conference on homeland security in Singapore.
“Currently, IS is moving towards creating a territory in southern Philippines. The most recent communication issued by IS has announced that they have formally declared an East Asia division of IS in the southern Philippines,” counter-terrorism analyst Rohan Gunaratna told the conference.
“Our forecast for 2017 is that the threat in this region will grow because of the creation of an IS nucleus in the southern Philippines,” added Gunaratna.
“The instability in the southern Philippines and the availability of weapons, internal displacement, refugee flows… create the ripe conditions for foreign terrorists to come,” he told Agence France Presse after his speech.
Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam also told the conference that the southern Philippines “is becoming an area that is difficult to control despite the best efforts of the Philippine government.”
“So that is an area that can serve as a sanctuary for returning fighters from the Middle East. It can be a place where would-be terrorists can go… they can train, arms seem to move fairly easily into that area,” Shanmugam added.
Parts of Southeast Asia have long struggled with Islamic militancy. Hundreds of radicals from the region, including from Indonesia and Malaysia, have flocked to join IS in Iraq and Syria.
But as IS suffers battlefield setbacks, officials and analysts fear these fighters would return to their home region.
Southeast Asia suffered its first IS-linked attack in January last year when extremists launched a deadly suicide bombing and gun attack in Jakarta.
In Mindanao, which has long battled a Muslim insurgency, a handful of groups have sworn allegiance to IS.