Militants with ties to the Islamic State overran a city in the southern Philippines, leading some observers to claim that ISIS is trying to establish a foothold in the country.
Philippine intelligence sources report that around 500 Islamic militants participated in the assault on Marawi, which government security forces have been fighting to liberate since May 23. Among the jihadis are around 40 foreign fighters, Reuters reports. Indonesians, Malaysians, Pakistanis, Saudis, Chechens, Yemenis, Indians, Moroccans, and Turks have been identified among the militants trying to secure control of the city.
Around one hundred militants have been killed in the battle for Marawi, and eight were of foreign origin, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealed Thursday. Civilians report seeing “a lot of foreign-looking fighters.”
Jose Calida, the top Philippine prosecutor, said last week that the violence on the large southern island of Mindanao “is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens”.
“This indicates that foreign terrorist fighters form an unusually high component of the ISIS fighters and emerging ISIS demography in Southeast Asia,” Rohan Gunaratna, Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told ABS-CBN. “ISIS is shrinking in Iraq and Syria, and decentralizing in parts of Asia and the Middle East, and one of the areas where it is expanding is Southeast Asia and the Philippines is the center of gravity,” he explained to Reuters.
The fighting began last week after government security forces received information on Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon, a high-profile terrorist target who has been chosen to lead an ISIS division in Southeast Asia and is on the Department of Justice’s most-wanted list for terrorists, and moved in to capture him.
Maute Group reinforcements rushed the city, pushing out Filipino troops. The radicals, who have sworn allegiance to Islamic State, took over government buildings, raising the black flag of ISIS. They also torched schools and churches, took Christian hostages, executed the police chief, and massacred civilians.
“The rebellion in Mindanao … It is purely ISIS,” Duterte claimed Thursday.
He announced that he suspected something was off when Hapilon left his lair in southern Mindanao. The military suspects the attack was planned in advance and is intended to bring ISIS to the Philippines.
While Islamic insurgencies have plagued the southern Philippines for decades, the intensity has risen over the past year as multiple groups have picked up the ISIS standard. Militants from Southeast Asia fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria released a video last year urging sympathizers to pick up the fight in the southern Philippines.
President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law in the southern Philippines, and the military is conducting ground raids and airstrikes to rid Marawi of militants.
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