The Armed Forces of the Philippines is calling for tougher immigration restrictions to keep terrorists out of the country given the sharp surge in violent extremism in recent months, according to local media reports.
Filipino forces have been fighting an intense battle for almost a month to liberate Marawi, a city in the southern Philippines overrun by Muslim militants with ties to the Islamic State. Several hundred people have been killed in the ongoing conflict since it began in May. In a separate incident, a gunman set fire to a casino, killing around 40 people. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack, but authorities deny that the incident was an act of terrorism, arguing that it is more likely the attack was a robbery.
The fight for Marawi has left over 300 people — including civilians, soldiers, and militants — dead. The militants torched schools and churches, took hostages, and executed Christians. Large sections of the city have been devastated by the fighting.
“We must reinforce or strengthen our immigration procedures,” Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, the Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson, said at a press conference Monday. “This is the first line of defense.” His statement followed reports that foreign terrorists had entered the country by way of the domestic airports.
He called for a closer look at the Human Security Act, adding that there is much that can be done to stop individuals with destructive intentions from entering. Immigration centers at airports are reportedly understaffed and underpaid, limiting their effectiveness.
The Human Security Act, which was passed into law in 2007, is meant to “protect life, liberty, and property from acts of terrorism, to condemn terrorism as inimical and dangerous to the national security of the country and to the welfare of the people, and to make terrorism a crime against the Filipino people, against humanity, and against the law of nations.”
The militants that stormed Marawi were initially believed to be strictly linked with local insurgencies, including Abu Sayaff and the Maute Group, with the vast majority of the fighters coming from the latter. Maute, like Abu Sayaff, flies the same black standard as ISIS. As the battle raged on, the military discovered foreign fighters among the ranks of the militants, raising concerns that ISIS is attempting to secure a strong foothold in the Philippines for future operations across Southeast Asia.
There are an estimated 40 foreign jihadis among the 500 militants trying to take control of Marawi. Indonesians, Malaysians, Pakistanis, Saudis, Chechens, Yemenis, Indians, Moroccans and Turks are among the fighters.
The Trump administration, which has called for immigration and travel restrictions for terror-prone countries despite persistent domestic opposition, has offered its support to the Philippines as it fights terrorism in its southern regions. “These cowardly terrorists killed Philippine law enforcement officials and endangered the lives of innocent citizens,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement in late May. “The US is a proud ally of the Philippines and we will continue to work with the Philippines to address shared threats to the peace and security of our countries.”
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