Marawi an Asian hub for ISIS?
Terror group rapidly expanding its influence in South-east Asia
MARAWI: Dozens of foreign jihadists have fought side-by-side with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) sympathisers against security forces in the southern Philippines over the past week, evidence that the restive region is fast becoming an Asian hub for the ultra-radical group.
A Philippines intelligence source said that of the 400 to 500 marauding fighters who overran Marawi City on the island of Mindanao last Tuesday, as many as 40 had recently come from overseas, including from countries in the Middle East.
The source said they included Indonesians, Malaysians, at least one Pakistani, a Saudi, a Chechen, a Yemeni, an Indian, a Moroccan and one man with a Turkish passport.
"ISIS is shrinking in Iraq and Syria, and decentralising in parts of Asia and the Middle East," said Mr Rohan Gunaratna, a security expert at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
"One of the areas where it is expanding is South-east Asia and the Philippines is the centre of gravity."
Mindanao has been roiled for decades by bandits, local insurgencies and separatist movements.
But officials have long warned that the poverty, lawlessness and porous borders of Mindanao's predominantly Muslim areas mean it could become a base for radicals from elsewhere in South-east Asia and beyond, especially as ISIS fighters are driven out of Iraq and Syria.
Although ISIS and groups affiliated to the movement have claimed several attacks across South-east Asia in the last two years, the battle in Marawi City was the first long drawn-out confrontation with security forces.
Yesterday, a week after the fighting began, the government said it was close to retaking the city.
Last year, South-east Asian militants fighting for ISIS in Syria released a video urging their countrymen to join the cause in the southern Philippines or launch attacks at home rather than attempting to travel to Syria.
Jakarta-based terrorism expert Sidney Jones passed to Reuters some recent messages in a chatroom of the Telegram app used by ISIS supporters.
In one, a user reported that he was in the heart of Marawi City where he could see the army "run like pigs" and "their filthy blood mix with the dead bodies of their comrades".
He asked others in the group to pass information on to the Amaq News Agency, a mouthpiece for ISIS.
Another user replied, using an Arabic word meaning pilgrimage: "Hijrah to the Philippines. Door is opening."
The clash in Marawi City began with an army raid to capture Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of Abu Sayyaf, a group notorious for piracy and for kidnapping and beheading Westerners.
Abu Sayyaf and a relatively new group called Maute, both of which have pledged allegiance to ISIS, have fought alongside each other in Marawi City, torching a hospital and a cathedral, and kidnapping a Catholic priest. - REUTERS
Philippines urges rebels to surrender
MARAWI: The Philippine military urged militants occupying a southern city to turn themselves in yesterday, the eighth day of a push by security forces using armoured vehicles and helicopters to eliminate the gunmen.
The government said it is close to retaking Marawi from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-linked Maute group, which seized parts of the city after a failed attempt by security forces to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the militants' so-called emir of South-east Asia.
"We call on the terrorists to surrender while there is an opportunity," Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla told reporters.
More than 100 people have been killed in the seige- most of them militants - and most of the city's residents have fled.
A Catholic priest abducted with a dozen other civilians last week by the militants appealed to President Rodrigo Duterte to stop the operation via ISIS' Telegram channel.
Father Teresito Soganub said: We are asking your help to please give what your enemies are asking for.
"We still want to live for another day, a month and a few years, please consider us Mr President." - REUTERS