Is there ISIS presence in the Philippines? Experts disagree


MANILA, Philippines (First published April 14, 2016 10:52 p.m.)  — ISIS on Wednesday has claimed responsibility for the Basilan attack, signaling its presence in the country.

But whether or not the terror group has indeed established existence in the country depends on who you ask.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said that there is no formal ISIS organization in the Philippines during a joint press briefing with US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on Thursday.

“The group in Basilan is trying to organize and be affiliated with ISIS. But so far our information says that there is no formal ISIS organization here in the Philippines,” Gazmin said.

Carter backed his Philippine counterpart saying that what is happening in the country might be in line with the “worldwide phenomenon” where existing terror groups affiliate themselves with ISIL, the term used by the US Defense department to refer to ISIS.

“That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important that ISIL be destroyed in Syria and Iraq, which I’m confident we will do with our coalition partners. And that will demonstrate that there is no such thing as an Islamic state base upon this hateful ideology,” he said.

Statement has ‘strong flavor of ISIS accent’

Maj. Filemon Tan Jr., spokesman of the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), which is on the ground in Basilan, dismissed the claim in the Reuters report as mere propaganda to make it appear that ISIS was behind the attack. 

He even questioned if the source of the report was really ISIS.

What made the claim questionable was its inconsistency with their information on the ground, Tan said. He said that the number of fallen troops remain at 18 and not 23 as claimed by ISIS in the Reuters report.

He also said that ISIS failed to name the people involved in the attack or if it has links with them.

RELATED: Armed Forces doubts ISIS hand in Basilan attack

The number claimed by ISIS to have killed was even higher in its first official communique on attacks in the Philippines.

In a tweet posted by SITE Intelligence Group it said that ISIS claims to have killed nearly 100 troops in ambushes.

This exaggeration, however, is consistent with ISIS language, an international terrorism expert said.

“ISIS always exaggerates their claims because ISIS wants to galvanize potential recruits to show that it's winning,” Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, said in an interview over ANC.

“Certainly the statement has a strong flavor of ISIS accent and propaganda.”

Shift in allegiance

Gunaratna said that the Abu Sayyaf group in Basilan led by Isnilon Hapilon is no longer under Radullan Sahiron, the most senior leader of the Abu Sayyaf.

It has “pledged allegiance to (ISIS leader) Abu Bakr al-Baghdad… so the Basilan section of Abu Sayyaf… is directly reporting to Syria and that is why ISIS claimed this attack,” he explained.

“So as far as ISIS is concerned, the fighters that attacked the Philippine military in Basilan, they are soldiers of the caliphate.”

Gunaratna noted that the Philippine government should be concerned by the statement, especially with the creation of an ISIS nucleus in Basilan.

“ISIS has already established a presence in southern Philippines by co-opting [the] Abu Sayyaf group. To say that ISIS is not in the Philippines is wrong. But certainly ISIS will now expand its activities,” he warned saying that the situation might be harsher for people in Mindanao.

With Moroccan bomb expert Mohammad Khattab among the at least five killed on the side of the Abu Sayyaf, Gunaratna said the government should implement border control and look into banning foreign nationals from entering areas dominated by local extremist groups. — with a report from Roel Pareño

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