It is good news that the Philippine military, through the Army’s Western Mindanao Command, has lately inflicted heavy casualties on the rebel Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in a series of clashes in Sulu. And the military will continue such operations in order to press for the release of kidnapped hostages who remain in the clutches of the rebel group.
This suggests that President Duterte’s order to the AFP to “destroy” the ASG may be achievable. That, however, is easier said than done.
It is bad news that in another development in Mindanao, the Maute group, an extremist group claiming links to the Islamic State stormed the Lanao del Sur provincial jail on Saturday and freed about two dozen detainees, including eight of their comrades who were arrested just a week earlier. This assault on a government penitentiary constitutes a major blow to law and order. Police and military must move swiftly and firmly to contain the situation.
Marawi City Chief Inspector Parson Asadil said the armed men freed their leader, Hashim Balwawag Maute, who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The men were well armed, he added, and even carried rocket-propelled grenades during their assault on the provincial jail.
On Aug. 22, a joint Army-Philippine National Police checkpoint in Lumbayanague town in Lanao del Sur arrested eight men, including Hashim Balawag Maute, leader of the Maute group, who were reportedly involved in various terrorist activities in Lanao del Sur.
The jailbreak is just the latest mass escape from poorly secured jails, with the incidents often involving Muslim extremists.
We make a point of discussing these two events together in one editorial in order to underscore how precarious and volatile the situation in Mindanao remains to day, despite recent military gains in the conflict, and the greater push for peace and stabilization under President Duterte.
The simultaneous accession of three Mindanaoans to the presidency, the House speakership and the Senate presidency, has had no substantive effect on the situation in Mindanao. Peace must still be won by either strife or negotiation.
What complicate the situation further are signs of an increasing interest by the Islamic State in an alliance with Filipino Muslim rebel groups.
In June, the Islamic State declared in a video that it considered ASG’s Isnilon Hapilon, aka Abu Abdullah, as the representative of IS in the Philippines. Any linkage of the IS and ASG will present a potential problem to our government’s effort to finish off the Abu Sayyaf and the larger bid to forge a lasting solution to conflict and rebellion in our southern regions.
US intelligence and military officials say that “ISIL recognizing Hapilon has put the Philippines directly under its terror network, and this is a game-changer.” The game change could come in the form of greater rebel activity in the South.
President Duterte is indubitably correct in saying that the Philippines should now be ready to confront militarily the threat posed by the Islamic State.
In the past, our government has tended to dismiss any apprehension that the Islamic State may strive to make inroads among disaffected Muslim communities in the South.
The danger is clear and present now. There should be no delay on the part of our government and military in developing a strategy to successfully confront the menace of this rebellion.