SYDNEY: A day after the Defense minister of Indonesia claimed that there are 1,200 operatives of the Islamic State (IS) in the Philippines, top US and Australian officials warned that battle-hardened and angry foreign fighters may return to Southeast Asia from the Middle East and take up arms in their own countries.
The warning follows the weekend terror attacks in London, which were claimed by the Islamic State group, and comes amid a growing jihadist threat in the Philippines.
IS fighters will “come back with battlefield skills, they’ll come back with hardened ideology, they’ll come back angry, frustrated, and we need to be very aware of that,” Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne said.
She was speaking at an Australia-US ministerial summit also attended by Pentagon chief Jim Mattis, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop.
Reacting to the London attacks, Mattis said: “We are united… in our resolve, even against an enemy that thinks by hurting us, they can scare us. Well, we don’t scare.”
US President Donald Trump has instructed the Pentagon to “annihilate” IS to try to prevent foreign fighters from escaping and returning home as they lose ground in Iraq and Syria.
The aim is to encircle and kill as many jihadists as possible in place, rather than letting them exit a city and targeting them as they flee. This reflects an increasing urgent attempt to stop the fighters bringing their military expertise and ideology back to the West.
“Before, we were shelling them from one town to another,” Mattis said.
“We now take the time… to make certain that foreign fighters do not stay to return to Paris, France, to Australia, to wherever they came from, and bring their message of hatred and their skills back to those places and attack innocent people.”
The issue of countering terrorism was high on the agenda at Monday’s annual talks.
Australian officials say they have prevented 12 terror attacks on home soil since 2014 with more than 60 people charged.
In the Philippines, hundreds of civilians are trapped by fighting between the military and Islamist militants who have overrun the city of Marawi on the restive southern island of Mindanao.
On Monday, a video surfaced on social media showing how militants desecrated the Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Marawi City.
The clip, believed to have been taken during the first week of the siege, showed militants stomping and smashing statues of the Virgin Mary and other saints, including a huge statue of Jesus Christ nailed on a wooden cross.
They also tore and burn pages of the Bible and photographs of Pope Francis at the Cathedral’s altar. Militants destroyed and burned the Credence Table and Tabernacle while chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great).
The short video also appeared on the ISIS website.
Also on Sunday, the United States turned over weapons and equipment to the Philippine Marine Corps to be used by troops fighting the Maute Group in Marawi.
Maj. Gen. Emmanuel Salamat, PMC Commandant, accepted the weapons at the Marines’ Headquarters in Taguig City.
“This is a long-standing cooperation with our US counterpart so we are just continuing our cooperation and engagement and this is also a product of long years of hard work,” Salamat said in an interview.
‘This is part of the US commitment, of their National Defense…Act, wherein our US counterpart [were]allowed to participate in supporting our combat [against]terrorism and supporting [the Armed Forces of the Philippines],” he added.
The weapons include 300 M4 carbines, 200 Glock 21 pistols, 4 M134D Gatling-style machine guns and 100 M203 grenade launchers.
The Joint United States Military Assistance Group (Jusmag), represented by its officials, also delivered 25 new Combat Rubber Raiding Craft with outboard motors.
Salamat said the weapons and equipment will be sent to Marawi City.
“We will give this to our troops, priority troops in Marawi City,” he said.
Salamat said the transfer of equipment and continued bilateral training and exercises reflect the commitment of the US to work with the Philippine government in building communities and eradicating global terror networks.
WITH AL JACINTO AND DEMPSEY REYES