ZAMBONGA CITY: Indonesian and Malaysian militants have joined the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in fighting Filipino security forces in the southern province of Basilan in the Muslim autonomous region, reports said.
Abu Sayyaf chieftain Isnilon Hapilon who is based in Basilan province is now the leader of the Islamic State’s new battalion in the Philippines, the Katibah Al-Muhajir or the “Battalion of Migrants” made mostly of Indonesian and Malaysian jihadists.
Malaysian media also quoted Singapore-based terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna as saying that the new battalion in Basilan was set up because of difficulties faced by IS recruits in going to Syria and Iraq.
“Now we have seen that in the Philippines, IS has created Katibah Al-Muhajir, the Battalion of Migrants. They are (made up of) Malaysians and Indonesians,” he was quoted as saying by the New Straits Times. “There are about 10 Malaysians (there now),” he added, citing intelligence on the new battalion.
Just last month, IS released a propaganda video telling its supporters in Southeast Asia to head to the Philippines if they found it hard to go to Syria and Iraq.
“The Philippines can be a very important launching pad to reach Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore because southern Philippines is very centrally located,” Gunaratna said, noting that regional militants have changed their focus to the new battalion base instead of IS’s base in Syria and Iraq.
There was no immediate confirmation from the Philippine military about the new IS battalion, but security forces had previously killed several foreign jihadists in Basilan, the base of the Abu Sayyaf in southern Philippines, just several nautical miles south of Zamboanga City.
Basilan IS base
In January this year, the regional newspaper Mindanao Examiner reported that Basilan province has become the bastion of power of the Abu Sayyaf after it pledged allegiance to the caliph of the Islamic and named Hapilon as its new chieftain.
In a propaganda video released by the Abu Sayyaf late last year, more than two dozen gunmen, including child warriors, led by Hapilon were seen hiking in the hinterlands of Basilan while chanting the “Dawlah Islamiyah (Islamic State)” and reciting an Arabic script of bayah or pledge of allegiance.
Hapilon, alias Abu Abdullah, took over Abu Sayyaf founder Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani who was slain in a police shootout in Basilan in December 1998.
The Abu Sayyaf evolved into a notorious group known for having carried out kidnappings, bombings and other criminal activities in southern Philippines.
The US government has offered a $5 million bounty for Hapilon’s head – dead or alive.
In the video, Hapilon was shown with Abu Harith Al-Filibbieni, reportedly the deputy commander of al-Ansar Infantry Division of the IS, and Mohd Najib Husen (Hussein), alias Abu Annas Al Muhajir, a division head of the Ansar al-Sharia of the IS.
The militants explained in the video that they had previously done the bayah, but did it again in front of their new leaders. It was unknown when the video was recorded, but it was released just after the military’s Western Mindanao Command in Zamboanga City claimed in December that Husen was killed during offensive operations in Basilan.
Husen was with other Malaysian jihadists – Mahmud Ahmad, Muhammad Joraimee Awang Raimee, Amin Baco and Jeknal Adil – who fled to southern Philippines reportedly to recruit militants and send them to “Dar al-Harb (place of war),” referring to Syria and Iraq, where the ISIS established its own caliphate state.
IS-affiliates in Lanao, Maguindanao
In Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur provinces, the radical Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Ansarul Khilafah also pledged allegiance to the ISIS. Radical militants in Indonesia and Malaysia, including the Southeast Asian terror group Jema’ah Islamiyah, had also done the same.
The jihadists also released a video of the IS’s Alhayat Media Center which shows the Philippines as among countries in Southeast Asia they were planning to expand its “Khilafah (caliphate).”
The Abu Sayyaf is now using the Daesh flag and also the Khilafah Islamiyah Movement and other radical groups in Lanao del Sur where local militants of the Ghuraba (Strangers) – both the Ghuraba and Khilafah Islamiyah Movement are headed by a leader called Humam Abdul Najid, who was implicated in the 2013 Cagayan de Oro City bombings.
The Ghuraba is reportedly harboring foreign militants, including an agent of the Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, a group believed to be the original name of now infamous international threat group IS.
Sporadic fighting between security and Abu Sayyaf forces since early this week was also reported in Basilan and Sulu province where the Abu Sayyaf militants had beheaded a Malaysian and two Canadian hostages, and is threatening to execute a kidnapped Norwegian man.