IS is in our backyard

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TOOTS OPLE

ELIZABETH Braza, a public schoolteacher based in Laguna, was chatting with her husband, Roblan, an OFW in Libya. This was their daily habit: Roldan would power up his laptop at lunch break, knowing that his wife would be waiting at the other end. On March 6, 2015, the couple was in the midst of a video chat, when suddenly the screen turned black. Beth waited and waited for her husband to come back online. The next day, she learned that rebels said to belong to IS were able to enter the oil and gas company that her husband was working for. They beheaded the armed guards and took away hostages. Roldan and three other OFWs were among them.

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Last week, a news report in Libya identified the four men as among nine foreigners who were executed by IS elements. The four families continue to pray that this report was untrue.

The cruelty associated with IS endangers not just our OFWs in conflict zones but all of us. We cannot ignore the beheadings done by the Abu Sayyaf Group, which has somehow found a way to link up with other radical extremists, both foreign and local.

I recall that my late father, Blas Ople, as chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, once told a military general: “I am tired of telling our bilateral and regional partners that the Abu Sayyaf is an isolated and spent force, which shall soon be obliterated. Until when must I continue to say this?” My father died nearly 14 years ago. Sadly, the answer to that question remains as vague now, as it was then.

Terrorism was high up in the agenda of the two-day Conference on Peace and the Prevention of Violent Extremism in Southeast Asia held at the Philippine International Convention Center last Friday and Saturday.

In her welcome remarks, Amina Rasul Bernardo, peace advocate, columnist and president of the Philippine Center on Islam and Democracy, said: “We are facing a threat that attacks democracy as we live our lives daily, a threat that spreads like wildfire without really showing itself until it is almost impossible to prevent—like the case of Marawi.”

Indeed, we all have the right to be concerned. With a strong coalition of states fighting against IS, otherwise known as Daesh in the Middle East and Europe, new frontiers for terror appears have opened up in Southeast Asia.

Ambassador Ong Keng Yong of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), in his own welcome remarks, said that terror attacks in various European cities have created “a rising sense of insecurity all around”.

“But Europe is not alone in this. In our region of Southeast Asia, there are an estimated 1,000 fighters that have previously traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State. That led to the development of a Malay-language publication last year to attract Indonesian and Malaysian jihadists to its cause. The so-called Islamic State also established a brigade called Katibah Nusantara, made up of Malay-speaking militants from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.”

The ambassador continued: “These 1,000 fighters will need a home to return to if and when the so-called Islamic State is defeated in the Middle East. The ongoing battle in Marawi in the Southern Philippines underlines this threat. It was reported that Malaysians, Indonesians, and even possibly Arabs, participated in battles in Marawi in late May this year.”

The Marawi siege is quite different from previous arenas of conflict in the southern region because of the involvement of more non-state actors, including foreigners, that have the firepower, training, and iron-clad will to launch a siege that has lasted more than a hundred days.

Dr. Safrulla Dipatuan, chairman of the Bangamoro Development Agency and a Marawi resident, shared this observation: “To our surprise, the siege is now in its fourth month. It was not a secret. Days before, there was already talk.” He said despite the chatter, the military failed to beef up its security measures.

In his speech, former President Fidel Ramos said: “With regard to our struggle to keep IS from taking root in our communities, even our military response needs to be calibrated to meet the challenges of our new adversary. I doubt if counter-insurgency strategies and tactics will have the same success…Asean countries must strengthen and retool its armed forces in order to respond effectively to terror organizations who know no sovereignty, territory and who have mastered the Internet and social media in advancing their goals.”

To protect the people that we love, even ordinary citizens must exert effort to understand the roots of the problem that is IS. Let’s work on a national strategic action plan against further radicalization, especially of our youth, with inputs from all sectors.

The enemies of the state have all the time, skills and resources to wreak havoc on our peaceful way of life. Ignoring them only emboldens them. If we are to fight terrorism, then we must start with helping Marawi City recover in the best and fastest way possible. Let us also look at the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law with fresh eyes. Peace is worth fighting for, because evil is on the march, and IS is now in our southern backyard.

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