Months after being routed from the southern city of Marawi, extremists are waging a fresh and deadly bid to set up a Southeast Asian caliphate in the same region, the military warned Friday.
The gunmen have mustered a force of about 200 and fought a series of skirmishes with the security forces this year after government forces retook Marawi last October, Colonel Romeo Brawner said.
“They have not abandoned their objective to create a caliphate in Southeast Asia,” said Brawner, a senior commander for a military task force that has since been protecting Marawi.
“Mindanao is the most fertile ground,” he said. “Our countrymen are more vulnerable (to recruitment).”
Struggling with widespread poverty and armed Muslim insurgencies seeking independence or self-rule, Mindanao must improve poor supervision of Islamic schools or madrasas where most young gunmen are recruited, he added.
He said the armed forces were retooling to meet the challenge of the Maute group, which occupied Marawi over five months and has pledged allegiance to Islamic State group.
Gunmen who escaped during the early days of the US-backed operation to recapture Marawi are leading the recruitment effort, flush with cash, guns and jewelry looted from the city’s banks and private homes, Brawner said.
The recruits are mostly locals, but an unspecified number of Indonesians, some with bomb-making skills, have recently arrived there, he said.
‘Ready for another Marawi’
Mindanao military officials said Maute gunmen murdered three traders in the town of Piagapo, near Marawi, in November.
The military killed three jihadists in Pantar, another neighboring town, on February 8, while police last month arrested three suspects over the Piagapo merchant killings.
The military also reported skirmishes with Maute gunmen in the towns of Masiu and Pagayawan near Marawi last month.
The renewed fighting came after President Rodrigo Duterte and other political leaders in Mindanao warned of a potential repeat of the Marawi siege that claimed more than 1,100 lives.
Duterte has imposed martial law over Mindanao until the end of the year in an effort to curb the militants’ activities.
Ebrahim Murad, head of the Philippines’ main Muslim rebel group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a peace treaty with Manila in 2014, had also warned that extremists were recruiting and could seize another city.
Murad said the 10,000-member MILF was battling pro-IS groups for influence in schools as the jihadists worked to infiltrate madrasas and secular universities.
At the same time, IS gunmen were making their way into the southern Philippines from Malaysia and Indonesia, he added, but gave no estimates.
On Friday, Brawner said the military is ready for another Marawi, saying the Maute forces “do not as yet have the capability to launch another attack like what they did in Marawi.”
“We are ready for another Marawi siege, whether it happens in Marawi or elsewhere,” he told reporters. “We are preparing for another urban warfare. In the eventuality that something similar to Marawi City happens, we should be ready,” HE SAID.
“So from the lessons that we learned, we are now rewriting our doctrines, we are now reorganizing our units. We are re-equipping and re-training. So from the side of the Armed Forces, handa po kami (we are ready),” he added.
Brawner admitted that the defeated terrorists are finding ways to recruit new members.
But he said Marawi City is “relatively safe and secure.”
With Murad’s warning, Brawner expressed hope that the MILF would join the government and fight the common enemy.
“Kaya nga po nakikiusap din kami sa iba’t ibang mga grupo (That’s why we’re asking diffrent groups) to help us in our advocacy to counter violent extremism and radicalism,” Brawner said.
“We are banking on the MILF to help us with this. Sabi naman po nila (They said) that they do not believe in violent extremism. So sana po ay maging katulong namin sila dito sa kampanya (We hope they could help us here in the campaign), our advocacy against violent extremism, terrorism, and radicalism,” he added.