THERE is urgent need for unsparing fact-checking and accelerated regional cooperation to address the reported presence of IS fighters in the Philippines and other countries of Southeast Asia.
We take note of the issue because it was raised at the Asia Security Summit in Singapore (the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2017) over the weekend. And it was raised in a way that was both very damaging and alarming for the Philippines.
We refer to the declaration and still unverified statement of the Indonesian defense minister, Ryamizard Ryacudu, wherein he declared that “There are about 1,200 Islamic State (IS) group operatives in the Philippines.”
This is a very serious statement, and Philippine authorities should move speedily to:
Check or dispute the facts of this assertion by offering what we officially know about the situation;
Demand that the Indonesian minister substantiate his claim or withdraw his statement; and
Provide the international community and the media with a truthful and credible account of the real situation.
It will not be enough for us to just reject outright the statement of the minister, because as has been admitted by our government, there is indeed an IS presence in the country and in the fighting in Mindanao.
There has also been a count of IS fighters from foreign countries who have died in the Marawi fighting. And these have been identified as coming from Malaysia, Indonesia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya.
The solution to this confused situation is fact-checking the numbers, so we can all have some clarity about the extent of the IS presence and the threat that it poses to Philippine and regional security.
We should also pay due regard to the Indonesian minister’s aim in ventilating the alarming numbers. He meant to sound an alarm about the danger and to urge intensive regional cooperation to combat the IS menace.
Many Asean countries are commonly troubled about the imminent return to the region of hundreds of Southeast Asian fighters who fought with IS in Syria and Iraq. It was addressed as a hot-button issue in the Singapore summit, which was also attended by US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
It was unavoidable for the Philippines to be a focus of concern for other countries, because it is today in the throes of an intensive struggle in Marawi City, wherein IS foreign fighters are or were involved in the fighting.
We should accept our partial responsibility for the problem, and we should welcome the interest of others in forging a common effort to combat Islamic State terrorism.
At the moment, we do not know the extent of the IS presence in the country.
No effort should be spared to get to the facts and the numbers.
Knowing the facts will surely help in accelerating the resolution of the fighting in Marawi, and accomplishing the mission of martial law in Mindanao.