THE Philippines faces a much bigger terrorism threat than the one posed by the Islamic State (IS)-linked Maute group that attacked Marawi City last month – the likelihood of the country becoming the new base of extremists forced out of the Middle East, officials have warned.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Eduardo Año raised the possibility of more extremists transferring to Southeast Asia and putting up a new base of operations, following a regional security meeting on Thursday.
“In reality, when [IS] loses its ground in Iraq and Syria, some of these jihadists and extremist will be looking for land bases or areas outside Iraq and Syria,” Cayetano said in an interview.
Año said the military had monitored 40 foreign terrorists in the country, but not all of them were in Marawi. About 20 of the foreign terrorists monitored were Indonesians, and six were Malaysians.
“Out of the 40 (foreign terrorists) half of the number were scattered in different areas, but most of them have been killed already,” the AFP chief said.
But Año said more foreign fighters were attempting to penetrate the region as well as the Philippines, amid advances by Western forces against the IS.
“We expect that those terrorists who will be displaced will go to Asia, and because of the Marawi uprising the Philippines is now like a magnet,” he said.
On Thursday, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed that the socioeconomic development of residents who have been traumatized by terrorism were paramount in combating the expanding influence of groups like the IS in Southeast Asia.
“We agreed to help each other in socioeconomic development to stop extremism not only by bullets but also by ideology,” Cayetano said after the trilateral meeting at the Conrad Hotel in Pasay City on Thursday.
Cayetano said the Philippines needed the help of Malaysia and Indonesia in destroying the narrative of extremism that sowed division and conflict between Muslims and Christians.
“So with the help of Malaysia and Indonesia we will be able to combat [IS] not only through arms but also through education and communication,” he said.
For the Philippines, Cayetano said, all departments of government—from education, social services, health and livelihood—must come up with plans to help fight extremist ideology by showing young people that there were other ideas that were not extreme and violent.
He warned that more attacks were likely to happen and with more participants, the risks would be bigger.
Cayetano warned that Southeast Asia was a potential IS target, and the vulnerability of the Philippines compared with other countries could be higher because of the degree of freedom in the country.
He said extremists might choose to go to smaller provinces or smaller areas in Mindanao, radicalize young Muslims, sell portions of their land and convince non-Muslims that this was “legitimate jihad.”
“So this is what we would do to prevent Southeast Asia from falling into the hands of extremist so that they will not have a foothold in radicalizing,” Cayetano said.