US Ambassador Philip Goldberg said Friday Washington is looking into the assassination attempt on two Saudi clerics in the southern Philippine port city of Zamboanga, and whether the incident has any links to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In an exclusive roundtable interview with The Manila Times editors and reporters on Friday, Goldberg said no evidence has surfaced to link the shooting of cleric Aaidh ibn Abdullah al-Qarni and Sheik Turki Assaegh, the religious attaché of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Manila to the ISIS, an international terror network that has called on followers to launch “lone wolf” attacks against ISIS targets.
“I don’t think we’ve seen any direct link and that’s why we said … to investigate what happened in the assassination attempt is very important. Who are these people, what are their connections or do they have anything to do with ISIS?” Goldberg said, emphasizing the need for information on whether the victim was on any ISIS hit list. “We have to have that kind of information before we can make any kind of statement.”
However, there are claims that Al-Qarni is on the ISIS hit list.
The US envoy described as “troubling” the information that some clerics based in Mindanao, including Jamil Yahya, have pledged allegiance to the ISIS in Marawi City.
Yahya is said to be leading more than 100 people, including women and children.
“What I do think is, we do see a troubling kind of information here. The very fact that they’re claiming this allegiance is troubling. So we have to see exactly whether that is boasting of some sort [for]whatever reason, maybe they get money or, maybe, they think there [is]a lot of heightened prestige [awaiting them if they do whatever it is that they are doing]in Mindanao,” he added.
The US envoy said with all sorts of claims being made in public, Filipinos should be discerning about the information that they get.
“So we follow this [assassination attempt]very closely. We are obviously concerned whenever we hear those terms used by the ISIS. But I think people have to look [at incidents like this]also realistically. I think they need to see exactly who’s behind this event, the Zamboanga shooting, and what exactly happened,” Goldberd added.
He admitted though that there were indeed people who tried to align themselves, at least historically, with ISIS.
“You know, you can separate [them]in two categories. One… the people who claimed some sort of connection to ISIS or al-Qaeda, who are just projecting that [connection]because of their own views and [rhetoric]and say that we just did that [Zamboanga slay try] because of this connection,” Goldberg said.
“We, in the United States, and [in]Europe, we’ve seen events that are homegrown or in some cases with some connection [to ISIS], perhaps, like in Jakarta, and so that’s the second category. You look to see if there is really a connection through funding or through planning with ISIS or with al-Qaeda,” he added.
Goldberg said everybody is concerned about the issue of foreign fighters and of people going to the Middle East from various countries, but said they do not have confirmation of whether the travelers include Filipinos.
“So it is more than something rhetorical and that’s what we haven’t seen and we [would]have to watch it closely. We have to watch that very closely here, in the region and in the world. We have to do in all our power to try to prevent that from happening, the phenomen[on][of]foreign fighters [who are]going to Middle East and how [these]connections are made,” he added.
Goldberg dismissed claims that the Philippine Congress’ failure to enact into law the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) has something to do with escalating attacks in Mindanao by militants fighting in the name of ISIS.
“This [claim]has been there before… I was in Mindanao last month, in Marawi [City], in Zamboanga. There are people who are very disappointed with the BBL not going through… but they are moderate in their views and look to people whether [they are from]the past, this happened in the 1990s with the other group but they continue fighting or struggl[ing],” he said, apparently referring to the Moro National Liberation Front.
The proposed BBL is a product of a peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Goldberg observed that while groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) may seem to have views about supporting transnational jihadist movements, the people in Mindanao, like the Moro groups, do not like the idea of backing and linking up with such movements.
“The Moro groups are looking [for]something different, they are not jihadist groups… The BIFF, one of those who pledge[d]allegiance to ISIS, was part of those disaffected people [from]the Moro groups,” he said.
“But you do want to prevent [any]member who may want to take advantage of this situation from joining those jihadist groups,” Goldberg added.
The US, according to the ambassador, is working closely with the Philippine government to monitor the threat of ISIS in the country and in Southeast Asia.
“We are already collaborating very closely, we exchange information… we have a counter-terrorism cooperation. We handled [a]joint task force operation in Mindanao last year, as well as an increase[d]capacity [of]the Philippines [to deal with terrorism]. We still work very closely with the Special Operations forces of the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines], the SAF [Special Action Force], through our intelligence cooperation,” he said.
“So we have to work very closely with our Philippine colleagues to see what’s going on,” Goldberg added.