The leader of a faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is now the apparent commander of jihadists’ groups in Southeast Asia.
Isnilon Hapilon, who leads the ASG faction al-Harakat al-Islamiyah in Basilan province in southern Mindanao, has been named to head the groups by Abu Baker al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This assessment was based by Abu Abdulrahman al-Filibini–who speaks the Filipino language fluently–on a supposedly recent video.
The ASG, according to Abdulrahman, has called on the jihadists’ groups to join forces with Hapilon, who has a bounty of $5 million on his head under the United States Rewards for Justice Program.
Abdulrahman threatened to wage war against the incoming government, telling the groups to unite regardless of the tribes to which they belong.
He also told their followers not to be swayed by “deceptive tactics” of the tough-talking President-elect Rodrigo Duterte.
Abdulrahman called the Philippines as an enemy of the ISIS because Filipinos “worship the cross.”
In the video, he and two Southeast Asian ISIS fighters are shown leading the beheading of three alleged spies.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) dismissed the video as mere propaganda of the jihadists’ groups that should not be shared with the public as “authorities are working on this. They [those behind the production of the video] can be identified, and they can be hunted down.”
The AFP apparently had obtained a copy or copies of the video.
Its spokesman, Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, did not provide further details to the media about the video but intelligence sources said Abdulrahman is most likely to be among those who organized the Khilafah Islamiyah Movement (KIM), along with Mohd Amin Baco and Humam Abdulnajid, years ago.
The KIM is a local jihadists’ group.
Terrorism experts, however, suggested that the video is significant, not just propaganda, and represents a serious threat as “this acknowledges support from militants in Indonesia and Malaysia.”
“It suggests there will be more efforts to get people to actually go to Mindanao to launch operations from there,” Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based security expert, was quoted as saying in a Reuters report.
“We are definitely expecting more attacks in region,” said another security expert, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, chief of Malaysia’s police counter-terrorism unit, apparently referring to Mindanao.
Mindanao has been suffering from a decades-long conflict and many peace agreements have been forged between the government and the Moro rebels, who are fighting for an independent Islamic state in southern Philippines.
The rebels had apparently settled for autonomy greater than that under the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
One of the largest Moro rebels in the South, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has vowed to pursue the current Mindanao peace process with the Duterte administration.
Peace, not war
A Muslim scholar has claimed that recruitment of jihadists is going on in the autonomous region.
“Abu Mo’min,” founding member of a prominent organization of Muslim scholars in the Philippines, said the recruiters are using Facebook and iCOM or two-way radio to disseminate their agenda and inviting young Moros, particularly those “poor and helpless who can easily be swayed” to join their cause.
He pointed out that his organization is helping counter jihadists’ doctrines that are “totally not acceptable” and against true teachings of Islam.
“Islam teaches peace, not to wage war and kill innocent people,” Mo’min said.
The ISIS claims that around 300 Filipino soldiers have been killed in clashes with their 10 battalions from the provinces of Basilan, Sulu, North Cotabato, South Cotabato, Sarangani and Lanao del Sur since January.
Military officials, however, called the claim false and mere propaganda.
Operations against local followers of the ISIS were halted recently in deference to the start of the holy month of Ramadan.
The ASG recently beheaded two of its hostages–Robert Hall and John Ridsdel, both Canadians–after deadlines to pay ransoms for their release lapsed.
It had initially demanded P1 billion each for the Canadians and two other captives but lowered it to P300 million each.
The kidnappers are still holding other foreigners including Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad, who was snatched on Samal Island, Davao del Norte province, last September 21, 2015, along with Hall, Ridsdel and a Filipino woman, Maritess Flor.
Flor was released recently after successful negotiations led by Secretary Jesus Dureza, the peace adviser of incoming President Duterte.
Ongoing private negotiations for Sekkingstad’s release were reportedly underway.
A few days before Flor’s release, Duterte told to the ASG to “surrender unconditionally” and release their prisoners and hostages as there will be a time for “reckoning.”
The small but notorious ASG, which had previous bonded with the al-Qaeda and Jama’ah Islamiyah terrorist networks, pledged allegiance to the ISIS in 2014 together with other local jihadists’ groups.
The groups include the KIM, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Rajah Solaiman Movement and Ansarul Khilafah in the Philippines based in Sarangani.