MANILA – Two Muslim militants have been arrested with guns, explosives and Islamic State group-style black flags in a northern Philippine province far from the traditional territory of Muslim militants in the volatile south, police said Monday.
But national police chief Gen. Oscar Albayalde said the arrest on Thursday of the two militants in Baggao town in Cagayan province at the northern tip of Luzon island was not an indication that IS-linked militants have expanded their power far beyond their traditional southern bases.
The militants, Altero Bello and Greg Bello, belonged to an IS-aligned jihadi group named Syuful Khilafa Fi Luzon, which was established in 2016 but does not have any record of involvement in any attacks in the largely Roman Catholic northern region, a police report said.
“In our view, these groups only want to be known and so far they have not carried out any hostilities or atrocities in that region,” Albayalde said at a news conference in the capital. “When we monitor something like this, the police do preventive measures with the military.”
Police, backed by army troops, seized four pistols, two homemade bombs and two IS-style black flags and ammunition from each of the houses of the two militants.
Several small Muslim armed groups in the south, the homeland of minority Muslims in the largely Roman Catholic nation, began pledging support for the Islamic State group in 2015 and picked an IS-designated leader, Isnilon Hapilon, in 2016.
Hapilon led hundreds of black flag-waving militants, including foreign fighters, in a devastating siege of southern Marawi city that began in May 2017. U.S.-backed Filipino forces ended the audacious attack after five months.
Hapilon and several other local and foreign militant leaders were killed in the fighting and their groups have been struggling to recover since then amid continuing military offensives, officials said.
A peace deal between the government and the largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has started to transform Muslim fighters into administrators of their own five-province autonomous region this year. Officials hope the peace accord will help fight the spread of extremism and poverty that could help the Islamic State group gain a foothold in the region.