ISIS claims Basilan attack, but army skeptical

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL or Da'esch) group claimed responsibility for the deadly April 9 clash in Basilan that left 18 soldiers and 5 militants dead, but the Philippine military is skeptical about the claim.

A statement from ISIS said the group was "able to detonate 7 trucks carrying soldiers," according to a Reuters report Wednesday, April 13.

The statement also claims only 3 militants died in the 10-hour encounter Saturday in Tipo-Tipo, Basilan.

However, the military raised doubts on the claim, saying there were no trucks hit by bombs during the fighting, CNN Philippines reported Thursday, April 14.

Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said the military believes it is part of ISIS' propaganda in the country.

Padilla also said the military, so far, has yet to see a direct link between the Abu Sayyaf Group and ISIS.

Earlier, Rohan Gunaratna, the head of Singapore's International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research, said that the April 9 encounter was the first major ISIS attack on Philippine soil.

Gunaratna said that the group responsible for the attack was led by Isnilon Hapilon, who is seen as the leader of ISIS in the Philippines. He said the group is "no longer loyal to Radullan Sahiron, the Abu Sayyaf leader."

Hapilon, who reportedly swore allegiance to ISIS back in 2014, carries a reward of up to $5 million under the US Rewards for Justice Program.

Back in January, experts have warned not to underestimate the threat of ISIS in the Philippines. Experts told Rappler then that ISIS will be exploiting homegrown conflicts in Southeast Asia, and that the risks of a mass casualty attack in the Philippines will rise.

There is also evidence that ISIS-linked groups are on the verge of declaring a wilayat (province) in Mindanao – this comes after the main organization recognized in February Philippine-based extremist groups, a coalition led by Hapilon.

Gunaratna said this latest attack is a sign of capability of the local group in heading a wilayat.

Injuries, deaths on both sides

THE FALLEN. Flag-draped coffins containing the bodies of the 18 soldiers killed in an encounter with Abu Sayyaf bandits are pictured at the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) headquarters in Zamboanga City, April 10, 2016. Photo via Richard Falcatan

THE FALLEN. Flag-draped coffins containing the bodies of the 18 soldiers killed in an encounter with Abu Sayyaf bandits are pictured at the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) headquarters in Zamboanga City, April 10, 2016.

Photo via Richard Falcatan

The Basilan incident – which happened as the country observed Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor) – also left at least 53 soldiers wounded. The militants also suffered at least 20 injuries, including Abu Sayyaf leader Radzmil Janatul aka Kubayb, the military said.

The soldiers were on their way to attack an Abu Sayyaf hideout when the ambush occurred, according to military spokespersons.

The ambush also came days after a former Italian missionary, Rolando del Torchio, was released in Jolo, Sulu, after being held captive by suspected Islamic militants for 6 months.

It is the latest in a string of deadly encounters involving the military and rebels in the region.

In 2011, 19 soldiers of the Army's Special Forces were killed by Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels and other armed groups in Al-Barka, Basilan.

In 2007, also in Al-Barka, 23 Marine troops were killed in skirmishes with the MILF. At least 14 of the soldiers were beheaded. Rappler.com