MANILA, Philippines – A United States-based non-governmental counterterrorism organization this week put the spotlight on the alleged links between the Islamic State (ISIS) and Filipino jihadists in Mindanao.
The connection between the two is a long-running concern that had been publicly dismissed by government authorities and military officers.
SITE Intelligence Group on December 20 posted a video of supposed Filipino jihadists claiming to be "soldiers of the caliphate," prompting international media coverage and a statement from Malacañang.
The video showed men – most of them masked and clad in all-black attire – carrying weapons and the Black Flag. They are conducting assault drills in what is supposed to be an ISIS training camp in the Philippines.
Known ISIS sympathizers reportedly shared the video online, suggesting possible links between the violent group and the Filipinos in the video.
Citing Philippine National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr denied that ISIS has training camps in the Philippines.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Colonel Restituto Padilla said the video is being investigated.
The men in the video were identified as members of Ansar Al-Khalifa, the same group that had long carried the Black Flag and pledged allegiance to ISIS. The video began circulating a few weeks after the group lost 8 members – including an alleged Indonesian bombmaker – in clashes with government troops in November. (READ: Indonesian bombmaker among 8 killed in Sultan Kudarat clash?)
"We submitted this for validation and authentication so it's now undergoing that process. Once validated and authenticated, they will [check] out whether it is a believable video or something that has been jumped on again by other groups," Padilla told reporters in Manila.
The military said it acknowledged that some local groups have been influenced by the ISIS, but maintained that there are "no credible links" between Filipino terrorists and the group that has violently taken vast areas of Iraq and Syria.
Based on the statements of its officers, the Philippine military believes that ISIS is focused on establishing a caliphate in the Middle East and is focused on its battles there. They have dismissed videos of Filipinos pledging allegiance to ISIS as mere propaganda tools to raise their profile.
Like Alsar Al-Khalifa, the military dismissed the video of a leader of "kidnap-for-ransom" group Abu Sayyaf pledging allegiance to ISIS as a ploy to get attention and demand higher ransom to release its kidnap victims.
"Karamihan po diyan kasi ay nakatuon sa pagbibigay ng simpatiya at saka pangingikil o paghingi ng ransom 'yung kadalasan yung iba (Most of the videos are meant to offer sympathy to ISIS concerns and others are meant to extort ransom)." said Padilla.
But the near simultaneous ISIS attacks in Paris last month, reminiscent of Mumbai in 2008 when 10 armed gunmen attacked 7 different locations, shocked the world. Much like 9/11, it seems to signal an escalation in jihadist terrorism that has its roots in the virulent ideology that powers al-Qaeda and its latest incarnation, ISIS, wrote Rappler Executive Editor Maria Ressa. (READ: ISIS' global ambitions and plans for Southeast Asia) – Rappler.com