SINGAPORE – Intelligence reports from the region give a higher estimate of the number ISIS fighters currently in the Philippines, compared to the Philippine government's own numbers.
On Sunday, June 4, Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu says the intelligence that reached him pegged the number of ISIS-linked fighters in the Philippines to more than a thousand.
"There are 1,200 ISIS in the Philippines, around 40 from Indonesia. This information I will inform to our counterparts in ASEAN," he said at the Shangri-La Dialogue Security Summit.
The number surprised Undersecretary for Defense Policy Ricardo David of the Philippine Department of National Defense. David said there were 40 foreign fighters total that joined the Maute Group – not just Indonesians.
"We need to coordinate," he told Rappler. "That is new to me."
David said the Philippines' estimate of the total number of ISIS fighters in the country is "a lot less."
"My figure is 250 to 400," he said.
But to another Indonesian official, Lieutenant General Agus Widjojo, Governor of Indonesia's National Resilience Institute, the estimate of 40 Indonesians is "reasonable."
"Indonesia is close to Mindanao," he said, adding that the situation in the southern Philippines has been ongoing, which was "encouraging" for Indonesian terrorists. "It didn't happen over 1-2 days."
The Philippines has been front and center in the gathering of security experts and defense ministers here, because of the ongoing fighting in Marawi City, an attack claimed by ISIS. Officials agree the events in Marawi is evidence of ISIS' growing threat and presence in the region.
Clashes between the military and local terrorist groups Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group, erupted in the capital of Lanao del Sur province on Tuesday, May 23. This, after the military moved to hunt down Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who had been spotted in the city.
The military said the raid served to foil a terror plan to seize Marawi City. Ongoing fighting has claimed the lives of military, rebels, and civilians, and prompted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law in Mindanao.
Heading to the Philippines
ISIS in 2016, via a 20-minute video, called on its followers in Southeast Asia to fight for the terror group either in Syria or in the Philippines.
The video showed men in military fatigues carrying weapons and holding ISIS flags, also engaging in gun battles. The video likewise showed the beheading of 3 Caucasian males, believed to be of Iraqi or Syrian descent, according to reports.
A militant in the video said, "If you cannot go to [Syria], join up and go to the Philippines". (Read: Filipino millennial joins ISIS in Syria)
So far, two Indonesians have been identified among the dead militants in Marawi. Ryacudu said they have gotten the identity and passport information of their nationals inlcuding their local addresses, and will investigate their terror networks.
David said most foreign fighters come to the Philippines through the Sulu area, which is close to Malaysia and Indonesia, and where local terrorists are also based.
In response, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia has agreed to launch joint maritime and air patrols of the area, to curb the movement of foreign fighters across borders. – Rappler.com