IS ris­ing in the Philip­pines as it dwin­dles in Mideast

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY HAN­NAH BEECH AND JA­SON GU­TIER­REZ New York Times

Across the is­lands of the south­ern Philip­pines, the black flag of the Is­lamic State is fly­ing over what the group con­sid­ers its East Asia prov­ince.

Men in the jun­gle, two oceans away from the arid birth­place of the Is­lamic State, are tak­ing the ter­ror­ist brand name into new bat­tles.

As wor­ship­pers gath­ered in Jan­uary for Sun­day Mass at a Catholic cathe­dral, two bombs ripped through the church com­pound, killing 23 peo­ple. The Is­lamic State claimed a pair of its sui­cide bombers had caused the car­nage.

An il­lus­tra­tion cir­cu­lated days later on Is­lamic State chat groups, show­ing Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte of the Philip­pines kneel­ing on a pile of skulls and a mil­i­tant stand­ing over him with a dag­ger. The cap­tion on the pic­ture sounded a warn­ing: “The fight­ing has just be­gun.”

The Is­lamic State’s ter­ri­tory in Iraq and Syria, once the size of Bri­tain, has shriveled after four years of U.S.-backed bomb­ing and ground com­bat by Kur­dish and Shi­ite mili­tia fight­ers. What is left is a tiny vil­lage in south­east Syria that could fall any day.

But far from de­feated, the move­ment has sprouted else­where. And here in the Min­danao is­land group of the south­ern Philip­pines, long a haven for in­sur­gents be­cause of dense wilder­ness and weak polic­ing, the Is­lamic State has at­tracted a range of mil­i­tant ji­hadis.

“ISIS has a lot of power,” said Mo­ton­dan In­dama, a for­mer child fighter on the is­land of Basi­lan and cousin of Fu­ruji In­dama, a mil­i­tant leader who has pledged fealty to the group. “I don’t know why my cousin joined, but it’s hap­pen­ing all over.”

The group first made a big push for south­ern Philip­pines re­cruit­ment in 2016, cir­cu­lat­ing videos on­line beck­on­ing mil­i­tants who could not travel to its self-pro­claimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Hun­dreds of fight­ers poured in from as far away as Chech­nya, So­ma­lia and Ye­men, in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials said.

The next year, mil­i­tants who had pledged allegiance to the Is­lamic State took over the city of Marawi in Min­danao. By the time the army pre­vailed five months later, the largest Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity city in the coun­try lay in ru­ins. At least 900 in­sur­gents were killed, in­clud­ing for­eign fight­ers and Is­nilon Hapi­lon, the Is­lamic State’s East Asia emir.

Duterte de­clared vic­tory over the Is­lamic State. But his tri­umphal­ism ap­par­ently has not de­terred its loy­al­ists from re­group­ing.

“ISIS has money com­ing into the Philip­pines, and they are re­cruit­ing fight­ers,” said Rom­mel Ban­laoi, chair­man of the Philip­pine In­sti­tute for Peace, Vi­o­lence and Ter­ror­ism Re­search. “ISIS is the most com­pli­cated, evolv­ing prob­lem for the Philip­pines to­day, and we should not pre­tend that it doesn’t ex­ist be­cause we don’t want it to ex­ist.”

Since the Jan. 27 cathe­dral bomb­ing on the is­land of Jolo, the Philip­pine mil­i­tary has re­sponded with airstrikes and 10,000 sol­diers in Jolo, ac­cord­ing to Col. Gerry Be­sana, spokesman for the re­gion- al mil­i­tary com­mand in the city of Zam­boanga.

U.S. sur­veil­lance drones mon­i­tor the south­ern Philip­pine ar­chi­pel­ago, where the na­tion’s Mus­lim mi­nor­ity is con­cen­trated and lo­cal in­sur­gen­cies have long bat­tled the Chris­tian-ma­jor­ity state.

But even as the mil­i­tary of­fen­sive in­ten­si­fies, the gov­ern­ment avoids con­ced­ing that the Philip­pines is in the global slip­stream of Is­lamic ex­trem­ism. Top of­fi­cials have played down in­ci­dents in which the Is­lamic State has sent for­eign fight­ers and fi­nanc­ing to the Philip­pines for deadly at­tacks. The vi­o­lence, they of­ten say, is squab­bling be­tween Mus­lim clans, or com­mon ban­ditry.

Within a week of the Jolo cathe­dral bomb­ing, po­lice de­clared the case solved, blam­ing a lo­cal mil­i­tant group, Abu Sayyaf, with scant ac­knowl­edg­ment of how many of its in­sur­gents have part­nered with the Is­lamic State.

Vis­it­ing the Jolo cathe­dral, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Duterte and his en­tourage tram­pled over ev­i­dence, church of­fi­cials said. Foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tors were kept from the crime scene for days. Dogs gnawed on body parts.

“We are ask­ing for an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­cause it was too quick, too soon to say it’s a closed case,” said Jef­fer­son Nadua, a par­ish priest. “This is a se­ri­ous mat­ter that needs to be looked at more deeply be­cause the threat is not just lo­cal. It’s maybe com­ing from out­side, from ISIS.”

For decades, lo­cal in­sur­gen­cies like Abu Sayyaf, which launched a cam­paign of bomb­ings and be­head­ings, have thrived in the law­less wilder­ness and seas stretch­ing to­ward Malaysia and In­done­sia.

In the 1990s, after Filipinos re­turned from the mu­ja­hedeen bat­tle­fields in Afghanistan and hard-line madras­sas in Ye­men and Saudi Ara­bia, lo­cal griev­ances fused with global calls for ji­had. In a cres­cent-shaped swath of South­east Asia, mil­i­tants dreamed of a caliphate free of sec­u­lar gover­nance.

Je­maah Is­lamiyah, the Qaida off­shoot that killed more than 200 peo­ple in a Bali night­club in 2002, trained re­cruits in Philip­pine jun­gles.

Later, as the Is­lamic State con­structed its caliphate in the Mid­dle East, it con­nected dis­parate mil­i­tants in the Philip­pines un­der one ide­o­log­i­cal ban­ner, said Sid­ney Jones, the di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Anal­y­sis of Con­flict in Jakarta, In­done­sia.

JES AZNAR NYT

A res­i­dent sits out­side a newly built houses for for­mer Abu Sayyaf rebels in Tipo-Tipo, the Philip­pines.

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