MANILA, Philippines – The recent foray of the Abu Sayyaf in the island province of Bohol – far from its known sanctuaries in Mindanao – could be part of the terrorist group’s intensified activity to get money and gain recognition from the Islamic State group, analysts and a military official said Wednesday.
That recognition they seek could be thwarted, and the subsequent foreign funding it brings will be squeezed, if the gains from President Duterte’s recent reach-out to Middle East governments are sustained, according to former Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan. There’s a downside, however, from being able to abort that recognition and foreign funding, Alunan said: it could force the local groups like the ASG to mount more kidnappings, and the goverment must brace for this by investing more in internal security.
Alunan said the recent Middle East trip of President Rodrigo Duterte was vital in forging ties with the region reputed to be among the sources of funding of terrorist groups. During the Holy Week, Duterte flew to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, which together host over a million Filipino workers. In meetings with officials there, he tackled issues of security and terrorism, promising to work closely with them in thwarting threats from extremists that, he said, could certainly impact the Philippines.
“If we want to stop the flow of money, we want to work with countries which are the sources. The net effect is without the foreign funding, the incidence of kidnapping could rise, and this would require more investments in internal security,” Alunan told the Roundtable@Lido in Quezon City.
At the same forum, Colonel Edgard Arevalo, public affairs office chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said the Abu Sayyaf “are still courting recognition of the ISIS. Kung ikaw ang nanliligaw, you’ll do all sort of things to get recognized, and that is exactly what they are doing.”
Arevalo added: “The more notorious they become, the better is their chance to be recognized, that’s why we are working with the Philippine National Police to guard the country,” he said.
Three soldiers, a policeman, two villagers and at least four militants, including Abu Sayyaf commander and spokesman Moammar Askali, were killed last April 1 in a daylong siege in Bohol’s Inabanga town.
Authorities said the military successfully thwarted a kidnapping plot by the Abu Sayyaf militants in the province, a popular tourist destination that is far from the group’s jungle bases.
Beyond Sulu, Basilan
Julkipli Wadi of the University of the Philippines Institute of Islamic Studies said the Abu Sayyaf was expanding its sphere of influence beyond Sulu and Basilan in Mindanao.
“Ang pangunahing objective ay makakuha ng kahit sino, local o foreigner, at dadalhin sa Sulu at hihingi ng ransom,” Wadi told the same forum where Arevalo and Alunan spoke.
“Kung may madalang pari, ang laki ng symbolism n’yan [If they can abduct one priest, that’s a big symbolism], it will send a strong message that the Abu Sayyaf is alive and kicking,” Wadi added.
Alunan also said that the Abu Sayyaf could have “collaborators” in Bohol, which allowed them to move in.
“There are people hiding them,” he said.
Safe and normal
Also at the Lido forum, Arevalo said the situation has completely normalized in tourism mecca Bohol, site of key ASEAN meetings this week.
Arevalo said the military and the police remain on alert, however, given the criticality of the international meetings, but also stressed the need for the public to be vigilant. Residents in Inabanga were earlier credited with helping foil what could have been a serious attack by alerting authorities to the presence of strangers – the ASG, as it turned out.
To underscore the normalized situation, Arevalo said tourist destinations in Bohol like Panglao have 100 percent fully booked hotels “and the tourists who were interviewed said that they are aware of the travel warnings ban but they feel that they are already safe there, and the policemen and soldiers are there to ensure that what happened will not be repeated.”
Despite the earlier reports of ASG expansion in the area, the AFP is confident it can carry out the President’s order to end the terrorism spawned by the ASG.
“When you say defeat the Abu Sayaff, that doesn’t mean tactical defeat, because one can’t expect that everyone will surrender will return their firearms. What’s important is for us to be able to degrade their capability to do what they are doing, the terrorist activity, and negate or neutralize their will to fight,” he added, speaking partly in Filipino.
It is also important for them to join the mainstream society and for this, the local governments are key, to give them alternative sources of livelihood so they will not turn to lawless means of raising funds, he said.
He insisted there was no failure of intelligence in Bohol, and that authorities were simply verifying all information before striking.
Alunan said what happened in Bohol is “a wake-up call” and should be used to prepare everyone for terrorist attacks.