ISIS Is Back in the Philippines Months After Defeat in Marawi

Members of militant groups affiliated with the Islamic State terrorist organization have regrouped in the Philippines months after they were rooted out from the city of Marawi, in the southern region of Mindanao.

The area has been under martial law since Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and Maute militants seized Marawi last May, following a failed raid to capture ASG leader, Isnilon Totoni Hapilon. The siege ended in October and resulted in more than 1,100 deaths and 200,000 people displaced.

The military has now claimed that around 200 armed militants, who aim to establish a South-east Asian caliphate in the area, have been clashing with the army in the region in a fresh bid to seize territories.

"They have not abandoned their objective to create a caliphate in South-east Asia," Colonel Romeo Brawner told AFP.

Military officials said militants killed three traders in the town of Piagapo, near Marawi, last November. Those suspected of being behind the killings have been arrested since. Officials added that three militants were killed in the neighboring town of Pantar earlier in February.

Gunmen who escaped during the offensive to recapture Marawi are now recruiting new fighters, luring them with money, weapons and jewelry looted during last year's siege, Brawner continued.

Those recruited are mostly locals, but include a number of Indonesians, some of whom have bomb-making skills.

Earlier this year, President Rodrigo Duterte and other political leaders warned there could be a repeat of Marawi. Ebrahim Murad, head of the Philippines' main Muslim rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014, also made similar claims, AFP said.

Philippines
The Philippine's military has claimed that around 200 armed militants, who aim to establish a South-east Asian caliphate in the area, have been clashing with the army in the Mindanao region in a fresh bid to seize territories. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao

"The ISIS-affiliated militants are relying on the steady supply of fighters recruited from poor and disenfranchised backgrounds in the region using an extreme version of Islam as a driving force," counter-terrorism expert David Otto told Newsweek.

ISIS used to control large swathes of territories in the Middle East and, through local terror groups, in several African countries. Following multinational offensives that recaptured most of its territories, including the headquarters of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, Isis members have been fleeing the area. Some have returned home, while other are joining other terrorist cells or regrouping in other locations.

"The long term goal of the ISIS core is to gradually establish powerful Wilayahs [provinces] with the capacity and will to wage Jihad simultaneously all over the world," Otto continued.

"This kind of overwhelming attack tactics using suicide bombing and assault on hard military hard and soft civilian targets will stretch counter terrorism resources and push governments to allow these extremists groups to keep territory to practice the extreme version of Sharia," he concluded.

Brawner deemed Mindanao as "the most fertile ground" for terror activities. The mostly poor region has a large population of Muslims, but the rest of the country is predominantly Roman Catholic.

Brawner added that the area must improve supervision of madrasas, Islamic schools, where most young gunmen are recruited and radicalized.