Director General of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Ronald dela Rosa said teams from the police and military intelligence raided an apartment in the nation’s capital of Manila and arrested Fehmi Lassoued, alias John Rasheed Lassoued, and his 32-year-old Filipina girlfriend Anabel Salipada.
There are varying reports of Lassoued’s nationality and origins. Reuters claimed he was born in the United Arab Emirates and is of Libyan and Tunisian descent “but lived in Syria for many years,” while several media outlets referred to him as Egyptian.
During a search of the couple’s rented apartment, the authorities reportedly discovered firearms, ammunition, bomb-making components, and a Daesh flag, along with some drawings and maps that police claim indicate that Lassoued was planning a terror attack.
According to dela Rosa, Lassoued was a former mediator between Daesh leaders and local officials in Syria and Turkey and is now involved in recruiting Islamic militants in the Philippines, including for the pro-Daesh Maute group which led the siege of Marawi City in Mindanao last year.
Lassoued has reportedly denied the allegations against him, saying he fled Syria because Daesh had started to establish a presence there.
Lassoued allegedly entered the Philippines in July 2016 via Iran using a fake Tunisian passport. Since then, he has visited Malaysia and Turkey a number of times.
Dela Rosa said authorities received information about Lassoued from foreign law enforcement organizations. Following an investigation, that information was found to be accurate and the raid was authorized.
“A thorough investigation is now underway to determine the extent of (the suspects’) involvement with international and domestic (terror) groups,” dela Rosa told reporters.
Following the arrest, National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) chief Oscar Albayalde told reporters that, aside from Mindanao, Islamic terrorists have found some other areas of the Philippines in which to hide, including in Metro Manila.
“They have sympathizers here who could take them in,” Albayalde said, adding, “We are not accusing our Muslim brothers here.”
The commander of the Joint Task Force-National Capital Region, Brig. Gen. Allan Arrojado, told Arab News that his team is attempting to verify if there are currently other people with links to Daesh in Metro Manila.
“We have been monitoring suspected areas and organizations. But (the cases are) still ongoing,” he said.
Arrojado did not discount the possibility that there could be extremist elements in the Philippines’ capital city, but added that there is an “ongoing effort to touch base with Muslim organizations here” in an effort to counter violent extremism.
Stephen Cutler, an international security expert and retired US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent, told Arab News there have been rumors of extremist groups in Metro Manila for “quite some time,” and pointed out that a metropolis of 13-to-15 million people is an easy place to hide.
Cutler noted that capturing Lassoued alive meant the police and intelligence agencies now had the opportunity to extract valuable information from him “and hopefully they will file proper charges against him.”