Daesh losing hold of southern Philippines, says top general

Daesh losing hold of southern Philippines, says top general
Dilapidated structures in the war-torn area of Marawi tell the tale of the horrors that the southern Philippine city was subjected to in this photo taken in May. (AN photo)
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Updated 19 December 2019

Daesh losing hold of southern Philippines, says top general

Daesh losing hold of southern Philippines, says top general
  • Leadership vacuum, lack of food, finances weakened terrorists: Lt. Gen. Sobejana

MANILA: A top Philippines general in charge of the troubled Mindanao region has said that the popularity of Daesh had diminished “significantly” as trust in the government had grown and insurgents had been crushed by a continuing military offensive.

The Philippines has been concerned that Daesh supporters from the region and those fleeing Iraq and Syria are exploiting the porous borders, lawlessness and abundant arms found in Mindanao, southern Philippines, to take refuge in its far-flung villages.

The Philippines military is currently fighting on multiple fronts in Mindanao to defeat home-grown Daesh loyalists, bandits and communist insurgents. The region has been under martial law since May 2017. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said this month that martial law would be lifted by the end of this year.

“Yes, it has been declared; the decision of the president is based on our security assessment that we submitted to the secretary of national defense,” Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the Western Mindanao Command, told Arab News on Dec. 10.

Daesh territory in Iraq and Syria, once the size of Britain, has shrunk after years of American-backed bombing and ground combat by Kurdish and Iraqi militia fighters. But the group has inspired militants in Europe, West Africa, across the Middle East and Asia and through to Indonesia and the Philippines, where the group’s influence has taken a hold in Mindanao.

Daesh first made a big push for southern Philippines recruitment in 2016, circulating videos online calling out to militants who could not travel to Iraq and Syria. The next year, militants who had pledged allegiance to Daesh 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, Deash’s East Asia chief.

“The adversary’s popularity has diminished significantly,” Sobejana, commander of the Western Mindanao Command, told Arab News when asked about threats from Daesh in Mindanao. “The identified Daesh-inspired individuals have been neutralized; they are trying to recruit but the people are very much aware that the things that they are doing do not offer any good to the populace, so they are becoming unpopular.”

“The people, the community, appreciate the government’s peace initiatives, both the military and civil government’s; so the trust and confidence of the people in our government is very high,” Sobejana said, adding that the security situation had “improved a lot.”

Since the Jan. 27 cathedral bombing this year on the island of Jolo, the military has responded with airstrikes, and 10,000 soldiers in Jolo and American surveillance drones monitor the southern Philippine archipelago.

But even as the military offensive intensifies, the government avoids conceding that the Philippines is in the global slipstream of extremism. Top officials have played down incidents in which Daesh has sent foreign fighters and financing to the Philippines for deadly attacks.

Sobejana said that authorities were presently monitoring eight foreign nationals while 60 others were on a watch list. These included citizens of Bangladesh, Turkish, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sweden, Egypt and other nations who were turning to the Philippines after stints in Iraq and Syria.

Some officials say that fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East are known to have entered the Philippines and settled in strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf militant group, notorious for kidnapping and piracy, from where they had been recruiting fighters in remote Muslim communities.

However, Sobejana said that a leadership vacuum, difficult logistics, and lack of food and finances had weakened Daesh-linked groups.

“Abu Dar was supposed to replace Isnilon Hapilon but when I was the commander of the 6th Infantry Division he was neutralized in Lanao Del Sur. Hajjan Sawadjaan I think is being groomed to replace Abu Dar, but I think with their status right now in Sulu, they have a hard time against the government forces; I do not know if he would still be considered as the next emir.”

Additionally, Sobejana said, the civil government, particularly the immigration department and other uniformed services, were ensuring that no foreign militants entered the country, which had also helped to improve security.

“So they are securing the seaports and airports while we on the ground, particularly the southwestern part of the country, we are trying our best to secure the porous borders and all the possible entry points,” Sobejana said, adding that an agreement with Indonesia and Malaysia to create a tripartite cooperative agreement to jointly patrol the seas within the boundaries of the three countries had also contributed to the decrease in threat levels.

“Military effort is not enough to totally solve this problem,” the army commander said. “We need the active involvement of the civil government, particularly the local government.”