With Abu Sayyaf declining, is Daesh still a threat in the Philippines?

Special With Abu Sayyaf declining, is Daesh still a threat in the Philippines?
Damaged buildings are seen after government troops cleared Marawi City from pro-Daesh militants in this Oct. 23, 2017 file photo. (Reuters)
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Updated 12 April 2022

With Abu Sayyaf declining, is Daesh still a threat in the Philippines?

With Abu Sayyaf declining, is Daesh still a threat in the Philippines?
  • The main Daesh affiliate in the Philippines has been the Abu Sayyaf Group, a militant outfit that operates in the country’s south

JOLO, Sulu: When Philippine security forces won a major fight with militants affiliated with Daesh in 2017, a new surge in attacks led to concerns that the group, which originated in the Middle East, was expanding its operations in the Southeast Asian country. Five years later, the military says its operations have decreased the threat, but it is not entirely gone.

The main Daesh affiliate in the Philippines has been the Abu Sayyaf Group, a militant outfit that operates in the country’s south.

Formed in 1991, it emerged as a splinter group of the Moro National Liberation Front, a movement seeking autonomy for Filipino Muslims in the southern Philippines. It was initially influenced by Al-Qaeda, but since the early 2000s, it has gained notoriety for extortion, assassinations and kidnappings — often beheading hostages if a ransom was not paid. In 2014, some of its factions pledged allegiance to Daesh.

The ASG was not the only militant outfit in the Philippines that did so, but it was the most notorious, with one of its leaders, Isnilon Hapilon, touted as the Daesh “emir” in the country.

In 2017, militants mainly from the ASG and another Daesh affiliate, Dawlah Islamiya, also known as the Maute group, took control of the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines. After five months of fighting and widespread destruction, the Philippine army was able to reclaim the city. Hapilon, the Maute group’s main leadership and some foreign fighters were killed.

But after the Marawi battle, attacks increased in the country, including suicide bombings that indicated the presence of foreign fighters; local militants generally did not use such a method of fighting. Daesh became a major cause of concern. In 2018, the US Department of State designated Daesh-Philippines as a separate group on its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

It was also in 2018 that the Philippine military stepped up a crackdown on Daesh affiliates. The Maute group was soon decimated and significantly weakened. But the ASG remains, although the military says its threat has now declined due to limited inflows of money and an apparent leadership crisis.

Data from the 11th Infantry Division, a Philippine army unit designated to fight militancy in the southwestern island of Sulu, shows that the number of militants active in the area has decreased from about 300 in 2019 to an estimated 100.

“Here in Sulu, militants aligned with the Daesh have lost their international support. We are no longer monitoring fund transfers from outside,” Maj. Gen. Patrimonio, commander of the 11th Infantry Division, told Arab News.

After Hapilon’s death, Sulu-based Hadjan Sawadjaan reportedly emerged as the Daesh-Philippines leader. He was named as the mastermind behind a 2019 attack by two Indonesian suicide bombers on a cathedral in Jolo, the capital of Sulu, and another deadly twin blast in the city in 2020. Sawadjaan also oversaw the kidnapping of Arab News Asia Bureau Chief Baker Atyani, who at that time was working for Al-Arabiya. Atyani was held captive by the ASG for 18 months, until December 2013.

In November 2020, the Philippines announced Sawadjaan’s death, following an encounter with security forces.

After Sawadjaan, there was no one capable of taking over as Daesh leader in Sulu, Patrimonio said, “so the designation as emir went to Salahuddin Hassan, a Dawlah Islamiya (Maute group) leader operating in south-central Mindanao. But only last year, he was also neutralized.”

Maj. Lawrence Aranas, a member of the 11th Infantry Division’s civil relations team, said the military had identified Hatib Majid Saeed, alias Amah Pattit, as the new Daesh leader in Sulu. Pattit is the uncle of notorious ASG sub-leader and bombmaker Mudzrimar “Mundi” Sawadjaan, the suspected handler of the executors of the 2019 and 2020 Jolo attacks.

“Based on revelations of the former fighters, Saeed himself is hesitant to lead Daesh in the Philippines,” Aranas told Arab News, adding that since 2021 there have been no attempts by the group to carry out kidnappings for ransom and that with no money inflows, the militants had resorted to selling their own firearms for sustenance.

“By 2020, their financial support was almost gone. They have been limited to local support and the help of relatives not only financially but logistics-wise as well, such as food.”

According to Aranas, only two foreign militants remain in Sulu, an Egyptian and an Indonesian, the son of the couple that carried out the 2019 Jolo cathedral bombing.

While the Daesh-affiliated faction, which used to be led by Hapilon, is experiencing a leadership crisis and its members have been surrendering to the army, they are not the only remaining ASG militants.

There is also Radullan Sahiron, currently the chief leader of the ASG, who never pledged allegiance to Daesh. He remains at large with a $1 million bounty on his head, but Aranas said he is unlikely to support Daesh or foreign fighters.

“Based on the account of the surrenderers, he’s not letting them join his group.”

The apparent dwindling influence of Daesh does not, however, mean that the threat is gone. Any future entry of militants into the Philippines is also not ruled out.

“We still have very loose security and monitoring in our borders. If not in Sulu, they can also use Tawi-Tawi and Basilan as entry points,” Aranas said.

Patrimonio also acknowledged that militants “still pose a threat for as long they are here.”

“Mundi (Sawadjaan) and the two foreign fighters are still around, and there are still reports of planned bombings. So, they are still a threat to Sulu.”

The Philippine military’s success in containing the danger of militancy has been observed, but with caution.

“It’s difficult to eradicate such a threat completely,” Rikard Jalkebro, associate professor at Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi, who has researched militant groups in the Philippines, told Arab News.

“We know that it’s very easy for Daesh to strap on a suicide vest and blow themselves up at a church or outside a marketplace,” he said.

“You can kind of import the ideology and the package deal to conduct terrorism.”

But in an organized way, he added, “it looks like they are definitely diminished.”

“I’m quite impressed with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. This clearly is something.”

Rwanda genocide ‘financier’ trial to open in The Hague

Rwanda genocide ‘financier’ trial to open in The Hague
Updated 1 min 59 sec ago

Rwanda genocide ‘financier’ trial to open in The Hague

Rwanda genocide ‘financier’ trial to open in The Hague
THE HAGUE: Alleged Rwandan genocide financier Felicien Kabuga will go on trial in The Hague on Thursday, one of the last key suspects in the 1994 ethnic slaughter that devastated the small central African nation.
Kabuga’s trial will open at 0800 GMT before a UN tribunal, where he has been charged with genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the massacres 28 years ago of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Prosecutors and the defense are expected to make their opening statements on Thursday and Friday, with evidence in the case to start the following Wednesday.
Kabuga’s lawyers entered a not guilty plea to the charges at a first appearance in 2020.
Once one of Rwanda’s richest men, prosecutors say the octogenarian allegedly helped set up hate media that urged ethnic Hutus to “kill Tutsi cockroaches” and funded militia groups in 1994.
Now in his mid-80s, Kabuga was arrested in France in May 2020 after evading police in several countries for the last quarter of a century.
He was then transferred to the UN’s International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals in The Hague, set up to complete the work of the now defunct Rwanda war crimes tribunal.
Said to be in fragile health, Kabuga in August appeared before the judges in a wheelchair — and it was not known whether he’ll be in court on Thursday as judges are permitting him to attend the hearings via a video link.
Kabuga was originally scheduled to appear in court in Arusha, where the other arm of the IRMCT — also referred at as the MICT — resides, but judges had ruled he would remain in The Hague “until otherwise decided.”
In June, the judges denied a defense objection, ruling Kabuga was indeed fit to stand trial.

The UN says 800,000 people were murdered in Rwanda in 1994 in a 100-day rampage that shocked the world.
An ally of Rwanda’s then-ruling party, Kabuga allegedly helped create the Interahamwe Hutu militia group and the Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), whose broadcasts incited people to murder.
The radio station also identified the hiding places of Tutsis where they were later killed, prosecutors said in the indictment.
More than 50 witnesses are expected to appear for the prosecution, which said they needed about 40 hours to wrap up their case.
Prosecutors said Kabuga controlled and encouraged RTLM’s content and defended the station when the minister of information criticized the broadcasts.
Kabuga is also accused of “distributing machetes” to genocidal groups, and ordering them to kill Tutsis.
Later fleeing Rwanda, Kabuga spent years on the run using a succession of false passports.
Investigators say he was helped by a network of former Rwandan allies to evade justice.
Following his arrest in a small apartment near Paris, his lawyers argued that Kabuga, whose age is now given as 87 on the indictment, should face trial in France for health reasons.
But France’s top court ruled he should be moved to UN custody, in line with an arrest warrant issued in 1997.
Kabuga is one of the last top wanted suspects for the Rwandan genocide to face justice.
Others, including the man seen as the architect of the genocide, Augustin Bizimana, and former presidential guard commander Protais Mpiranya have both died.
Victims of the genocide have called for a swift trial for Kabuga saying “if he dies before facing justice, he would have died under the presumption of innocence.”

Philippines evacuates coasts, cancels sea trips as Super Typhoon Noru nears

Philippines evacuates coasts, cancels sea trips as Super Typhoon Noru nears
Updated 25 September 2022

Philippines evacuates coasts, cancels sea trips as Super Typhoon Noru nears

Philippines evacuates coasts, cancels sea trips as Super Typhoon Noru nears
  • Packing sustained winds of 185 to 205 kph, the super typhoon is expected to hit the northern island of Luzon Sunday afternoon

MANILA: Philippine authorities started evacuating people from coastal areas on Sunday and hundreds were unable to travel by sea as the main island Luzon, including Manila, braces for a category 3 typhoon that continues to strengthen, officials said.
Typhoon Noru, locally named Karding, became a super typhoon “after a period of explosive intensification,” with sustained winds increasing to 185 km (115 miles) per hour from 120 kph on Saturday evening, the disaster agency said in an advisory.
It will continue intensifying and may make landfall on Sunday afternoon or evening with 185 to 205 kph (115 to 127 mph) of sustained winds, it said.
“I asked our mayors to comply with strict preemptive evacuations,” Helen Tan, governor of Quezon province, told DZRH radio station. Fishermen in coastal communities were barred from heading to sea, she said.
Noru, the 11th tropical cyclone to hit the Philippines this year, will bring heavy to torrential rains over the capital region and nearby provinces on Sunday afternoon.
“Hopefully, this typhoon moves fast, although it brings strong winds,” said disaster agency spokesperson Bernardo Rafaelito Alejandro. Authorities are on alert for landslides, flooding and destructive winds, he said.
The Philippine Coast Guard said more than 1,200 passengers and 28 vessels were stranded in ports south of the capital.
Noru was moving westward and likely to emerge over the South China Sea by late Sunday or early Monday.
The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,600 islands, sees an average of 20 tropical storms a year. 


Far-right eyes historic victory as Italy votes

Far-right eyes historic victory as Italy votes
Updated 25 September 2022

Far-right eyes historic victory as Italy votes

Far-right eyes historic victory as Italy votes
  • The Brothers of Italy party, led by one-time Mussolini supporter Giorgia Meloni, is leading polls
  • She looks set to take office in a coalition with the far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia parties

ROME: Italians vote Sunday in an election expected to usher in the country’s first government led by the far-right since World War II, bringing euroskeptic populists to the heart of Europe.
The Brothers of Italy party, led by one-time Mussolini supporter Giorgia Meloni, is leading polls and looks set to take office in a coalition with the far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia parties.
Meloni, 45, who has campaigned on a motto of “God, country and family,” is hoping to become Italy’s first female prime minister.
Polls open at 0500 GMT and close at 2100 GMT. Many voters are expected to pick Meloni, “the novelty, the only leader the Italians have not yet tried,” Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy told AFP.
Brussels and the markets are watching closely, amid concern that Italy — a founding member of the European Union — may be the latest member to veer hard right less than two weeks after the far-right outperformed in elections in Sweden.
If she wins, Meloni will face challenges from rampant inflation to an energy crisis as winter approaches, linked to the conflict in Ukraine.
The Italian economy, the third largest in the eurozone, rebounded after the pandemic but is saddled with a whopping debt worth 150 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Meloni has dedicated her campaign to trying to prove she is ready despite her party never before being in power.
Brothers of Italy, which has roots in the post-fascist movement founded by supporters of dictator Benito Mussolini, pocketed just four percent of the vote during the last elections in 2018.
Meloni has moderated her views over the years, notably abandoning her calls for Italy to leave the EU’s single currency.
However, she insists her country must stand up for its national interests, backing Hungary in its rule of law battles with Brussels.
Her coalition wants to renegotiate the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund, arguing that the almost 200 billion euros Italy is set to receive should take into account the energy crisis aggravated by the Ukraine war.
But “Italy cannot afford to be deprived of these sums,” political sociologist Marc Lazar told AFP, which means Meloni actually has “very limited room for maneuver.”
The funds are tied to a series of reforms only just begun by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who called snap elections in July after his national unity coalition collapsed.
Despite her euroskepticism, Meloni strongly supports the EU’s sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, although her allies are another matter.
Berlusconi, the billionaire former premier who has long been friends with Vladimir Putin, faced an outcry this week after suggesting the Russian president was “pushed” into war by his entourage.

A straight-speaking Roman raised by a single mum in a working-class neighborhood, Meloni rails against what she calls “LGBT lobbies,” “woke ideology” and “the violence of Islam.”
She has vowed to stop the tens of thousands of migrants who arrive on Italy’s shores each year, a position she shares with Salvini, who is currently on trial for blocking charity rescue ships when he was interior minister in 2019.
The center-left Democratic Party, led by former prime minister Enrico Letta, says Meloni is a danger to democracy.
It also claims her government would pose a serious risk to hard-won rights such as abortion and will ignore global warming, despite Italy being on the front line of the climate emergency.
On the economy, Meloni’s coalition pledges to cut taxes while increasing social spending, regardless of the cost. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they want the EU’s rules on public spending amended.
The last opinion polls two weeks before election day suggested one in four voters were backing Meloni.
However, around 20 percent of voters remain undecided, and there are signs she may end up with a smaller majority in parliament than expected.
In particular, support appears to be growing for the populist Five Star Movement in the poor south.
The next government is unlikely to take office before the second half of October, and despite pledges from Meloni and Salvini to serve five years, history suggests they may struggle.
Italian politics are notoriously unstable. The country has had 67 governments since 1946.

China, India call for negotiated way out of Ukraine war

China, India call for negotiated way out of Ukraine war
Updated 25 September 2022

China, India call for negotiated way out of Ukraine war

China, India call for negotiated way out of Ukraine war
  • India, unlike China, has a warm relationship with the United States but it has historic ties with Russia, its traditional defense supplier
  • China’s reaction to Russia is being closely watched for clues on its approach to Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that Beijing claims as its territory

UNITED NATIONS, United States: China and India on Saturday called at the United Nations for a negotiated end to the Ukraine war, stopping short of robust support for traditional ally Russia.
After a week of pressure at the United Nations General Assembly, Russia’s foreign minister took the General Assembly rostrum to deliver a fiery rebuke to Western nations for what he termed a “grotesque” campaign against Russians.
But no major nation has rallied behind Russia, including China, which just days before the February invasion of Ukraine had vowed an “unbreakable” bond with President Vladimir Putin.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on both Russia and Ukraine to “keep the crisis from spilling over” and from affecting developing countries.
“China supports all efforts conducive to the peaceful resolution of the Ukraine crisis. The pressing priority is to facilitate talks for peace,” Wang said.
“The fundamental solution is to address the legitimate security concerns of all parties and build a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture.”
During his visit to the United Nations, Wang met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, in their first talks since the war began.
Earlier this month Putin acknowledged Chinese “concerns” about Ukraine during a meeting with his counterpart Xi Jinping.

US officials have been heartened by what they see as China’s lack of concrete backing for the war and say that Beijing has declined requests to send military equipment, forcing Russia to rely on North Korea and Iran as its own supplies dwindle.
China’s reaction to Russia is being closely watched for clues on its approach to Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that Beijing claims as its territory.
Wang held firm that China would take “forceful steps” against any interference, insisting that efforts to prevent “reunification” with Taiwan would be “crushed by the wheels of history.”
India, unlike China, has a warm relationship with the United States but it has historic ties with Russia, its traditional defense supplier.
“As the Ukraine conflict continues to rage, we are often asked whose side we are on,” said India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.
“Our answer, each time, is straight and honest — India is on the side of peace and will remain firmly there,” he said.
“We are on the side that calls for dialogue and diplomacy as the only way out.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a news conference declined to answer whether there has been any pressure from China. In his speech, he sought to cast blame squarely on the West.
“The official Russophobia in the West is unprecedented. Now the scope is grotesque,” Lavrov told the General Assembly.
“They are not shying away from declaring the intent to inflict not only military defeat on our country but also to destroy and fracture Russia.”
The United States, he said, since the end of the Cold War has acted as if it is “an envoy of God on Earth, with the sacred right to act with impunity wherever and whenever they want,” Lavrov said.
He also blasted the European Union as an “authoritarian, harsh, dictatorial entity” and said the bloc’s leadership forced one member state’s leader — Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades — to cancel a planned meeting with him.
Lavrov criticized the West for not engaging with Russia, saying, “we have never stepped away from maintaining contact.”
Western powers are looking at further sanctions after Putin called up reservists and made a veiled threat to use nuclear weapons, and have vowed not to recognize results of referendums on Russian annexation being held in occupied territories.
They have welcomed Lavrov’s isolation, noting how he only showed up at a Security Council session on Thursday to deliver remarks and not to listen to others.
Russia enjoyed one rare voice of support Saturday at the General Assembly. Mali’s interim Prime Minister Col. Abdoulaye Maiga, appointed by coup leaders, hailed the “exemplary and fruitful cooperation” with Moscow.
The junta has welcomed Russia’s Wagner Group security firm, despite Western allegations of rights abuses, as France pulled out troops who had been struggling to contain a jihadist insurgency.


N.Korea fires ballistic missile ahead of US VP Harris visit

N.Korea fires ballistic missile ahead of US VP Harris visit
Updated 25 September 2022

N.Korea fires ballistic missile ahead of US VP Harris visit

N.Korea fires ballistic missile ahead of US VP Harris visit
  • US Vice President Harris is set to visit the region next week and meet with leaders of Japan and South Korea

SEOUL: North Korea fired a ballistic missile toward the sea off its east coast on Sunday, ahead of planned military drills by South Korean and US forces involving an aircraft carrier and a visit to the region by US Vice President Kamala Harris.
South Korea’s military said it was a single, short-range ballistic missile fired from near the Taechon area of North Pyongyan Province just before 7 a.m. local time and flew about 600 km (373 miles) at an altitude of 60 km and a speed of Mach 5.
“North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile is an act of grave provocation that threatens the peace and security of the Korean peninsula and international community,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
After the launch, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Kim Seung-kyum and the US Forces Korea Commander Paul LaCamera discussed the situation and reaffirmed their readiness to respond to any threat or provocation from North Korea, it added.
South Korea’s National Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss response measures and condemned the launch as an apparent violation of the UN Security Council Resolutions and an unjustifiable act of provocation.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who arrived in Seoul late on Saturday from a trip to Britain, the United States and Canada, was briefed on the launch, the presidential office said.
Japan’s Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said Japan estimated the missile reached maximum altitude at 50 km and may have flown on an irregular trajectory. Hamada said it fell outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone and there were no reports of problems with shipping or air traffic.
Many of the short-range missiles tested by North Korea in recent years have been designed to evade missile defenses by manoeuvring during flight and flying on a lower, “depressed” trajectory, experts have said.
“If you include launches of cruise missiles this is the nineteenth launch, which is an unprecedented pace,” Hamada said.
“North Korea’s action represents a threat to the peace and security of our country, the region and the international community and to do this as the Ukraine invasion unfolds is unforgivable,” he said, adding that Japan had delivered a protest through North Korea’s embassy in Beijing.
The US Indo-pacific Command said it was aware of the launch and consulting closely with allies, in a statement released after the launch, while reaffirming US commitment to the defense of South Korea and Japan.
“While we have assessed that this event does not pose an immediate threat to US personnel or territory, or to our allies, the missile launch highlights the destabilising impact of the DPRK’s unlawful Weapons of Mass Destruction and ballistic missile programs.”
The launch comes after the arrival of the nuclear-powered American aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in South Korea to participate in joint drills with South Korean forces for four days from Sept. 26 to 29, and ahead of a planned visit to Seoul this week by Harris.
It was the first time the North carried out such a launch after firing eight short-range ballistic missiles in one day in early June, which led the United States to call for more sanctions for violating UN Security Council resolutions.
North Korea rejects UN resolutions as an infringement of its sovereign right to self defense and space exploration, and has criticized previous joint drills by the United States and South Korea as proof of their hostile policies.
The drills have also been criticized by Russia and China, which have called on all sides not to take steps that raise tensions in the region, and have called for an easing of sanctions.
After North Korea conducted an unprecedented number of missile tests this year, including its intercontinental ballistic missiles for the first time since 2017, the United States and South Korea said they would boost joint drills and military displays of power to deter Pyongyang.
“Defense exercises are not going to prevent North Korean missile tests,” said Leif-Eric Easley, an international affairs professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
But US-South Korea security cooperation helps to deter a North Korean attack and counter Pyongyang’s coercion, and the allies should not let provocations stop them from conducting military training and exchanges needed to maintain the alliance, he added.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported on Saturday that North Korea may also be preparing to test a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), citing the South’s military.