Islamic State appears to be on the rise on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao with up to 100 foreign fighters and a growing number of domestic converts to the extremist group, according to analysts.
In May 2017, Marawi (pictured) on the archipelago’s second-largest island was overrun by Isis militants, who held the city for five months, resulting in 1,200 deaths.
Around 80 foreign fighters were among the Marawi militants and the military identified 32 foreigners among those insurgents killed in the tattered city.
Professor Rommel Banlaoi of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research told the media he had seen evidence of up to 100 foreign extremists on Mindanao.
Isis says it wants to re-establish the East Asia Wilyat or province, despite the loss of Marawi.
Banlaoi said foreign arrivals had come from Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and West Asia.
While the authorities claim to have a grip on the island’s security situation, official sources say about 100 foreign militants from 16 countries, mainly Indonesia and Malaysia, have entered the island since troops retook Marawi in October 2017.
A Philippine intelligence officer provided similar estimates for Mindanao’s foreign legion. “There are about 40 foreign fighters remaining in the country, but 40 others are in the watchlist,” the anonymous source said.
An apparent suicide bombing by a Moroccan in July left 11 dead has drawn attention to the issue. The attack was claimed by Isis.
Widespread corruption and broken government peace and autonomy pledges have driven support among the Muslim community.
In 2014, when Isis was establishing a terror state in Syria and Iraq, several Islamist Mindanao groups formed a pro-Islamic State coalition, including Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Biff), Abu Sayyaf, Ansar Khilafah Philippines and Maute.
“Foreign fighters are in the Philippines because they consider the country, particularly Mindanao, as a safe haven, alternative home base and a new land of jihad,” said Banlaoi.
“They train and learn from local fighters. They provide funds. They provide a global support network.”
Foreign fighters bring conflict experience and their outsider status can also “play a very important role in bridging the parochial divides between Filipino groups”, argued Zachary Abuza of the National War College in Washington.
“Look at Marawi. What happens with Philippine-based Isis groups work together. And often foreign fighters try to cajole local militants to escalate the violence.
“There are Isis cells in Malaysia and Singapore but they don’t control any territory,” Abuza added. “You can’t be a province of the caliphate without territory.”
Marawi after liberation. Picture credit: YouTube