Tulay Mosque in Sulu province. Source: Flickr
Four Islamist extremist groups in the southern Philippines have reportedly merged to form a detachment of Islamic State (Isis), according to a video on a jihadi website.
The video claims to show militants carrying Isis flags and the armed group leaders declaring their allegiance to Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The groups have separately claimed in the past to support Isis but the video suggests they might have agreed an alliance, creating a more significant threat in the lawless group of islands near Malaysian Borneo.
Observers say the groups, including Abu Sayyaf, have presented an Islamist ideological facade to cover criminal acts, including lucrative kidnappings for ransom.
Ten members of one of the groups called Ansar al-Khilafah were reportedly killed by the Philippine military in an attack on their stronghold on the island of Mindanao on November 26.
Rumours of a Southeast Asian training camp run for IS have not been verified.
That camp was featured in another video released on social media in November, threatening the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Manila, which was attended by US President Barack Obama.
Southern Philippine groups have posted several propaganda videos since November, including one threatening an imminent attack on the APEC summit, which did not occur.
Manila has largely dismissed the authenticity of videos which purport to show a Philippine training camp, saying the groups’ links with Isis were more of an aspiration than real.
“They’re not really Isis,” said armed forces spokesman Colonel Restituto Padilla said last month. “We view them as mere criminal gangs.”
Dr Rohan Gunaratna, a security expert at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, said a merger of militant groups in the southern Philippines would present a fresh challenge to Manila.
“With the proclamation of an Islamic State branch in the southern Philippines, the IS influence is likely to grow, affecting both the southern Philippines and eastern Malaysia,” Gunaratna said.
“Islamic State is likely to create a safe haven in Basilan and mount operations from the Sulu archipelago into both the Philippines and Malaysia.”
A video posted on January 4 showed Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon marching with other extremist leaders who operate from bases on the islands of Sulu and Basilan. The video has since been removed.
Washington has offered a US$5 million reward for the capture of the leader, who has masterminded numerous attacks, beheadings and kidnappings across the region over the past decade.
He is believed to have been wounded during a battle with Philippine soldiers in October.
Hapilon first declared his group’s allegiance to IS in a video posted on YouTube in July 2014.