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Islamic State spreads its wings in South East Asia

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In this image taken from a video filmed by the Abu Sayyaf Group and released by the Islamic State extremist group, militants swear allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at a ceremony in Basilan, Sulu Archipelago, Philippines. Photo Courtesy: International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Singapore

The Islamic State (IS) likely will create a branch in the Philippines and declare the southern island of Mindanao a Wilayat (province) in 2016.

After various local militant groups spent a year in 2014-15 discussing pledges of allegiance to the self-appointed caliph of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, they united and formed a council of representatives (Ahlus Shura) that appointed Isnilon Totoni Hapilon as the overall leader of an IS branch in the Philippines.

Hapilon heads the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Basilan, an island-province that lies off Mindanao.

Al-Naba, an official IS newspaper, reported about the unification of at least four groups (“battalions’) of God’s fighters (“mujahidin”) in the southern Philippines, and referred to Hapilon as “Sheikh Mujahid Abu Abdullah al-Filipini.”

It described him as of “one of the senior figures of the Mujahideen in the Philippines.”

“His jihad against the Crusaders began more than 20 years ago when he was a leader in the Abdul Razaq Abu Bakr Al-Janjalani Movement, commonly known as Abu Sayyaf Group. He was the Amir of Abu Sayyaf Group in Basilan for five years before he became the deputy leader for six years,” al-Naba said.

The choice of a highly experienced and a notorious leader in Hapilon to lead IS’s future province in the Philippines presents a long-term threat to the stability and the security of Southeast Asia.

An oath in the jungle

In January 2016, IS announced the unification of four of these battalions in the Philippines and the allegiance of their leaders to al-Baghdadi.

The four battalions are Ansar al-Shariah, Ma’rakah al-Ansar, Ansarul Khilafah Philippines, and al- Harakatul al-Islamiyyah, which is based in Basilan.

Abu Anas al-Mujahir, who leads Ansar al-Shariah, represented the various battalions as they took an oath in which they swore allegiance to IS’s caliph.

Abu Anas Al Muhajir is a Malaysian who is also known as Mohammad bin Najib bin Hussein. His battalion is in charge of laws and other matters pertaining to jurisprudence. He intentionally did not mask himself during the oath ceremony, which was videotaped.

Considering the importance given to a Malaysian by Hapilon, the ASG leader, Malaysians are likely to travel to Mindanao to join IS.

Ma’rakah al-Ansar battalion leader Abu Ammar could not attend the event, but sent someone in his place. Abu Harith, who represented the battalion in Ammar’s absence, is from Sulu, where ASG supremo Radulan Sahiron is based. Sulu is an island in the Sulu Archipelago between Mindanao in the Philippines and Sabah in Malaysia.

The appearance of Abu Harith, a former ASG member, reflected a split within the ASG, in which a small but important faction had defected to IS.

In addition to ASG, a new group, Ansarul Khilafah Philippines, joined the Islamic State. Based in South Cotabato province, Sarangani province and General Santos City, Ansarul Khilafah Philippines is headed by Abu Sharifah, who is fluent in Tagalog.

A total of 31 armed Filipinos and Malaysians met in Basilan and took part in the ceremonial oath presided over by Hapilon. Previously, the four battalions had pledged to serve IS individually, not collectively.

In addition to members of Ansarul Khilafah Philippines and the Malaysians, most of those present were members of the ASG. Its ranking members who were on hand included Talha Tanadjalin, an experienced combat tactician and the brother of Suhud Tanadjani, the sniper-trainer for the Basilan-based ASG.

After Hapilon and his group pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi, IS publicized the event in the Philippines.

“The unification of the Mujahideen under one leadership and banner of the Caliphate is seen as a huge threat to the tyrants of the Philippines and is an important step in order to liberate areas in Southeast Asia in general. It has a huge significance in the spreading of tawhid (monotheism) in the region, fighting the Christians, Buddhists and other polytheists as well as establishing the religion of Allah in this part of the world,” IS announced through al-Naba and online dissemination of the video of the mass oath-taking ceremony in Basilan.

“The Philippines is an archipelago that consists of many islands located in the Pacific Ocean. For centuries, it was occupied by the Christian Dutch and Americans who forced many of the inhabitants to revoke Islam and embrace Christianity,” IS said.

“Today, the Christians govern the Philippines and its capital Manila. Nevertheless, jihadi movements have spread in the country’s various remote islands, and jihad against the Christians has continued for decades.”

A potential regional threat

Since 2014, the Islamic State has engaged the threat groups in the Philippines with the aim of building an ideological and operational capability in the region.

With preparations now under way to proclaim an IS branch in the southern Philippines, IS’s influence and ideology is likely to grow, affecting both the southern Philippines and eastern Malaysia.

Furthermore, IS will likely create a safe haven in Basilan and mount operations from the Sulu Archipelago into both the Philippines and Malaysia.

In addition to enforcing the supplanting of the local practice of Islam by IS’s radical interpretation of the religion, IS-type beheadings and attacks bringing mass casualties and fatalities are likely.

The most enduring threat will be the creation of terrorist training camps, which will lure not only Southeast Asians but people from other regions. Recent developments indicate that Uyghurs who could not travel to Syria to join al-Nusra or IS in the Middle East travelled to Indonesia.

The nationalities undertaking training in the new IS province will pose a threat to their home countries. Since 1994, when Jemaah Islamiyah established its first training camp, Hudaibiyah, the Philippines became the training ground for Indonesians, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Thai Muslims and Arabs.

Most of the instructors were non-Filipinos trained by al-Qaeda. In addition to moving its officers to implement the IS brand of Islam, it is very likely that IS will dispatch its explosives experts, combat tacticians and other operatives to Southeast Asia.

IS plans for declaring a state for itself in Mindanao presents a real threat to the stability and security of Asia, a region that has hitherto enjoyed political stability, social harmony and economic growth.

Philippine response

For its part, the government of the Philippines made significant gains in engaging the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in a peace process that proved a success. However, the ASG and a few smaller groups continue to fight to create an independent Moro homeland.

The Philippines lacks political leadership and military operational capability needed to dismantle the insurgent and terrorist infrastructure in Mindanao, especially in the Sulu archipelago.

The IS-initiated merger of the various battalions and the unification of their leaders will present an unprecedented challenge to the government in Manila. In their new role as the “soldiers of the Caliphate” in the Philippines, the local IS branch will mount operations that gradually will mirror the core of IS in Syria and Iraq.

There is no better time for the Philippines to act.

But if President Aquino procrastinates as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, IS ideology will spread in his country, damaging a commendable and hard-won peace process.

The four “battalions” of IS will grow in strength, size and influence, as well as and pose an enduring challenge to his successors. Soon, IS will declare a satellite of the caliphate in Sulu.

Ideally, Aquino should try and preempt such a declaration by IS. To win Muslim hearts and minds and undercut Muslim support for IS, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) should pursue a mandate of promoting economic development in impoverished Basilan and its surrounding areas, rather focusing its strategy solely on isolating and eliminating the Abu Sayyaf Group.

Finally, to preempt the imminent declaration of an IS Wilayat in the Philippines and a local branch of IS, the Philippine military should deploy in strength in Sulu, Basilan and Tawi Tawi.

If the armed forces of the Philippines can dominate the Sulu Archipelago, IS will fail in declaring, operating and expanding an satellite province in the country and a base in Southeast Asia.

The story has been published with permission from BenarNews

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Stock Exchange in Philippines Shut Down Due to Coronavirus Pandemic

Philippines Becomes First Nation to Close its Financial Markets Due to Coronavirus Pandemic

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Stock Philippines
The Philippines Stock Exchange has shut down operations indefinitely due to the coronavirus crisis. Pixabay

The Philippines Stock Exchange has shut down operations indefinitely, the first stock exchange in the world to stop trading amid the economic fallout caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The decision to close down the exchange comes as the capital of Philippines, Manila, has been placed under a virtual lockdown, as well as the daily losses sustained in the global financial markets as everyday life grinds to a halt in practically every country and major city in an effort to halt the spread of the virus.

Stock Philippines
A man wearing a protective mask looks for the start of the queue at a grocery store in Taguig, metropolitan Manila, Philippines. VOA

President Rodrigo Duterte announced last week a new set of travel restrictions after  health authorities raised the highest alert level for COVID-19, and the region was placed under community quarantine.

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Over 12 million people living in metropolitan Manila will not be allowed in and out of the city by land or local air and sea travel until April 14.

The head of the exchange says he plans to reopen the markets on Thursday. (VOA)

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Here’s Everything you Need to Know About the Increasing Islamic State Terror Activity in Syria

Surge of IS Violence and Terrorism Seen in Syria

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Smoke Syria
Smoke rises while people gather at a damaged site after two bomb blasts claimed by Islamic State hit the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli near the Turkish border, Syria. VOA

By Sirwan Kajjo

Islamic State militants have increased their terror activity in recent weeks in Syria, carrying out deadly attacks against Syrian regime troops and U.S.-backed forces.

Since early December, the terror group has conducted at least three major attacks on Syrian government forces and their allied militias in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, local sources said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that has reporters across the country, recent attacks claimed by IS against Syrian military forces have killed at least 30 soldiers and wounded more than 50 others.

Last week, at least three fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces were killed in what local military officials described as a suicide attack carried out by IS militants in the province of Raqqa, IS’s former de facto capital before it was freed in 2017 by the SDF and its U.S.-led allies.

Islamic State Syria
Islamic State militants clean their weapons in Deir el-Zour city, Syria. VOA

‘Threat to our forces’ 

IS “terrorists still pose a threat to our forces, especially in the eastern part of Syria,” an SDF commander told VOA.

“They have been able to regroup and reorganize in some remote parts of Deir el-Zour, where there is a smaller presence of our forces or any other forces,” said the commander, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists.

He added that despite the declaration of the physical defeat of the terror group in March 2019, IS “still has hundreds of sleeper cells that have the capability to wage deadly attacks on civilians and combatants alike.”

In the town of Tabqa, in western Raqqa, local news reports this week said a suspected IS sleeper cell assaulted a family, killing three of its members, including a child. The reports did not say why the family was attacked, but IS has in the past targeted people whom it suspected of having ties to or working for the government or U.S.-backed local forces.

While most of the recent activity has been in areas IS once controlled as part of its so-called caliphate, the militant group has been particularly active in Syria’s vast desert region.

The Syrian Observatory reported at least 10 IS-claimed attacks in December that originated from the mostly desert eastern part of Homs province in central Syria.

Baghdadi’s death

Islamic State Syria
The Islamic State group’s leader extolled militants in Sri Lanka for “striking the homes of the crusaders in their Easter, in vengeance for their brothers in Baghouz,” a reference to IS’ last bastion in eastern Syria, which was captured by U.S.-backed fighters. VOA

Despite the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October in a U.S. operation in northwestern Syria, IS still represents a major threat in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, experts say.

“As ISIS returns to its original decentralized structure, members of the group are trying to show ISIS still poses a threat, even after the defeat of its caliphate and the recent death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” said Kaleigh Thomas, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, using another acronym for IS.

Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows Islamist militancy, echoed Thomas’ views.

“IS is now living a period of stability, so to speak. After the death of Baghdadi, their objective is clearer now. They try to stay focused on carrying out assassinations, ambushes and suicide attacks, and they have been successful at that,” he told VOA.

Kinno said IS “really believes in a recurrent cycle of violence, so for them the territorial defeat they experienced this year is just a phase of their ongoing jihad.”

US withdrawal 

U.S. vehicles Syria
A convoy of U.S. vehicles is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq. VOA

U.S. President Donald Trump in October announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria, which was followed by a Turkish military offensive against U.S.-backed SDF fighters in northeast Syria.

Some experts say the U.S. troop pullout allowed IS to regroup, and thus its terror attacks have increased.

“The U.S. decision sent a signal to [IS] that the U.S. is not interested in a long-term presence in Syria,” said Azad Othman, a Syrian affairs analyst based in Irbil, Iraq.

IS “now feels that its low-level insurgency in Syria could be even more effective as long as the Americans don’t have a significant military presence in the country,” he told VOA.

The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said in a report in November that “ISIS has exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria to reconstitute its capabilities and resources both within Syria in the short term and globally in the longer term.”

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“The withdrawal and redeployment of U.S. troops has also affected the fight against ISIS, which remains a threat in the region and globally,” Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general, said in the report.

But the U.S. has decided to keep about 500 troops to secure oil fields in Syria to prevent IS militants and the Syrian regime forces from accessing them. (VOA)

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New Requirement by U.S. Citizens to Get Visas for Travelling to Philippines Could Hurt Tourism

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Philippines Tourism
A requirement that U.S. citizens get visas for travel in the Philippines would hobble the Southeast Asian country's tourism industry. Pixabay

By Ralph Jennings

A requirement that U.S. citizens get visas for travel in the Philippines would hobble the Southeast Asian country’s tourism industry to ease a pair of high-level political spats, analysts say.

U.S. citizens can enter the beach-studded archipelago now on a visa-free landing stamp, saving time and any application fees before travel.

“If we look at the situation of the Philippines in relation with the U.S., of course the Philippines will lose more with that kind of option (a visa rule) than Americans,” said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman “Americans will have other options.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said last month via his office’s website that Americans would be required to apply for tourist visas if the United States bars entry by officials from Manila who are linked to the imprisonment of Leila de Lima, a Philippine senator who’s at odds with Duterte.

The visa requirement would dim resentment among Filipinos who believe today’s rules are unfair. Filipinos need $160 visas for the United States but do not always qualify.

Tourism impact

The tit-for-tat would bite into a tourism industry that generated $4.78 billion in the first half of 2019, analysts say, because the United States is the third largest source of arrivals after South Korea and China.

Philippines Elections
An armed police escort of opposition Senator Leila de Lima disembarks from their vehicle as she arrives to vote in the country’s midterm elections Monday, May 13, 2019 in suburban Paranaque, southeast of Manila, Philippines. VOA

Americans asked to spend time and money on a visa could go instead to half a dozen other Southeast Asian countries either visa free or with with a visa payable upon landing.

International tourist arrivals to the Philippines rose by 7.7% to 7.1 million visitors in 2018 over 2017, Philippine Department of Trade and Industry figures show. Of those visitors, 1,587,959 came from South Korea, 1,255,258 from China and 1,034,396 from the United States.

Americans often travel to the Philippines for beach holidays and tours of old Spanish architecture.

Filipino-Americans who still hold Philippine passports could still get back into their old homeland without visas. “It will probably be the tourists (who are affected), American tourists who are not from here,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Metro Manila-based advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.

Senator vs. Duterte

A visa requirement would answer the Philippine government’s opposition to a U.S. budget proposal to ban entry to the United States by certain officials linked to the De Lima case.

De Lima, a harsh critic of Duterte, was charged in 2017 with orchestrating a drug-trafficking ring while justice secretary before 2015. Some believe her arrest was politically motivated.

Philippines Boracay
Visitors gather along the beach during sunset in Boracay island, Philippines. VOA

The 2020 U.S. budget contains a provision authorizing the Secretary of State to ban Philippine officials from entry if the U.S. side finds “credible information” that they “have been involved in the wrongful imprisonment” of De Lima.”

“We have explained repeatedly that the subject provision is ineffective given that the Filipino Senator is not wrongfully detained,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said via his office’s website. If the U.S. goes ahead, he said, “This government will require all Americans intending to come to the Philippines to apply and secure a visa before they can enter Philippine territory.”

The U.S. Embassy in Manila did not answer a request last week for comment.

Reciprocity issue

A visa rule for Americans might also set a stage for negotiations on visa rules from both sides, Casiple said. Filipinos must apply for visas to enter the United States and not everyone gets approval.

“I think it will be within the context of renegotiation, not a policy immediately,” he said. “Particularly, it will raise the question of reciprocity.”

Filipinos have historically seen the wealthier United States as a place to find high-paid work and remit money to family back home. Tourist visa applicants pay a $160 fee and must pass a consular interview to be approved. U.S. Department of Homeland Security data show that 5,276 Filipinos overstayed non-immigrant “pleasure” visas in 2018.

Duterte might not act on his threat, some caution.

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“I don’t take Duterte’s visa threats too seriously, as he has a history of just spouting off,” said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York. “Our countries’ relationship will long outlast Duterte’s reign. We can’t overreact to every little thing he does.”

If the United States hits back, King said, it should avoid hurting an overall U.S.-friendly Filipino public and instead “personally needle Duterte.” (VOA)