MANILA: ISIS extremists fleeing Syria are showing little interest in “taking the fight” to Southeast Asia and are focusing their efforts on Africa, a senior US counterterrorism official said.
“We know that the ISIS core, the remnants of ISIS in Syria, have been encouraging their fighters to leave and fight again, to take the fight to other regions,” Nathan Sales, coordinator for counterterrorism at the US State Department, said.
“But the truth is that Southeast Asia is not one of the regions that militants seem to be heading to in droves.”
Sales, who was in Manila on Friday to meet national security and counterterrorism officials, said there have been “few indications of interest” among extremists in traveling to the region following the fall of the caliphate.
When asked to elaborate on the movement of extremists from the Middle East to other areas, Sales identified West Africa and the Sahel as areas of concern, with countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger facing growing threats from militants.
“So far we haven’t seen a huge problem in the Philippines, but we have to make sure we keep it that way,” he said.
The US and the Philippine officials are looking to strengthen border security to prevent extremist groups from exploiting the Philippines’ extended coastline to gain access to the country.
The increased number of suicide bombings in the southern Philippines remains a source of concern to the US, Sales said. “We’re concerned about the export from the Middle East of terrorist tactics, techniques, and procedures,” he said. “Suicide bombing is not something that we have seen in Southeast Asia until recently.
“We are worried that ISIS sympathizers will emulate what they see in places like Syria and Afghanistan,” he said.
Counterterrorism strategies are increasingly focused on law enforcement, border security and restricting finance to militant groups, Sales said. He said the US is also concerned about the militant ISIS-Khorasan Province in Afghanistan, which “threatens to destabilize not just Afghanistan but also neighboring countries.”
In East Africa, Al-Shabab has long been one of the most serious threats, and “now we’re starting to see the growth of an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia as well.”
A US Department of Defense report to Congress early this month said that lack of support from ISIS’s core leadership and inadequate financing meant the terror group’s East Asian unit is only capable of conducting “small-scale or suicide attacks on Jolo, Sulu and (other parts of) Mindanao island.”
Most suicide attacks in Mindanao have been carried out by “foreign nationals who attempted and failed to travel to the conflict zone in Syria and Iraq, and they were likely radicalized before traveling to the Philippines.”
The report also noted that ISIS in the Philippines has been without a leader since the death of Isnilon Hapilon in the 2017 Marawi siege.
Hatib Hajjan Sawadjaan, leader of a faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group, has declared himself “emir” of ISIS in the Philippines, but the ISIS leadership has not publicly recognized him. Sawadjaan has been named by the US as a specially designated global terrorist and subjected to financial and travel sanctions.