The Islamic State militant group remains a threat although Southeast Asia has not become a destination of choice for its fighters trying to flee a U.S.-led assault in the Middle East, a senior American counterterrorism official said Friday in Manila.
While absorbing defeats on the battlefield, remnants of Islamic State (IS) have encouraged the group’s members to take the fight to other regions, said Ambassador Nathan Sales, the U.S. State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism.
“So far, we have seen a few indications of an interest in traveling to Southeast Asia, but truth be told, it’s not one of the regions that ISIS fighters seem to be heading to in droves,” Sales told reporters via a telephonic news conference from Manila, referring to IS by another acronym.
He said it was up to allies Washington and Manila to prevent fighters from travelling to the Philippines, Southeast Asia’s only predominantly Catholic country where IS-linked militants seized a southern city for five months in 2017.
Ambassador Sales said both countries were in constant negotiations to “bolster cooperation in border security efforts to prevent people from hopping on a plane and flying to the region (or) gain access to countries in the region.
“So far, we’ve not seen a huge problem, but we have to make sure we have to keep it that way,” said Sales, who is also the department’s acting under secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.
Sales was in the Philippines at the tail end of a four-day overseas trip that also took him to Brussels and The Hague, and during which he met with officials to discuss counterterrorism initiatives with U.S. allies.
In Manila, he held talks with national security and counterterrorism officials about sharing information and combating the financing of terrorism.
Sales on Friday said the American intelligence community was trying to determine the reasons why militant groups were forging alliances with IS.
As part of the cooperation, Washington had boosted its “crisis response teams” in Southeast Asia to react quickly to terrorist incidents in real time, and was working with local police and prosecutors to go after threat groups, Sales said.
He pointed to the importation of terrorist techniques from the Middle East to the region as a particular concern that needed to be addressed.
“We’re concerned about the export from the Middle East of terrorist tactics, techniques, and procedures. Suicide bombing is not something that we’ve seen in the region here in Southeast Asia until very, very recently, and we are concerned about groups like ISIS and sympathizers of ISIS emulating what they see in places like Syria and places like Afghanistan,” Sales said.
Two years ago, the U.S. and Australian governments helped the Philippines defeat IS militants who took over Marawi, a city on the main southern island of Mindanao. While they were restricted from deploying combatants, Washington and Canberra helped the Philippines gather intelligence through flyovers by spy planes that monitored militant movements in and around Marawi.
The information was then relayed to Philippine ground commanders who carried out devastating assaults on the city. Philippines air force also targeted enemy positions with air strikes.
In Marawi, hundreds of Filipino militants, who were backed by fighters from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, carried out brutal street-by-street attacks, and beheaded Christian civilians. They also took dozens of civilians hostage, and used them as human shields to slow down the advance of the Philippine government forces.
Isnilon Hapilon, the Filipino Islamic State leader, was killed in October 2017, along with his top lieutenants, officially ending the five-month siege. But two years on, thousands of residents of Marawi have not been able to return there to rebuild their ruined homes.
According to Filipino officials, foreign militants have escaped and are believed to be attempting to recruit young fighters in the Mindanao region.
Since early 2019, there has been an uptick of violence in the south, including attacks perpetrated by foreign militants. Meanwhile, IS named Filipino militant Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan as the new head of its branch in the southern Philippines.
Sawadjaan’s group has been harboring foreign militants and has led devastating attacks in the south, Philippine officials said. In January, an Indonesian couple carried out suicide bombings at a church in Jolo that killed 23 people. More recently, two Middle Eastern suspected would-be suicide bombers were killed in a gun battle in the same area.
Sales emphasized that the movements of militants across borders must be restricted, and their finances stopped with authorities going after and shutting down the sources of their funding.
“When we put terrorist organizations on our sanctions list that cuts off the flow of money that these groups, that these individuals can use,” the ambassador told reporters. “We’re using all of those techniques here in partnership with our Philippine Government allies, and we hope – we hope to continue to have strong successes.”
The Philippines was a “close security partner” of the United States, and terrorism was a top priority that both governments were trying to tackle, he added.
With IS practically defeated in large parts of the Middle East, he said that militants were now showing an “increased focus” on other parts of the world, including in Southeast Asia where they are known to rely on their local affiliates.
“As I said, our counterparts in the Government of the Philippines are on the front lines of this fight with us in the United States. We have a shared interest in defeating our terrorism adversaries, and we have decades of history of working together to confront other challenges that equip us well to take on this fight,” he said.
Jason Gutierrez contributed to this report from Manila.