Experts: IS eyeing PHL, Southeast Asia as havens

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Residents walk past shuttered shops sprayed with pro-Islamic State group graffiti as they start returning to their homes in Marawi City on Oct. 24, 2017, a day after the military declared the fighting over. — AFP

By Krista A.M. Montealegre, National Correspondent
and Minde Nyl R. dela Cruz

AN OFFICIAL of the US State Department on Wednesday warned that the Islamic State (ISIS) is looking for “new safe havens” worldwide, including “Southeast Asia, in particular Southern Philippines.”

Then on Thursday, international services firm Aon also warned of the threat of terrorism in the Philippines and in the region.

In his telephonic press briefing, the US State Department’s Director for the Office of Countering Violent Extremism, Irfan Saeed, said, “ISIS in particular has looked at finding new safe havens in terms of land as well and in that aspect they have looked very strongly at Southeast Asia, in particular Southern Philippines.”

“And they are looking at drivers that exist across Southeast Asia, across this part of the world, even looking into the Rohingya crisis in Burma as a potential driver. So, there is a focus across Southeast Asia that terrorists are looking at these as a possible narrative, and I think we have to be aware of that, so we can counter it,” Mr. Saeed also said.

Asked about possible terror “drivers” identified by the US in Southeast Asia, Mr. Saeed said, “I think the overall response was that there needs to be more research done in the area to truly identify how one goes from Southern Philippines from Indonesia to join a terrorist group, and I think we are still not there yet in terms of Southeast Asia, and that’s what we are trying to do is increase the capacity of researchers across Southeast Asia in universities and think tanks, so that they can understand how to do the research, how to understand the drivers of violent extremism better.”

He added: “You cannot say that the driver of violent extremism in Malaysia is the same as in Indonesia, is the same as in the Philippines, is the same as in Thailand, in other parts, Australia, the United States. Every entity, every country has their own specific drivers, and we have to do our due diligence in understanding what those drivers are.”

“And to do that we can’t just rely on our capitals. We can’t just rely on a think tank to tell us the global drivers of violent extremism. We have to understand those local grievances. We have to understand what makes a particular person in disparate parts of Southeast Asia, from Marawi to Mindanao to Eastern Sabah, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta,…Tuban,… these are [some of] the areas where we have to understand and dig down deep to figure out what are those drivers of violent extremism,” Mr. Saeed said further.

He also noted: “I think the Philippines has done a good job of trying to address a very prevalent issue that has blown up very quickly and that they’ve been able to address it and then try to think long-term right after that.”

Sought for comment, Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana said the Muslim population in Mindanao “will not tolerate them (terrorists) because of what happened in Marawi.”

“(T)hey will be committing a huge mistake if they decide to come because we are actively pursuing the remnants of the ISIS in Mindanao. And we will not stop until we got them all,” Mr. Lorenzana also said in his text message.

Incoming Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Oscar D. Albayalde affirmed the terror threat is “always there” and emphasized the importance of preparedness, as he led police in a terrorism simulation exercise in Cubao, Quezon City, on Thursday.

“It’s all over, it’s global, so hindi na natin kailangan hintayin pa na may mangyari sa atin (we really don’t have to wait until something happens). What we should do is continue to strengthen our target hardening measures… para (so) just in case na talagang may mangyari (something does happen)… we have to really be prepared,” Mr. Albayalde said.

For its part, Aon, in its 2018 Political Risk Map, showed Southeast Asia continues to be “under sustained threat” despite the absence of an attack by IS (as ISIS is also called) — with the terror risk being “more severe” in the Philippines where the overall country score remains “high” in 2018, a year after it was raised from “medium.”

“While the global reach of IS appears to have peaked, they will continue to agitate for attacks in areas where they have traction, notably in the Philippines and to a lesser degree in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore,” Dan Bould, regional director-crisis management for Asia of Aon Risk Solutions, was quoted in the statement as saying.

The survey attributed the increased threat in the Philippines to the five-month takeover of Islamist extremists of Marawi last year that prompted the government to declare martial law in Mindanao.

The Marawi crisis “reflects signs of IS-linked factions regrouping in southern Philippines and jihadist capability to mount attacks from there across Southeast Asia.”

“In 2018 we expect a continued increase in terrorist activity within Asia,” Mr. Bould said.

IS has been producing more directed and relevant propaganda content aimed at Asia-based militants and affiliates, with the aim to “inspire and motivate individuals to mount attacks using crude and improvised weapons.”

“The shift in modus operandi towards lone wolf attacks utilizing everyday objects highlights an evolving peril that organizations must address. The property damage sustained in such an attack is historically minor while the effect on operations and business interruption may well be substantial,” Mr. Bould said.

The Risk Map lists Singapore as a prized target, the survey showed. The country risk level for Singapore remains “low” a year after it was raised from “negligible”, and a terrorism peril is still in place — particularly from attacks mounted by lone actors using improvised weapons.

Although the Risk Advisory has not recorded any terrorist attacks in Singapore over the past 12 months, this peril and risk scoring reflect the arrests of purported extremists and disruption of plots in the country in recent years, the survey noted.

Aon noted that the tourism sector has to manage the risks posed by increased terrorism, with the sector a highly attractive target for some terrorist organizations.

In 2017, there were at least 35 attacks worldwide that directly targeted critical commercial components of the tourism industry, such as hotels and resorts, nightclubs, civil aviation and visitor attractions.