Philippines checking report of militants grouping in central Maguidanao

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PETALING JAYA: Philippine security agencies are looking into FMT’s report that more than 120 militants, including Malaysians, are grouping in central Maguindanao where another armed conflict could be brewing, a source said.

The source in Marawi city, the scene of a five-month clash between government troops and pro-Islamic State (IS) militants, said the group might also include Indonesians.

“It is said that the Indonesians had arrived in southern Philippines after undergoing training in their home country. There may also be Malaysians and other foreigners,” said the source.

In late October, FMT had reported a terrorism research group, which monitors hundreds of Islamic State (IS)-linked communication channels, as saying that it had detected chatter on pro-IS communication channels about the group at least two weeks before the end of the Marawi siege.

“There is a lot going on in central Maguindanao where foreign fighters and locals are meeting up under one banner,” Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) had told FMT.

“There was a count of at least 120 fighters grouped together, including Malaysians, about two weeks before the Marawi siege was over.

“So, one thing that is really interesting about the Philippines is that Marawi is not the only game in town.”
The Philippine military had announced on Oct 23 that Marawi city was free of terrorists following the last standoff with remaining militants who were cornered in a building by troops.

The Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups, who had pledged allegiance to the IS, began the siege on Marawi city on May 23 when the Philippine authorities attempted to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, the emir-designate of IS in Southeast Asia.
Isnilon was the head of the Abu Sayyaf group while the Mautes were led by brothers Omar and Abdullah.

More than 1,000 people, mostly militants, were killed in the five-month clashes between the militants and government forces.

Apart from the groups responsible for the Marawi attacks, the authorities are also setting their sights on another IS-inspired group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), led by Esmael Abdulmalik, a former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrilla fighter.

While an offensive on the scale of Marawi is said to be not likely in the near future, the BIFF has reportedly been involved in clashes with security forces and MILF, where scores of people from both sides have been killed.
The BIFF is said to be a breakaway group of the MILF. The latter has improved ties with the government.

An unknown number of BIFF fighters were also reported to have been involved in the protracted fight in Marawi.
TRAC, which operates a digital intelligence repository on political violence, said the BIFF, like the Maute group, also had strong connections with Malaysians.

“The Mautes have loads of connections with both Indonesians and Malaysians,” TRAC had said.

“But the other groups do too. So, the new IS darling in the Philippines is the BIFF faction run by Esmael, also known as Abu Turaifi.”

The Malaysian and Philippine authorities have announced only several names of Malaysian militants in Marawi but TRAC had told FMT that, based on chatter on communication channels, it was believed that more than 30 Malaysians had been involved in Marawi.

One of them, seasoned militant from Sabah, Amin Baco, might have escaped the security dragnet in Marawi.
The Philippine military said it believed that Amin was among 10 candidates to lead IS in southern Philippines or the region if he is still alive.

Malaysian police last week said the Philippine authorities had not given confirmation of Amin’s death. They also revealed that he was the son-in-law of slain Marawi siege leader Isnilon.

The announcement caught analysts and experts, who had been divided over Amin becoming new IS leader for the region, by surprise.

Analysts have said Amin’s family ties with Isnilon, his leadership in the Marawi fight, his vast experience and his Malaysia-Philippines-Indonesia network might give him the advantage in becoming the IS regional emir.

FMT reported a former hostage in the Marawi clash as saying that Amin might be in Basilan together with his teenage son, who Malaysian police said had survived the Marawi clashes and might be in the island province.

FMT last month broke the news about Amin and his son, who were seen by the former hostage, fighting troops in Marawi.

Inspector-General of Police Mohamad Fuzi Harun told FMT Amin had come back from southern Philippines to his family home in Tawau to fetch the boy as early as 2015.

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