MANILA: The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Friday, confirmed the presence of foreign terrorists in Mindanao after six of the 12 verified Maute Group members, who were among those killed in clashes with government troops in Marawi City were from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Solicitor General Jose Calida said Indonesians and Malaysians are fighting alongside the gunmen who attacked the city on Tuesday afternoon, May 23.
“What is happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens,” Calida told reporters. “It has transmogrified into an invasion by foreign terrorists who heeded the clarion call of Isis.”
Deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has since confirmed reports that two Malaysian men were killed in clashes between the Philippine security forces and militant groups in Marawi City.
The Star daily cited unnamed intelligence sources identifying the two dead as Abdurahman Asmawi from Kelantan and Dr Kamsa Yahya from Kedah.
Malaysia’s Special Branch police said its intelligence indicates at least five other Malaysians are still in Marawi City and that it will take time to verify the numbers and their identities.
AFP spokesperson Brigadier General Restituto Padilla, in a press conference held at The Royal Mandaya Hotel, Davao City, said the foreign terrorists visited the country a few years back to educate and connect with different Jihad groups in Mindanao, forming a collective force or rebellion.
Padilla said previous accomplishment of the AFP showed evidence of their presence through recovered passports and confirmed reports that came from their own nations as well as with the intelligence reports gathered by the national government authorities.
Padilla, however, said that President Rodrigo Duterte has not yet verified if these foreign terrorists are from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) but affirmed that these groups are trying to ally with Isis, eager to comply with the requirements set to them.
“These terrorist groups in the country have not been able to comply yet and that is the reason why many of these activities of violence, radicalism, and extremism, have been aimed precisely in Mindanao for that purpose,” Padilla said.
Government troops backed by armored vehicles and rocket-firing helicopters are fighting to re-take control of Marawi, which has been under siege by gunmen linked to the IS group since a raid earlier this week failed to capture one of Asia’s most-wanted terrorists.
Rebels have torn through the streets of Marawi since Tuesday night, torching buildings, taking a priest and his worshippers hostage and sealing off much of the city. The violence forced thousands to flee and raised fears of growing extremism in the country.
Duterte imposed 60 days of martial law Tuesday on the island of Mindanao, a traditional homeland of minority Muslims that encompasses the southern third of the nation and is home to 22 million people.
The man at the center of the Marawi violence is Isnilon Hapilon, an Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher known for his expertise in commando assaults. He is at the nexus of several militant groups that are trying to merge into a more powerful force.
Hapilon, who is a commander of the Abu Sayyaf bandit group, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2014. He also heads an alliance that includes at least 10 smaller militant groups, including the Maute, which have a heavy presence in Marawi and were instrumental in fighting off government forces in this week’s battles.
All these groups are inspired by the Islamic State group, but so far there is no sign of significant, material ties.
The Army raided what it believed to be his hideout on Tuesday night in Marawi, but the operation quickly went wrong. Militants called in reinforcements and were able to overpower government forces. Once again, Hapilon escaped.
Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Eduardo Ano said Friday that Hapilon is still in the besieged city and supporters are trying to find a way to extricate their leader.
As authorities tried to gain more control over the city, disturbing details have emerged. The bandits forced their way into the Marawi Cathedral and seized a Catholic priest, 10 worshippers and three church workers, according to the city’s bishop, Edwin de la Pena.
The Maute terror group – established by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute – used to confine its activities in Butig, Lanao del Sur for years as a plain criminal syndicate.
Maute would later attract members of the Ansar Kahlifa Philippines following the death of that group’s founder and leader Mohammad Jaafar Maguid, alias Tokboy, at the hands of government agents in an anti-terror operation outside a beach resort in Saranggani early this year.
Basilan-based Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon, believed to have been wounded in an earlier encounter with the military, now reportedly heads the Maute.
The group has also reportedly attracted members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).