ISIS has a new video out, and it’s one that’s trying to drum up support for jihadists to head to the Philippines, rather than Syria.
The English-language video spans seven minutes. In it, ISIS mouths are calling on Muslims in “East Asia, specificallly those in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand and Singapore” to head to the Philippines.
NBC News has the story:
A militant identified as “Abul-Yamaan from Marawi” proclaims: “Come forth to the land of jihad. Perform hijrah. Come forth to … Marawi.”
U.S. intelligence officials and private sector analysts like Flashpoint Intelligence, which NBC News uses to track terrorist groups, say that Asia has become a new focus for ISIS. The terror group now sees the southern Philippine islands, where a Muslim insurgency has simmered for decades, as the best destination for Islamic militants, and is using videos and social media in both English and languages spoken in the southern Philippines to boast of its exploits and recruit fighters.
“ISIS wants to be seen as global and the Philippines provides them with an opportunity,” said a U.S. official.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during an Aug. 1 press conference in Washington that U.S. intelligence is aware ISIS fighters from other countries are operating in Philippines.
“We already see elements of ISIS in the Philippines, as you’re aware, gaining a foothold,” said Tillerson. “Some of these fighters have gone to the Philippines from Syria and Iraq. We are in conversations with the Philippine government, with Indonesia, with Malaysia, with Singapore, with Australia, as partners to recognize this threat, try to get ahead of this threat.”
Tillerson did not provide numbers.
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official noted that Philippine Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Ano said in June that among the dead in the continuing battle for Marawi were Saudis, Pakistanis, Malaysians and Indonesians. The official said there’s no reason to doubt Ano’s assessment.
There are three major ISIS-aligned Islamist groups on the island of Mindanao — Maute, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and Abu Sayyaf, formerly an al Qaeda offshoot. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi named Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon the ISIS emir of Southeast Asia in 2016.
The allied pro-ISIS groups began battling government forces in Marawi, a city of 200,000, in May, and clashes continue as government soldiers try to evict the militants from the city. More than 60 Philippine soldiers have been killed and more than 200 wounded in the fighting.
The ISIS call for jihadis to travel east to the Philippines, however, comes at a time when the U.S. is rethinking whether a significant number of ISIS fighters will relocate from the caliphate, as originally believed.
Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center, said last month that U.S. intelligence has not yet seen a large flow.
“At one point, we were worried about this out-rush, outflows, massive outflows of foreign fighters once the battlefield situation changed in Iraq and Syria and that Western countries, countries in the region, would be flooded with returnees,” Rasmussen said, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum. “I think now speaking kind of broadly, that’s less likely than we first assessed.”
U.S. intelligence officials say that instead, most fighters will likely stay in Iraq and Syria and continue to fight as insurgents. Moreover, they say, there are fewer of them, many having been killed in action.
The ISIS affiliates in Mindanao, meanwhile, also face another challenge — their former comrades.