Southeast Asian governments are struggling to determine how many Islamic State-linked foreign militants are in the southern Philippines, a year after IS leaders urged followers who could not to travel to Syria or Iraq to go to Mindanao island instead.
Philippine military officials have identified people from six other countries among more than 120 suspected extremists who have been killed in the southern city of Marawi as ferocious battles with government forces entered a third week.
The fallen foreign combatants who were fighting alongside Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) gunmen backed by members of the Maute gang included citizens of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore as well as Chechnya, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the Philippine military said.
Speaking at an international security conference in Singapore over the weekend, Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said he had been advised that “1,200 ISIS are in the Philippines, around 40 from Indonesia.”
Philippine Defense Undersecretary Ricardo David said he was not aware of that figure, as he responded to Ryacudu’s comment at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual regional security forum hosted by Singapore.
“I really don’t know, my figure is about 250 to 400, a lot less,” he told reporters at the conference attended by officials from 39 countries.
The fighting in Marawi broke out May 23 after Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf commander recognized as the leader of IS’s branch in the Philippines, was spotted in the city.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the south of his country after the militants took control of large parts of Marawi, marking the first time that IS-linked groups had claimed territory outside of Syria and Iraq. Efforts by the Philippine military to wrest the largely deserted Marawi from militants holed up there have taken longer than expected.
“The group’s recent siege of Marawi City … attests to their potential to turn Mindanao into an ISIS wilayat (province) for Southeast Asian militants,” Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs said in a report assessing the terrorism threat in Southeast Asia. It was released earlier this month and referred to IS by another acronym.
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