Parts of PH became 'ISIS safe haven' in 2016 – U.S. gov't

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 20) — Portions of Mindanao became a safe haven for ISIS terrorists in 2016, as local terror groups pledged allegiance to the world's most ruthless terrorist network, the U.S. State Department said in a report.

It even placed the Philippines among the top five nations with the most number of terrorist attacks last year.

"Members of numerous groups present in Mindanao have pledged allegiance to ISIS, including parts of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Dawlah Islamiyah Lanao, commonly referred to as the Maute Group, and Ansar-al Khalifah Philippines. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and other splinter groups were also present in large areas of Mindanao," the U.S. Bureau of Counterterrorism said in its latest Country Reports on Terrorism released this July.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Friday said the U.S. report shows the clear and present danger posed by terrorism, but the government will make sure the country will not be a terrorist haven.

"The Duterte administration recognized this early, and will continue to take bold and decisive steps to eliminate this nefarious threat, destroy their resource channels from illicit drugs and other crimes, and ensure that the Philippines will not be a haven for their operations," the DFA said in a statement.

The terrorism report added ISIS wants to expand its reach by exploiting areas outside its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

It defined terrorist safe havens as "ungoverned, under-governed, or ill‑governed physical areas where terrorists are able to organize, plan, raise funds, communicate, recruit, train, transit, and operate in relative security because of inadequate governance capacity, political will, or both."

"Somalia, Yemen, northeastern Nigeria, portions of the Sinai Peninsula, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions, and portions of the Philippines, among other places, are examples of such safe-haven environments," Justin Siberell, acting coordinator for Counterterrorism, said in a press teleconference on Thursday (PHT).

The report added the Philippine government is finding it difficult to secure Sulu and other areas in Mindanao.

"The ISIS or the ISIS-linked Dawlah Islamiyah Lanao," more commonly known as the Lanao del Sur-based Maute group, was responsible for six percent or 12 out of 482 terror attacks in 2016, the report said.

The Basilan faction of the Abu Sayyaf led by Isnilon Hapilon also pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2016, with Hapilon designated as "emir" or leader in Southeast Asia. The Abu Sayyaf carried out over 40 terrorist incidents, including beheadings of hostages it held captive.

When asked for comment, Malacañang said President Rodrigo Duterte had warned of an "ISIS disease" as early as August 2016.

"We've been fighting terrorism in the Philippines for many years. And a month and a half into his presidency, the President had already warned the military of what he termed the "ISIS disease," Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said Thursday.

Duterte said an "ISIS disease" is spreading in parts of Mindanao, which he said could be the country's big problem in three to seven years, next to illegal drugs.

The government is now using a "whole systems approach" to address the terror problem, Abella said.

"We recognize that poverty in Mindanao and the sense of hopelessness it brings spawns terrorism. It is for this reason that while we are fighting terrorism, we are also fighting poverty," he said. 

The New People's Army, the armed wing of the communist movement, is another local armed group considered as terrorist by the U.S.

Rise in deaths, kidnappings

Although the Philippines is the fifth country in the world to face the most number of terror attacks at 482 in 2016, it actually decreased by eight incidents from 490 in 2015. It traded rankings with Nigeria, which saw a decline in terror attacks this year from 588 to 466, making it the sixth most-attacked. 

"Fifty-five percent of all attacks (in the world) took place in Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines," Siberell said.

The total number of people kidnapped or taken hostage in the Philippines increased by 70 percent, from 127 in 2015 to 216 in 2016.

The death toll from terror attacks slightly rose, from 260 to 272, including both victims and perpetrators. It was the 15th country with the most number of people killed in terror attacks.

No group claimed responsibility for more than half of these attacks, the report said, while the rest were carried out by the NPA (57%), Abu Sayyaf (20%), BIFF (13%), and ISIS or the Maute (6%). 

Meanwhile, among the biggest terror attacks in 2016 include the beheading of two Canadian hostages after no ransom was paid to spare their lives. In September, the Maute group allegedly bombed a Davao City night market, killing 15 and wounding dozens others. In November, the same group seized the town center of Butig in Lanao del Sur, resulting in a week of fighting where at least 11 Maute members were killed, and four soldiers wounded.

Attacks were carried out in 60 provinces in the country, mostly in Maguindanao, Basilan, North Cotabato, Masbate, and Batangas.

In the world, the total number of terrorist attacks decreased by nine percent, from 12,121 in 2015 to 11,072 in 2016. "ISIS was responsible for more attacks and deaths than any other perpetrator group in 2016," the report said.

Serious problem

The U.S. government said the Philippines has made progress against terrorism in 2016, but much more needs to be done.

"The emergence of ISIS-affiliated extremist groups, persistent kidnappings by the ASG, attacks on government forces, and bombings, all indicated that domestic and international terrorism remained a serious problem," the report said.

The report commended the Philippine government for signing a trilateral cooperation deal with Indonesia and Malaysia to deter piracy and other crimes. They conducted joint patrols in June this year in the Sulu Sea, from where the Abu Sayyaf abducted Filipino and foreign nationals in the past.

However, the report noted that no terrorists were convicted in 2016, citing lapses in the implementation of the 2007 Human Security Act, the country's anti-terrorism law.

The military in January this year promised to defeat all terror groups in Mindanao within 2017.

The U.S. has supported the Philippine government in its counterterrorism efforts, the most recent being its "technical assistance" for troops fighting the terrorists that laid siege in Marawi City, the provincial capital of Lanao del Sur. Clashes began on May 23, prompting the President to declare martial law throughout the island group of Mindanao.