National Security Adviser cautions against 'terror' label in Resorts World incident

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 2) — National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon on Friday cautioned against calling the incident in Resorts World Manila an outright "terror-related" attack, saying it poses a risk for misinformation.

"Let us not be unwitting tools of terror by spreading false rumors. Like claiming that the Resort world is terror-related," Esperon said in a statement to the media. "Such claims and announcements don't help."

However, Esperon added that they were not ruling out the possibility.

"We are not discounting possibility of even a small-scale terror attack in Manila. That's why security forces had been in high alert," he said. "Let us be calm but at same time be alert, ready to help our security forces."

His comments come after a "foreign-looking" gunman opened fire inside the high-end casino Resorts World Manila. Police said he shot at television screens, doors, and equipment, but did not target the people inside. However, officials said one of the casino's guards was shot by accident.

A fire broke out after the attacker poured gasoline on casino tables and lit them up. He also stole casino chips worth P113 million, stuffing them in a backpack which has since been recovered. He then fled as police pursued him.

Later, the gunman entered a hotel adjacent to the casino and started fires there. He then entered a bedroom, soaked a blanket in gasoline, and set himself on fire. He apparently shot himself in the head, as well.

Besides the gunman, 36 other people have since been found dead; authorities said they died either due to suffocation or stampede.

Police Chief Ronald "Bato" Dela Rosa said on Friday morning that the incident was not likely to be a terror attack, even as the terror group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) reportedly claimed responsibility.

Related: PNP Chief rules out terrorism; Resorts World gunman burned himself to death

Esperon said that security forces from the Southern Police District were "immediately deployed" while troops from the nearby Villamor Air Base were designated as a "contingent force." He also said security forces from the airport were also "ready in case it would be something of a [terror incident]."

Speaking to CNN Philippines' The Source on Friday morning, Esperon said they would "rule out the angle of terrorism" for the moment.

However, he also added, "All our security forces should be on alert, and we are."

"Unang una, pagpasok ng isang may baril, kung talagang terorista ka, bakit hindi ka nambaril ng mga tao? Bakit yung ceiling yung pinaputukan mo? Bakit pumunta ka doon sa paglalagyan ng chips at mangunguha ka doon?" said Esperon.

[Translation: First, when someone with a gun comes in, if you are really a terrorist, why didn't you shoot anyone? Why did you shoot at the ceiling? Why did you go to where the chips are and steal them?]

Esperon added that government security forces would meet on Friday to discuss the matter.

He encouraged citizens not to spread false information and told them to share leads with the government.

"If there are incidents you know where to call-we have 911. You know where your police stations are. You know people in government. For the citizens, please call us," said Esperon.

"If you see bags that are unattended to, they are just there--then we need your cooperation. Tell us, and we can react immediately," he added.

ISIS in Marawi?

However, Esperon also told CNN Philippines' The Source that he believed ISIS was in the Philippines, but in Mindanao. The island is currently under martial law after state forces clashed with the ISIS-inspired Maute group in Marawi City last May 23.

Esperon added that eight of the Maute casualties were foreign nationals. These included two Malaysians, two Indonesians, two Saudi Arabians, a Yemeni and a Chechen.

He said they were able to determine the casualties' citizenships from their belongings and passports. Authorities are also cross-check names and faces from shared databases with allied countries.

When asked if they were members of ISIS, Esperon said, "Well, why are they here in the first place? That's what we are trying to ascertain."

"They're here because of Isnilon. They were with the fighting troops of the Maute in Marawi," said Esperon. "Those are very strong indications that they are indeed foreign forces that have come in the effort to put up an ISIS wilayat, or a province here."

President Rodrigo Duterte also claimed ISIS was behind the crisis in Marawi, despite initial military reports that it was only the Maute group. Experts have pointed out that the Maute group has not yet been recognized by ISIS.

Related: 'It's not Maute, it's ISIS' - Duterte on Marawi

Esperon also maintained that Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group, was also in Marawi.

Hapilon was reported to have pledged alliance to ISIS, which is reportedly looking to establish a foothold in Southeast Asia. The military said that they were going to conduct an operation on Hapilon's supposed safehouse when Maute troops entered Marawi as a diversion.