You may have heard we’ve met with great success in the past year in crushing ISIS in the Mideast. But it turns out that knocking them down in one spot means their battle-hardened fighters are showing up in surprising, new places — like the Philippines. The U.S. State Department has just added ISIS Philippines and six other Islamic extremist terrorist groups to the U.S. list of designated terrorists.
Why is ISIS showing up in the Philippines? It helps to look back at where ISIS began in 2014. Shortly after President Obama referred to ISIS as the “J.V. team,” the terrorist group publicized dozens of videotaped beheadings as it fought and won bloody battles in key Iraqi and Syrian cities. ISIS came to control half of Syria and important strongholds in Iraq.
By last November, U.S. and coalition forces had retaken Mosul, Iraq, and the Islamic extremist terrorists had been all but driven out of the region. Their search for refuge among like-minded brethren pointed some of them to the southern Philippines region of Mindanao. The vast majority of Filipinos are Christian, but according to the 2000 census, one in five residents of Mindanao is Muslim.
I reported from Mindanao last summer, where ISIS fighters from the Mideast were already joining established Islamic extremists. Hundreds of terrorists had attacked the Philippine army in the region’s island city of Marawi, population 200,000. Civilians were taken hostage, thousands of them fled and almost the whole city was evacuated. The fighting continued for months and, at the end, 400 terrorists were dead. So were more than 100 civilians and Philippine troops.
Most people don’t know it, but the battle with violent Islamic extremists in the Philippines actually goes back decades. Gen. Lito Sobejana of the Western Mindanao Command explained to me that Muslim extremists there have been conducting a terrorist campaign for an independent Islamic state or “caliphate” since the 1970s. In the ’90s, it was the group Abu Sayyaf that dominated headlines; one of the most violent Islamic jihadist groups, Abu Sayyaf was responsible for the Philippines’ worst terrorist attack — a 2004 ferry bombing that murdered 116 people.
Today, kidnappings, firefights and the threat of terrorism are growing in the Philippines. In some places, tourists and locals can’t move freely without fear of being snatched off the street by Muslim terrorist thugs who raise money by demanding ransoms. In 2016, militants beheaded two Canadian hostages. During my visit, Sobejana and his men were actively working to save more than a dozen kidnap victims held by Islamic extremists. The day before, one of the general’s men was shot and six terrorists killed. It’s so bad, President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the province, and the Philippine Congress has since extended it twice.
President Duterte is a controversial global figure, leading a violent campaign crackdown on drug pushers — and even users. Elected in May of 2016, he pledged he could kill 100,000 Filipinos, if necessary, to “purge” society in his war on drugs. Advocates estimate his administration was responsible for killing more than 10,000 citizens his first year in office. Yet Duterte has enjoyed incredibly high popularity ratings, partly because of his tough stance against Islamic extremist terrorists. The same brutal approach he deploys against drug offenders is considered necessary — and effective — in dealing with a savage terrorist enemy that’s attempting to create chaos. During my visit last summer, the President’s popularity hit a stunning 82 percent.
As Abu Sayyaf lines up with ISIS, the U.S. and other Western nations are beginning to pay closer attention to what’s happening in the Philippines. If the terrorists have their way, they’ll be able to establish a new headquarters there — amid tropical islands and pristine beaches — to use as a launching point for ideological-based violence across Southeast Asia and beyond.
[Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy-award winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times bestsellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program “Full Measure.”]