Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Philippines receives first fleet of 6 drones to counter terrorists in Mindanao

From the Straits Times (Mar 13): Philippines receives first fleet of 6 drones to counter terrorists in Mindanao

One of the six ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicles turned over to the Philippine Air Force on March 13, 2018.

One of the six ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicles turned over to the Philippine Air Force on March 13, 2018.PHOTO: PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

The Philippines on Tuesday  (March 13) received its first six military-grade drones purchased from the United States, as it steps up its efforts against Islamist militants believed to have regrouped just months after their defeat in the southern city of Marawi.

The six drones - costing US$13.6 million (S$17.9 million) - are Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are small, long-endurance and low-altitude UAVs built by Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing.

They can stay in the air for more than 20 hours, and have a maximum flight height of 10,000 ft. Each drone is 1.2 m long with a wingspan of 3m, and is launched using an air-powered catapult.

The drones are equipped with electro-optic, infrared and high-resolution video cameras that can track both stationary and moving targets.

Air Force spokesman Aristides Galang said these UAVs would be used to track terrorists in the insurgency-wracked southern island of Mindanao.

They will also be used for “limited maritime patrols” and to support government efforts against illegal logging and fishing.

The Philippine military had earlier took delivery of three AeroVironment RQ-11B Raven hand-launched drones, and is in line to aquire two General Atomics RQ-1 Predator UAVs.

The military had to rely on drones operated by US Special Forces and AP-3C Orion surveillance planes flown by the Royal Australian Air Force to keep track of about 1,000 Islamist militants who stormed and seized large parts of Marawi city in Mindanao in May last year.

The audacious bid by the Maute extremist group to turn Marawi into a province of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) ended in October when the military recaptured the city.

But at least 300 fighters managed to flee and counter-terrorism experts believe the militants have regrouped, and are already planning attacks elsewhere in Mindanao.

They are said to be using money and jewellery looted from Marawi to grow their ranks in Mindanao. They are also getting help from militants forced out of Iraq and Syria.

“ISIS Philippines is discreetly recruiting members like wildfire, and it has established strong sleeper cells in key vulnerable cities in Mindanao,” said security analyst Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.

Intelligence reports have indicated that militants are plotting to storm or set off bombs in the densely populated and much larger cities of Iligan and Cotabato.

On Sunday, the military claimed it killed at least 44 militants from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) during clashes in Maguindanao province. The BIFF has sworn allegiance to ISIS, and is an ally of the Maute extremist group.

Philippines Bolsters Anti-Terror Ties with US, Australia

From BenarNews (Mar 13): Philippines Bolsters Anti-Terror Ties with US, Australia


An American soldier from the 19th Special Forces Group takes part with Filipino troops in a counter-terrorist training exercise in Mindanao, in September 2011.
Mark Navales/BenarNews
The Philippines has strengthened anti-terror and defense ties with the U.S. and Australia in an effort to beat back the influence of extremist group Islamic State in the south, five months after IS-linked fighters were chased out of Marawi city.

On Tuesday, the Philippine and Australian navies began a 15-day joint naval exercise in southern Filipino waters, where militants with ties to IS are notorious for hijacking foreign and local cargo vessels, officials said. Meanwhile the United States, another longtime military ally, handed Manila a state-of-the-art drone worth 687 million pesos (U.S. $13.2 million).

In southern Zamboanga city, two Armidale-class Australian patrol boats arrived to take part in the exercises, which are designed to give the Filipino navy additional capability against militants.

Through the drills, Philippine sailors will learn from their Royal Australian Navy counterparts about ways of “thwarting terror attacks in key areas of Mindanao and neighboring Asian countries,” said Rear Adm. Rene Medina, commander of naval forces in western Mindanao.

“I am certain that both our navies share a common concern in ensuring safer seas for our seafarers and the local community as well,” he said, adding there had been “zero kidnapping at sea” for more than year in the south.

The last incident was the abduction of German yachtsman Jurgen Kantner in November 2016. He was beheaded months later by his captors, believed to be a faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the country’s most violent extremist group, which has been blamed for kidnappings and bombings.

One of ASG’s leaders, Isnilon Hapilon, later emerged as the acknowledged head of the IS in the country and led a takeover of the southern city of Marawi by force.

He was killed last October, along with several followers, at the end of the five-month siege. More than 1,200 people were killed in Marawi, a majority of them suspected militants.

During the drawn-out battle, the U.S. and Australian militaries provided vital intelligence help, flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that pinpointed enemy locations for airstrikes by Philippine forces.

Australian Defense Force personnel (right) face off against Philippine marines in a “boodle fight” following a military exercise at the Gregorio Lim Marine Base in Cavite province, southwest of Manila, Dec. 18, 2017. [AP]

Pacific Eagle

On Tuesday, the U.S. turned over a ScanEagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to the Philippine military.

“Given its superb technical specifications, this equipment will certainly be vital to the capability readiness of the Philippine Air Force especially in the conduct of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations in support of a variety of missions such as territorial defense, security and stability,” Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in showing the military’s latest acquisition to the press.

“With a number of security issues confronting our country, there is a need to upgrade our nation’s armed forces and to establish a more credible defense,” he said, adding that the new drone was one way of deterring “those who want to wage war against our country.”

The new acquisition of military hardware came two months after the Philippines confirmed that it had launched a new anti-terror pact with the U.S. while Washington was helping break the Marawi siege.

Operation Pacific Eagle, as it is known, began a month before the militants were defeated in Marawi, but only became public knowledge early this year.

Dozens of U.S. troops rotate in and out of the Mindanao region, the country’s southern third, serving as advisers to local forces, but the American personnel are barred from taking part in actual combat.

This is a significant drop from the hundreds who were deployed to the south, which was considered the Southeast Asian theater of the U.S.-led war on terror nearly two decades earlier.

The new arrangement came after diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Philippines soured after President Rodrigo Duterte took offense to the outgoing administration of then-American leader Barrack Obama, which had expressed concern about his administration’s brutal drug war.

Duterte later warmed up to Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, who had praised his leadership, despite criticism from other western countries and the United Nations.

Washington recently included the Maute group in its list of foreign terrorist organizations affiliated with IS, a move welcomed by the Philippine government.

Esperon: The remaining 21 terrorist leaders could be in line as next ‘Emir’ of IS in SEA

From the Manila Bulletin (Mar 13): Esperon: The remaining 21 terrorist leaders could be in line as next ‘Emir’ of IS in SEA

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. today said they are looking at the possibility that the remaining 21 terrorist leaders, some of which took part in the Marawi siege, could be in line as next “Emir” of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia.

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. (REY BANIQUET/Presidential Photo / MANILA BULLETIN)
Esperson made the revelation following an ambush interview in Makati City after attending a security forum dubbed Even PROTECT 2018: Doing Business Amidst New Threats.

Esperon said that after government forces liberated Marawi City from the hands of the Maute Group and killed a number of leaders including Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, considered as “Emir” of IS in Southeast Asia, there are 21 remaining leaders who could potentially replace him.
“Well after we walloped them in Marawi, there were of course may mga leader na natitira (there were remaining leaders), there were 21 of them we are looking at,” Esperon said.

“So one of them would be Abu Dar because he is very near Marawi,” he said.

Esperon said Dar managed to get out of Marawi and bring out some funds which they believed he can use to recruit or to fund some of their operations.

“That’s why we are looking at him very carefully. There are said to be movements in Butig, Lanao area but we are confident that with the current troops, density of troops we have in the area we can get him,” Esperon said.

“He remains to be on the run but of course the most ideal will be to get him, makuha sana siya,” he said.

Esperon added that they are also looking in other parts of Mindanao, like Basilan where the potential leader could arise just like Amin Baco who remained unaccounted for.

“There’s another one, Baco he is in another part of Mindanao. In other words iyung ating (our) Mindanao ay napakalawak (it’s huge). Isnilon remember he came from Basilan. We are also looking at other leaders there including Abu Sayyaf leaders in Sulu for that matter,” Esperon said.

“You know they might aspire to become what they call the ISIS chapter,” he said.

Esperson said contrary to an earlier report from a military spokesman based in Mindanao that Dar is the new “Emir,” he is only a probable candidate so far.

2 killed, 2 wounded in North Cotabato ambush

From the Philippine News Agency (Mar 14): 2 killed, 2 wounded in North Cotabato ambush


MIDSAYAP, North Cotabato – Two persons were killed while two others were wounded in an ambush in the nearby Banisilan town, the police reported Wednesday.

PO2 James Panes, case investigator, identified the fatalities as Kalil Dalundong, 40 and his son, Lasco, 20, of Sitio Mapantao, Barangay Malagap, Banisilan.

Wounded were Ato Dalundong, 27, and Bombolais Salainto. They were brought to the local hospital.

Panes said the victims were on the way to their farm at around 8 a.m. Tuesday when five gunmen ambushed them that resulted to the death of Dalundong and his son.

Panes said the victims’ relatives told them that the incident was triggered by a long standing feud between their family and that of another.

But it was not revealed who is the enemy of the victims.

Panes said responding policemen irecovered 43 empty shells of M-16 Armalite rifle from the ambush site.

PH, Australia hold 2nd Maritime Security Engagement

From the Philippine News Agency (Mar 14): PH, Australia hold 2nd Maritime Security Engagement

The Philippine Navy (PN), through the Naval Forces Western Mindanao (Navforwem), and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) are conducting the second Maritime Security Engagement -- a sign that both countries shared a strong relationship in matters of security.

The arrival on Monday in this city of Australia’s Her Majesty Australian Ship (HMAS) Broome and HMAS Launceston highlighted the start of the 21-day 2nd PN-RAN Maritime Security Engagement, which reeled off on Tuesday, March 13.

The security engagement ends on April 2, Navforwem said.

The activity includes maritime patrols in the waters of NFWM area of responsibility comprising the waters of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi.

The holding of the 21-day security engagement came after the successful conduct of the 1st Maritime Security Engagement in October last year by PN and RAN.

Read Adm. Rene Medina, Navforwem commander, said this kind of activities is part of the anti-piracy and anti-terrorism campaign of the government, which helps curb the security threats that are affecting Mindanao.

Medina said the joint security engagements conducted were one of the major causes in depleting the number of kidnapping incidents in Western Mindanao area.

He noted that zero kidnapping was recorded last year within Navforwem area of responsibility through the effort of both local and international agencies.

“I am very certain that both our Navies share common concerns in ensuring safer seas and trade routes for our sea farers and respective communities. The piracy and terrorism here in the Southern Philippines is not only the concern of our country but the concern of all,” Medina said.

Through these efforts, the Philippine Navy, with the help of the Fleet Marine Team of Naval Forces Western Mindanao, assured the Filipino people, particularly of the surrounding communities of Southern Mindanao that it will continue to uphold its mandate of protecting the sovereign seas and ensuring that security threats and terrorism will be finally put to an end for a peaceful and progressive Mindanao.

Registered nurse, son of Iloilo farmer, tops 2018 PMA grads

From the Philippine News Agency (Mar 14): Registered nurse, son of Iloilo farmer, tops 2018 PMA grads

PMA GRADS 2018. Cadet Jaywardene Balilea Hontoria (6th from left) of Pavia Iloilo leads the Philippine Military Academy's ‘Alab Tala’ Class of 2018 who will graduate on Sunday (March 18, 2018). The graduating class is composed of 282 members, of which 207 male and 75 female. Photo shows this year's top graduates. From left, C1CL Micah Reynaldo, C1CL Paolo Briones, C1CL Jezairah Buenaventura, C1CL Leonore Japitan, C1CL Ricardo Liwaden, C1CL Jun-Jay Castro, C1CL Mark Jantzen Dacillo, C1CL Jessie Laranang, C1CL Jayson Cimatu, C1CL Jasm Marie Alcoriza (rightmost), and C1CL Christian Michael Peña (solo at back). (File photo by Pamela Mariz Geminiano)

A registered nurse and son of a farmer from Pavia, Iloilo will lead the 2018 graduating class of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) as valedictorian on Sunday, officials announced on Wednesday.

Cadet Jaywardene Balilea Hontoria, son of farmer Oscar and housewife Nancy, will also receive 11 other awards -- the Presidential Saber, Chief of Staff Saber, Philippine Navy Saber, Academic Group Award, Australian Defence Best Overall Performance Award, Spanish Armed Forces Award, Humanities Plaque, Natural Sciences Plaque, Social Sciences Plaque, JUSMAG Award, and the Department of Leadership Award.

Hontoria will lead on Sunday 282 members of the “Alab Tala” or “Alagad ng Lahing Binigkis ng Tapang at Lakas” graduating class for this year of the country's premier military institution.

Hontoria first obtained his license as a nurse and was an enlisted member of the Philippine Coast Guard for three months prior to joining the academy as a cadet. He said his prior experience and credential had further prepared him to be an officer in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). He was the brigade commander of the academy during his first class year (4th year) at the PMA.

“As a brigade commander, they look up to you," the graduating PMA cadet noted. "So, you have to claim that you are their leader. If you are given a job, just do your job.”

He said being a registered nurse was an advantage for him because of the rigid academic examinations he had undergone as a nurse. He added that his years in the undergraduate program of West Visayas State University had helped him intellectually, being bombarded with hectic schedules and preparing him for the academy life.

Graduating number 2 on Sunday is cadet Ricardo Liwaden of Barlig Mountain Province. Liwaden is set to receive the Vice Presidential Saber, Philippine Army Saber, Sports and Physical Development Plaque, Tactics Group Award, and Athletic Saber.

Finishing number 3 is C1CL Jun-Jay Castro from Amulung Cagayan. Castro will receive the Secretary of National Defense Saber.

Fourth in rank is C1CL Leonore Japitan of Butuan City. Japitan will receive a management plaque.

Number 5 is C1CL Mark Dacillo from Zamboanga City.

Taking the 6th rank is C1CL Jezaira Buenaventura from Bais Negros Oriental. She will receive special awards, namely, the Department of Tactical Officers Plaque, Aguinaldo Saber, and the Distinguished Cadet award.

Number 7, C1CL Jessie Laranang from San Clemente, Tarlac will receive the Philippine Air Force Saber.

C1CL Paolo Briones from Baguio City, number 8; C1CL Jayson Cimatu of Casiguran, Aurora, number 9; and C1CL Micah Quiambao Reynaldo from Bamban, Tarlac, number 10. Reynaldo will also receive the Australian Defence Best Overall Performance Award of the Philippine Air Force.

Other special awardees are C1CL Christian Michael Olarte Peña of Legazpi City, Albay for Journalism and C1CL Jasm Marie Alcoriza of Bacolod City as the female athletic saber.

PMA Supt. Lt. Gen. Donato San Juan said the training in the academy does not only train the cadets academically but physically as well, preparing them for the real life of a soldier.

“We expect no less from them when they are assigned in the field,” San Juan said.

Class “Alab Tala” originally had 346 members, who reported in April 2014 out of the 21,571 applicants.

From the 282 who are graduating on Sunday, 143 are joining the Philippine Army, 71 are going to the Air Force, and 68, including class valedictorian Hontoria, are joining the Philippine Navy.

Of the 282 graduating cadets, 207 are male and 75 are female.

Unmanned aircraft to help patrol sealanes

From the Philippine News Agency (Mar 14): Unmanned aircraft to help patrol sealanes

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS) like the US-acquired ScanEagle can also help the military in patrolling the sealanes down south as part of efforts to prevent pirates and other lawless elements from infesting our waters.

This was emphasized by Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana during the turnover ceremonies of the aerial equipment in Villamor Air Base, Pasay City Tuesday.

"(These UAVs are) welcome to the air force, now you have your own UAVs and you can support our operations in the south and we can send (these) birds to patrol our sealanes there in Sulu, Eastern Sulu and (and waters near) Malaysia," he added.

Also, Lorenzana said sending UAVs to patrol the our sealanes is much cheaper than sending out manned aircraft.

"And instead of of sending out manned aircraft, you can send this, it will cheaper, easier and faster," the DND chief stressed.

The six UAVs worth USD13.76 million were acquired through the US foreign military financing program (FMF).

Philippine Air Force (PAF) spokesperson Major Aristides Galang earlier said the six ScanEagle UAVs would greatly help the military in its conducting air, ground, and naval operations as it capable of flying missions in support of internal security, anti-terrorism, limited maritime patrol aside from humanitarian assistance disaster relief ones.

Aside from these, these UAVs can also help in the monitoring of illegal logging and fishing activities and conduct of aerial survey.

The PAF spokesperson said that UAVs would be operated by their 300th Air Intelligence and Security Wing.

US, gov't partners urged to invest for sustainable peace in PH

From the Philippine News Agency (Mar 14): US, gov't partners urged to invest for sustainable peace in PH

Panel discussion on women, peace, and security titled, “Transforming Words into Action". Holding the microphone is Dennis O’Brien, country director of Plan International Philippines. From left are panelists Undersecretary Gloria Jumamil-Mercado, Deputy Cabinet Secretary, Office of the President of the Philippines; Atty. Anna Tarhata Basman of the Taha Basman Memorial Islamic Foundation; and Dr. Ma. Lourdes Veneracion Rallonza of Ateneo de Manila University, Special Advisor on Women, Peace, and Security for the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process. (Photo by Joyce Rocamora)

Experts on Wednesday urged the United States and international development partners of the Philippines to invest in and engage with the country in achieving long-term and sustainable peace.

The US Embassy in Manila organized a panel discussion on women, peace and security titled “Transforming Words into Action", where experts from the government, academe, and civil society are present.

At the forum, panelist Dennis O'Brien, country director of Plan International Philippines, a frontline responder organization in Marawi City, said continuous support and investment in the improvement of life skills, particularly for the youth, are needed in conflict areas.

"Imagine a scenario where people have no job, without income, no educational attainment, despondent maybe, depressed maybe, or even just bored. What's next for them?" he poses a question.

"A lot of their options are not necessarily constructive, these people are the ones susceptible being recruited by armed groups," he said.

To prevent this, O'Brien underscored the important role of the US and other development partners of the country.

"The United States and other development partners should stay engaged and ramp up the investments and stay for the long term," he said.

Dr. Ma. Lourdes Rallonza, special advisor at the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), shared the same sentiment. "Be present, be known, be very very obvious but of course not to trample on our sovereignty."

"The notion is that there is guided presence, (that) there is strategic presence. When there is strategic presence, the result would also be equally strategic, the most impactful," she said.

Rallonza said that the country still has an armed conflict situation. She said the term "conflict" is not just the "vertical kind of conflict, we're also talking about horizontal -- the conflict between people, in tribes and in various communities".

In such situations, women and children are the ones often affected the most, she said. When looking at projects to establish, she put emphasis in attaining "sustainable peace".

"How would you do it when it comes to women, when it comes to indigenous women, how do you do it in women of various communities that have actually experienced violence for the past 50 years? You now actually have a perfect entry point-- transitional justice," she said.

The United Nations defines transitional justice as "justice adapted to the often unique conditions of societies undergoing transformation away from a time when human rights violations may have been a normal state of affairs".

Rallonza said, "We're trying to build sustainable peace, we're trying to make of from a situation of conflict transformation."
Support from partners will be vital to achieve sustainable peace, she added.

"Any country that actually are engaged in conflict situation needs to transform from that culture of violence to that culture of peace and yes, we do need support from other countries," she said.

US provides add’l P100-M aid to boost food security in Marawi

From the Philippine News Agency (Mar 14): US provides add’l P100-M aid to boost food security in Marawi

Ambassador Sung Kim (center) leads the ceremonial handover of rice to Undersecretary Emmanuel Leyco, Officer-in-Charge of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (second from left) and Assistant Secretary Kristoffer James Purisima, Spokesperson of Task Force Bangon Marawi (leftmost) during the ceremonial handover held in Taguig City. Also present are Stephen Gluning, Country Director of the World Food Programme (second from right) and Clay Epperson, Deputy Mission Director of USAID-Philippines. (Photo courtesy of US Embassy Manila)

The United States government, through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), announced new assistance worth USD2 million or about PHP100 million to boost food security in Marawi City and surrounding areas.

USAID is partnering with the World Food Program to provide 1.8 million kilograms of rice - enough to feed 45,000 people for four months - to families displaced by the conflict.

At the ceremonial handover of rice to Philippine government officials Wednesday, US Ambassador Sung Kim said Washington "continues to stand by the Filipino people as a friend, partner, and ally to support those affected by the Marawi conflict as they rebuild their lives.”

The assistance, which will help ensure an adequate food supply for families affected by the Marawi conflict, brings the total US government contribution to the Marawi humanitarian response to nearly USD22.9 million or about PHP1.2 billion.

Kim was joined by Undersecretary Emmanuel Leyco, Officer-in-Charge of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD); Assistant Secretary Kristoffer James Purisima, Spokesperson of Task Force Bangon Marawi; and Mr. Stephen Gluning, Country Director of the World Food Program.

The US government, through USAID, has been a key partner with the Philippine government in the recovery, stabilization, and rehabilitation of Marawi City and surrounding areas.

USAID continues to work closely with the Philippine government and development partners to deliver life-saving humanitarian assistance and promote long-term stability in Marawi, the US Embassy in Manila said.

USAID is America's lead agency for international development and disaster assistance.

CA confirms COA Commissioner, 19 AFP officers

From the Philippine News Agency (Mar 14): CA confirms COA Commissioner, 19 AFP officers

The Commission on Appointments (CA) on Wednesday confirmed the appointment of Roland Cafe Pondoc as Commissioner of the Commission on Audit (COA), as well as the ad interim appointments and nominations of 19 senior officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

Pondoc’s term will expire on February 2, 2025.

He replaced former COA Commissioner Isabel Dasalla-Agito whose term expired February 2 this year.

Newly-installed Navy Chief Rear Adm. Robert Empedrad, Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs Francis Tolentino, Davao Oriental Rep. Joel Mayo Almario, and Quezon City Mayor Herbert Bautista headed the list of senior AFP officers confirmed by the CA.

Tolentino and Bautista were both appointed to the rank of Brigadier General (Reserve) while Almario was appointed to the rank of Colonel at the Philippine Air Force (Reserve).

Other officers whose ad interim appointments and nominations were confirmed by the CA were: Major Generals Danilo Chad Isleta and Gener del Rosario; as well as Brigadier Generals Antonio Rosario Jr., Joel Sergio, Ernesto Torres Jr., Luis Vincent Tacderas, Joselito Serrano, Roberto Ancan and Erwin Bernard Neri.

Also confirmed were Commodore Toribio Adaci Jr. (Philippine Navy) and Philippine Army Colonels (Reserve) Gaudencio Cantos III, Alfredo Lupig, Enrico Yuzon, Arsenio Andolong and Baltazar Catbagan.

ISIS alive and well in the Philippines

From the Asia Times (Mar 12): ISIS alive and well in the Philippines

New military-militant clashes show Islamic State's local affiliates have regrouped and spread since last year's siege of Marawi

Abandoned house vandalized with "I LOVE ISIS" graffiti in Marawi, southern Philippines on June 9, 2017. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP/Richard Atrero de Guzman

Abandoned house vandalized with "I LOVE ISIS" graffiti in Marawi, southern Philippines on June 9, 2017. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP/Richard Atrero de Guzman

Almost five months after Philippine troops flushed out Islamic State-aligned militants in the southern city of Marawi, fierce clashes erupted anew in restive Maguindanao province, leaving 44 Islamic militants killed, according to the military.

The dead — although their number could not be independently verified — belonged to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which like the Maute Group that laid siege to Marawi in May 2017, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

To be sure, BIFF members did not deliberately attack troops who were on martial law-related clearing operations in Maguindanao, a next possible flashpoint for an Islamic State-inspired uprising on the southern island of Mindanao.

On March 8, 2nd Mechanized Infantry Battalion troops under the army’s battle-tested 6th Infantry Division chanced upon an initial 50 BIFF members in the swamplands of Datu Saudi Ampatuan, some five hours away from Marawi by car.

According to the military, 26 more BIFF fighters were wounded, with only one injured from the army, in fighting that caused thousands of civilians to take flight to safer areas.

“The firefight was so intense. Our troops pounded them with heavy fires,” said Lieutenant Colonel Alvin Iyog. “They ran for their lives leaving behind improvised explosive devices, high-powered firearms, ammunition, and personal belongings stained with blood,” he claimed.

Soldiers stand guard in Mapandi village, Marawi City, June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco – RTX38N4D

Troops also reportedly recovered a black Islamic State flag during offensives that saw the military use aerial bombings and artillery strikes. The militants were reportedly reinforced with help from nearby communities.

The fresh clashes between the military and BIFF came days before the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) observed the “Bangsamoro Week of Peace” on March 12, with the theme “Hope and Solidarity in Struggle.”

The ARMM straddles five provinces all infiltrated by Islamic State-aligned militants— the BIFF and the Maute Group in Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur in the mainland, and the Abu Sayyaf Group in the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

For over four decades, various iterations of the Moro rebellion aimed at Muslim self-rule left the region impoverished, with governance changing hands among a few wealthy dynastic families.

Security analyst Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, noted that while the fresh firefight in Maguindanao was an offshoot of a regular military operation, threats from Islamic State-inspired militants remained real.

“Mindanao, particularly the ARMM, is deeply penetrated by ISIS Philippines,” Banlaoi told Asia Times.

Weapons and ISIS flags recovered from a militant group allied to the terror group in Sultan Kudarat province, Mindanao, in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Last month, the United States declared ISIS Philippines, reputedly composed of 23 armed groups mainly based in Mindanao, including the BIFF, as a foreign terrorist organization.

Following the liberation of Marawi from the Maute Group in October 2017, populist President Rodrigo Duterte admitted that Islamic State-affiliated militants were still actively recruiting and regrouping to sustain their drive to establish a caliphate in Southeast Asia.

Duterte, who placed the entire Mindanao under martial law in the wake of the Marawi siege and later extended the rights-curbing measure through December 2018, has also warned that Islamic militants and their supporters would avenge their defeat at Marawi, including through possible lone wolf attacks on key cities across the country.

Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the designated Islamic State emir in Southeast Asia, and two key Maute brothers who led the Marawi siege, were among the 1,100 mostly militants killed during the five-month war that left the city in shambles.

Last week, a military official in Mindanao announced that Abu Dar has succeeded Hapilon as the new Islamic State emir in Southeast Asia. The new emir, a full-blooded Maranao from Lanao del Sur, was reportedly among those who plotted the Marawi siege.

Banlaoi said “it will be very difficult at present for ISIS Philippines to mount a siege similar to Marawi elsewhere in Mindanao,” even with a new emir.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while delivering a speech during a visit to Marawi city, southern Philippines, October 17, 2017. Reuters/Stringer

But the security analyst also warned that ISIS Philippines has capabilities to launch intermittent bombings and other violent activities anywhere in the Philippines.

Islamic militants also continue to attract new recruits using assets looted during the Marawi siege, capitalizing on the inherent distrust of the Moro people against the government and on the slow pace of rehabilitation in Marawi. The reconstruction of the city’s ground zero are is yet to commence.

“ISIS Philippines is discreetly recruiting members like wild fire and it has established strong sleeper cells in key vulnerable cities in Mindanao,” Banlaoi claimed.

The BIFF, which is among the 23 armed groups said to compose ISIS Philippines, has launched guerilla-like attacks on military installations in Maguindanao even while troops were busy in Marawi last year, apparently to distract military attention.

If 44 BIFF fighters were indeed killed over the weekend, as the military has claimed, it would represent the rebel group’s biggest single loss since it broke away from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2010 due to ideological differences.

The MILF is the largest Moro rebel group in the country. It forged a final peace agreement with the government in 2014, the same year the breakaway BIFF pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

Under the peace accord, the MILF opted for greater autonomy, which the BIFF opposed as they want to establish an independent Islamic state in the south.

MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim noted that one of the key antidotes to defeating the spread of violent Islamic State ideology is to implement the peace accord through the passage of the law that replaces the ARMM with a new Bangsamoro region.

He recently told foreign correspondents in Manila that foreign Islamic State fighters forced out of Syria and Iraq have been arriving in the southern Philippines to propagate their agenda.

Another MILF leader, Mohagher Iqbal, said that a faction of the BIFF is coddling foreign Islamic State fighters.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana did not deny that foreign Islamic State fighters have been arriving in the southern Philippines, even after Marawi’s liberation.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (C) tries a M4 rifle donated by China’s government at military headquarters, Manila, October 5, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe
He said officials are verifying reports that militants from Indonesia and Malaysia, both of which sent fighters to Syria and Iraq, are leveraging vast and porous maritime borders to enter Mindanao and spread Islamic State ideology, both locally and throughout Southeast Asia.

Malaysian and Indonesian fighters were confirmed to have joined the Marawi siege last year.

Major General Arnel dela Vega, 6th Infantry Division commander, said intelligence information shows that the BIFF is consolidating its forces in the region, seen in the fresh clashes over the weekend.

“(We are) very determined to defeat the threat group and thwart them from doing terroristic activities in Central Mindanao,” the military official said. While that may be the case, it’s also clear the threat is fast spreading across a wider geography.

Soldier killed in NPA clash

From the Sun Star-Baguio (Mar 12): Soldier killed in NPA clash
A SOLDIER from the 50th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army is the latest casualty after a skirmish between the New People's Army on March 11 at Sitio Gisang, Poblacion Balbalan, Kalinga.
Private 1st Class Samuel Neri expired at the Kalinga Provincial District Hospital hours after being extracted from the encounter area due to multiple wounds sustained from a rifle grenade which hit the advance command post of the Philippine Army.
In a report by Kalinga Provincial Police Director Police Senior Superintendent Alfredo Dangani, the attack on the command post occurred while the soldiers were conducting a community support program in the area.
Brigadier General Leopoldo Imbang, commanding general of the 503rd Brigade, 5th Infantry Division who was guest of honor during the donning of ranks to newly promoted personnel of the Police Regional Office – Cordillera clarified the area was not a detachment as earlier reported.
"Skirmishes occurred between the government troops and the terrorists rebels who would not want the presence of the army in their area of operation. Things like this unfortunately happen resulting in government having a casualty, but we will undergo with the procedures for the benefit of the family of our slain soldier," Imbang said.
The skirmish lasted around 25 minutes, where at least 25 members of the rebel groups engaged the government troops before fleeing to different directions.
"We do not want things like this to happen. We are here to protect our countrymen and their community, and we are not here do any harm to our countrymen," Imbang added.