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Islamic State finds safe haven in the Philippines

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Mindanao : Despite Islamic State’s failure last year to establish a caliphate in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, foreign militants continue to flock to the island of Mindanao, waiting in the wings to strike anew.

Security analysts and military officials say at least 100 foreign terrorist fighters are now holed up with a range of local armed groups that have pledged their allegiance to Islamic State.

Filipino troops needed five months to flush out Islamic State-allied Maute and Abu Sayyaf fighters from their positions in Marawi, which one year later has yet to rise from the ashes of the urban war that left its core in ruins.

 

Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, claims in an interview with Asia Times that Islamic State foreign fighters are now streaming into Mindanao and that the situation is “getting worse.”

His claim is based on information he collected over several months from state security agencies. “The entry of FTFs (foreign terrorist fighters) to the Philippines continues despite the liberation of Marawi,” Banlaoi told the Asia Times on October 30.

He also says that at least 60 have been identified by state agents through their aliases, while nearly 30 others are unidentified.

The figure is significantly higher than the 48 foreign fighters that the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ intelligence unit said were operating in Mindanao as of January 2018.

A repeat of last year’s months-long siege would be disastrous for the Philippines and the wider region. The urban war left some 1,100 individuals dead, mostly Islamist gunmen, including 32 foreign fighters, according to the Philippine military.

Over 350,000 civilians were displaced by the war that began on May 23 last year, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte to place all of Mindanao under rights-curbing martial law. The order will remain in effect until the end of this year.

Duterte, the country’s first president from Mindanao who claims to have meranaw (Marawi residents refer to themselves as such) roots, declared the liberation of Marawi on October 17, 2017.

More than one year on, though, some 70,000 civilians have yet to return to Marawi’s 250-hectare ground zero, a restriction that has fed local anger and resentment in evacuation centers that have emerged as militant recruitment grounds.

Foreign Islamic State fighters often pose as tourists, students overstaying their visas, foreign workers or economic migrants, and at least 10 of them have been arrested since the start of this year, Banlaoi said.

Foreign Islamic State fighters have recently arrived in Mindanao from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Morocco, Spain, France, Tunisia, Iraq,

Somali, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China, he says, based on government monitoring of the movements.

Most are coming from neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia, using Mindanao’s maritime backdoor through the seas of Sulu and Celebes, known as the Sulawesi Sea in Indonesia.

The Malaysian terror suspects usually enter the southern Philippines through the province of Tawi-Tawi from the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo Island, while the Indonesians tend to come through the provinces of Davao Occidental and Sarangani from North Sulawesi.

The three neighboring nations share broad maritime borders in what is considered the second busiest shipping trade route in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“The FTFs regard Mindanao as the new land of jihad, safe haven and alternative home base,” Banlaoi said. “They join local groups to wage jihad in the Philippines on behalf of the Islamic State.”

The foreign Islamic State fighters are luring local militants with the promise of an East Asian Wilaya, or Islamic province, after the failure to establish one in Mindanao after their defeat in Marawi, Banlaoi said.

Lieutenant Colonel Gerry Besana, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Western Mindanao Command, said Islamic State continues to inspire local Muslim armed groups despite their military defeat last year at Marawi.

He also said that foreigners who pledge allegiance to the Islamic State continue to join local Islamic militant groups, confirming Banlaoi’s assessment.

“Some of these foreign terrorists are coming in through our porous borders,” Besana said, referring to the Sulu and Sulawesi seas that the Philippines shares with Malaysia and Indonesia.

The military official said the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have intensified joint navy patrols in border waters in a multilateral cooperation to fight terror threats.

While acknowledging that security forces alone can not detect foreign terrorist fighters because of the nation’s long coastlines and rugged jungles in Mindanao, the official called on the public to report suspicious foreigners to authorities for verification of their identities.

Local militant groups have instead provided sanctuary to foreign terrorists in the past. That includes well-known Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan,” a bomb-making expert who was killed in Maguindanao province’s Mamasapano town in January 2015.

Marwan was given safe haven by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a Islamic militant group which has recently declared its allegiance to Islamic State and is accused of orchestrating recent bombings in the region.

Besana said foreign terrorist fighters are arriving in Mindanao because of Islamic State’s “waning influence in the Middle East and in other parts of the world.”

Preventing foreign terrorist fighters from entering the country is difficult for the military and other law enforcement agencies because they often disguise their identities. And while Islamic State aligned groups were defeated at Marawi, it’s not clear where or how they intend to strike next, Besana says.


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International

India-Pak set to fight it out over Kashmir at UNHRC session

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India and Pakistan are set to battle it out over Kashmir during the ongoing 42nd UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session here on Tuesday. Both the countries have deployed their big guns for the “diplomatic offensive.”

The Indian delegation is led by Ajay Bisaria, the India High Commissioner to Pakistan who was sent back after Pakistan unilaterally downgraded ties, and Vijay Thakur Singh, Secretary East. The delegation had recently met the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and briefed her about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir since after the abrogation of Article 370.

On Monday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi embarked on a three-day visit to Geneva. He is expected to lead the Pakistani charge over Kashmir issue at the UNHRC session. On Monday, Qureshi in a tweet said Pakistan will speak “definitively” at UNHRC sessions over the Kashmir issue.

 

“Pakistan will speak definitively at the UNHRC Session in Geneva on the continued Indian atrocities in #Kashmir. As High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said: The People of Kashmir must be consulted and engaged in any decision-making processes,” he said in a tweet. During her address to the Human Rights Council, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Monday said that she was “deeply concerned” over the “impact of recent actions” by the Indian government on the “human rights of Kashmiris” including the detention of political leaders and activists in Jammu and Kashmir.. (ANI)

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Trump cancels peace talks with Taliban after Kabul bombing

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Washington/Islamabad, September 8: US President Donald Trump on Saturday said he cancelled peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders after the insurgent group said it was behind an attack in Kabul that killed an American soldier and 11 other people.

Trump said he had planned a secret meeting with the Taliban’s “major leaders” on Sunday at a presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland. Trump said he also planned to meet with Afghanistan’s President.

But Trump said he immediately called the talks off when the insurgents said they were behind the attack.

 

“If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway,” Trump said on Twitter.

Taliban fighters, who now control more territory than at any time since 2001, launched fresh assaults on the northern cities of Kunduz and Pul-e-Khumri over the past week and carried out two major suicide bombings in the capital Kabul.

One of the blasts, a suicide attack in Kabul on Thursday, took the life of US Army Sergeant 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Puerto Rico, bringing the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan this year to 16.

A spike in attacks by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan has been “particularly unhelpful” to peace efforts there, a senior US military commander said on Saturday as he visited neighbouring Pakistan, where many Taliban militants are based.

US Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, who oversees American troops in the region, declined to comment on the diplomatic negotiations themselves.

Earlier this week, US and Taliban negotiators struck a draft peace deal which could lead to a drawdown in US troops from America’s longest war. But a wave of Taliban violence has cast a long shadow over the deal.

“It is particularly unhelpful at this moment in Afghanistan’s history for the Taliban to ramp up violence,” McKenzie, head of US Central Command, told reporters travelling with him.

McKenzie said for the peace process to move forward, “all parties should be committed to an eventual political settlement” which, in turn, should result in reduced violence.

“If we can’t get that going in, then it is difficult to see the parties are going to be able to carry out the terms of the agreement, whatever they might or might not be,” McKenzie said.

Under the draft accord, thousands of U.S. troops would be withdrawn over the coming months in exchange for guarantees Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.

However, a full peace agreement to end more than 18 years of war would depend on subsequent “intra Afghan” talks. The Taliban have rejected calls for a ceasefire and instead stepped up operations across the country.

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333 Pak Twitter accounts suspended over Kashmir content

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Islamabad, Sep 5 : Pakistan has admitted that 333 Twitter accounts have been suspended for writing on Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370.

The handles were suspended by Twitter following the objection by the Indian authorities in view of false and provocative content being disseminated through the accounts.

The Pakis­tan Telecommuni­cation Authority (PTA) raised the issue of suspension of tweets and blocking of Twitter accounts with the Twitter administration on Wednesday, reported Dawn news.

 

The PTA has termed the Twitter administration’s approach as biased. According to the statement issued by the regulator, it has also requested Pakistani social media users to report any Twitter account suspension on the pretext of posting Kashmir content to the PTA.

The PTA has already received 333 such complaints which were sent then to Twitter to be restored, however, only 67 accounts were restored, reported Dwn news.

The PTA said Twitter has not responded officially nor given any reason for the suspension of these accounts.

The regulator said it is already making efforts to engage with Twitter to ensure freedom of expression for social media users in Pakistan.

It said it has invited Twitter’s administration for a meeting in Pakistan or anywhere they prefer in order to have meaningful discussions and devise a workable arrangement. But Twitter is yet to respond, PTA said.

Dawn reported in August that some 200 Twitter accounts were suspended for apparently posting about Kashmir. The claim came from journalists, activists, government officials and fans of the military tweeting.

Director-General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor had then said the authorities had taken up with Twitter and Facebook regarding the suspension of Pakistani social media accounts.

Under The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, PTA is the sole body that can officially block access to unlawful online content on the internet and take it up with relevant platforms in cases where the PTA is unable to block them because of technical grounds.

The telecom sector regulator has also asked the users of the microblogging site to register their concerns about the suspension of their tweets or blocking of their accounts at the email address [email protected] (IANS)

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