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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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Amid Indo-Pak tension, Navy deployed nuclear submarines, aircraft carrier

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New Delhi: Aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, nuclear submarine Chakra, 60 ships and nearly 80 aircraft were put on operational deployment by the Indian Navy in the North Arabian sea in the wake of escalating tensions between India and Pakistan following the Pulwama terror attack, officials said.

They said the naval assets were part of a mega exercise but they transited from the area of the drill for operational deployment soon after the February 14 Pulwama terror attack that increased tensions between Pakistan and India.

At a tri-services press conference on February 28, the Indian Navy said it was in a high state of readiness to “deter, prevent and defeat” any “misadventure” by Pakistan in the maritime domain, reflecting a sense of its preparedness as well as seriousness of the situation.

 

“The major combat units of the Indian Navy including the Carrier Battle Group with INS Vikramaditya, nuclear submarines and scores of other ships, submarines and aircraft swiftly transited from exercise to operational deployment mode as tensions between India and Pakistan escalated,” Navy Spokesperson Capt DK Sharma said.

The naval assets comprising 60 ships of the Indian Navy, 12 ships of the Indian Coast Guard, and 60 aircraft were part of the theatre level operational readiness exercise (TROPEX 19), which commenced on January 19 in Andaman and Nicobar islands, and was to be concluded on March 10.

However, the Jaish-e-Mohammed sponsored Pulwama attack on February 14 led to the rapid redeployment of ships, submarines and aircraft for operations in North Arabian sea, Capt Sharma said.

“The overwhelming superiority of Indian Navy in all three dimensions — on surface, under-sea and in air — forced the Pakistan Navy to remain deployed close to the Makran coast and not venture out in the open ocean,” he said.

Twelve days after the Pulwama attack, Indian fighter jets bombed the Jaish-e-Mohammed’s biggest training camp near Balakot deep inside Pakistan on February 26. Pakistan retaliated by attempting to target Indian military installations next day.

Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba will assess outcome of the TROPEX in the Kochi naval base on Monday.

The day-long review by Admiral Lanba with all operational commanders is intended to examine the conduct of the exercise and to assess the operational preparedness of the Indian Navy, said the Navy spokesperson.

Exercise Tropex was followed by the largest coastal defence drill — ‘Sea Vigil’ on January 22 and 23 with participation of 13 coastal states and union territories along with all maritime stakeholders.

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‘Don’t have any grudge’: Husband of victim says he forgives NZ mosque gunman

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Christchurch: A man whose wife was killed in the Christchurch attack as she rushed back into a mosque to rescue him said he harbours no hatred toward the gunman, insisting forgiveness is the best path forward.

“I would say to him ‘I love him as a person’,” Farid Ahmad told AFP. “I could not accept what he did. What he did was a wrong thing.”

Asked if he forgave the 28-year-old white supremacist suspect, he said: “Of course. The best thing is forgiveness, generosity, loving and caring, positivity.”

 

Husna Ahmad, 44, was killed at the Al Noor mosque — the first of two targeted by the gunman.

Fifty people, at least four of them women, were killed in the attack on the mosques where worshippers had gone for Friday prayers.

Ahmad and his wife emigrated from Bangladesh to New Zealand in 1990 and have one daughter.

When the shooting started, Husna helped several people escape from the women’s and children’s hall.

“She was screaming ‘come this way, hurry up’, and she took many children and ladies towards a safe garden,” Ahmad said.

“Then she was coming back for checking about me, because I was in a wheelchair, and as she was approaching the gate she was shot. She was busy saving lives, forgetting about herself.”

Ahmad, 59, who has been confined to a wheelchair since being hit by a drunk driver in 1998, believes he escaped the hail of bullets because the gunman was focused on other targets.

“This guy was shooting one person two, three times, probably that gave some time to us to move out… even the dead he was shooting them again.”

Ahmad, who was a butcher but now sells homeopathy products, did not see his wife when he left the mosque and only learned of her death after someone photographed her body.

“Her picture was out in the social media, so somebody showed me the picture and I identified quite easily.”

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China says 13,000 Xinjiang ‘terrorists’ arrested since 2014

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Beijing: China says it has arrested nearly 13,000 people it describes as terrorists in the traditionally Islamic region of Xinjiang since 2014 and broken up hundreds of “terrorist gangs.”

The figures were included in a government report on the situation in the restive northwestern territory that seeks to respond to growing criticism over the internment of an estimated 1 million members of the Uighur (WEE-gur) and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups.

China describes the camps as vocational training centers and says participation is voluntary. Former detainees say they were held in abusive conditions, forced to renounce Islam and swear allegiance to China’s ruling Communist Party.

 

The lengthy report issued Monday also says “law-based de-radicalization” in Xinjiang has curbed the rise and spread of religious extremism.

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