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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

US eyes Taiwan risk as China’s military capabilities grow

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Washington: The United States is closely watching Chinese intentions toward Taiwan, concerned that Beijing’s growing military prowess may increase the risk it could one day consider bringing theself-ruled island under its control by force, a U.S. official said on Tuesday.

The senior US defense intelligence official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, did not predict that China’s military, known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), would take such a step but said such a possibility was the top worry as China expands and modernizes its military capabilities.

“The biggest concern is that … they are getting to a point where the PLA leadership may actually tell Xi Jinping that they are confident in their capabilities,” the official said, referring to China’s president.

 

Pressed on whether the official was referring to Chinese confidence in its capabilities to be able to successfully win a battle with Taiwan, the official said, “Well, specifically that would be the most concerning to me.”

Taiwan is only one of a growing number of flashpoints in the US-China relationship, including a trade war between the countries, US sanctions on the Chinese military, and China’s increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea.

However, in meetings with Pentagon leaders, PLA officials have long described Taiwan as China’s most sensitive issue.

China has repeatedly sent military aircraft and ships to circle the island on drills in the past few years and worked to isolate the island internationally, whittling down its few remaining diplomatic allies.

It has also strongly objected to U.S. warship passages through the Taiwan Strait this year, and issued a terse warning about Taiwan after talks in Beijing on Tuesday with the U.S. Navy’s top officer, Admiral John Richardson.

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High drama, few results as Donald Trump warns of ‘long’ shutdown

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Washington: Staring down the next deadline to pay federal workers, the White House shifted tactics Tuesday, trying to bypass House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to negotiate with rank-and-file lawmakers even as President Donald Trump dug in for a prolonged shutdown.

The House and Senate announced they would stay in session, cancelling an upcoming recess week at home if the shutdown continued, which seemed likely. On the shutdown’s 25th day, Trump did not move off his demand to have Congress provide $5.7 billion to build his promised border wall with Mexico. Democrats say they will discuss border security once the government has reopened, but Pelosi is refusing money for the wall they view as ineffective and immoral.

The president, on a conference call with supporters, showed no signs of backing down.

 

“We’re going to stay out for a long time, if we have to,” Trump said. “We’ll be out for a long time.”

Nancy Pelosi says House Democrats will quickly pass legislation to re-open the government – without border wall funds – when Congress convenes on Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calls the plan a total nonstarter.

With some 800,000 federal employees furloughed or working without pay, Trump suggested the partial shutdown that has clogged airport security lines and shuttered federal agencies was going smoothly.

“People are very impressed with how well government is working with the circumstances that we’re under,” Trump said.

Behind the scenes, though, the administration _ and its allies on Capitol Hill _ are warily eyeing the next payday, hoping to reach a resolution before next week’s Tuesday deadline when they’ll need to prepare the next round of paychecks for workers who have been seeing zeros on their pay slips.

“There is definitely a sense that there is a deadline approaching, which would be next Tuesday, to make sure that we’re able to solve this problem,” said Mercedes Schlapp, a White House spokeswoman.

Tuesday brought another day of high theatrics, but low substance, as the shutdown dragged into its fourth week.

The president, who a week ago seemed intent on declaring a national emergency in order to build the wall, has turned his attention back to Congress as polling shows he is taking much of the blame for the standoff.

The White House invited rank-and-file lawmakers to lunch with Trump at the White House as part of a strategy to build support from centrist Democrats and newly elected freshmen, including those from areas where the president is popular with voters.

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China takes lead in hypersonic weapons and missiles technology: Pentagon

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Washington: China is on the cusp of fielding some of the world’s most advanced weapons systems — and in some cases already has surpassed its rivals, a Pentagon assessment released on Tuesday found.

An unclassified report by the Defense Intelligence Agency says Beijing has made enormous military strides in recent years, thanks partly to domestic laws forcing foreign partners to divulge technical secrets in exchange for access to China’s vast market.

As a result of “acquiring technology by any means available,” China now is at the leading edge on a range of technologies, including with its naval designs, with medium- and intermediate-range missiles, and with hypersonic weapons — where missiles can fly at many times the speed of sound and dodge missile-defense systems.

 

“The result of this multifaceted approach to technology acquisition is a PLA (People’s Liberation Army) on the verge of fielding some of the most modern weapon systems in the world,” states the report, entitled “China Military Power.”

“In some areas, it already leads the world.”

China’s increasing military might means it has advanced capabilities in the air, at sea, in space and in cyberspace that will “enable China to impose its will in the region,” the report notes.

A particular focus for Beijing has been the prospect of an eventual conflict with Taiwan, which China sees as part of its territory.

Beijing has said it will not hesitate to use force if Taipei formally declares independence, or in the case of external intervention — including by the United States, the island’s most powerful unofficial ally.Speaking to Pentagon reporters, a senior defense intelligence official said he was worried China’s military is now advanced enough that PLA generals could feel confident they could invade Taiwan.

“The biggest concern is that as a lot of these technologies mature… (China) will reach a point where internally within their decision-making they will decide that using military force for a regional conflict is something that is more imminent,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Taiwan is a self-ruled island and has its own currency, flag and government, but is not recognized as an independent state by the United Nations.

Still, the official noted, China has not fought in a war for 40 years and its massive military and joint command structure lacks experience in real-world conflict.

“It will take a while for (the PLA) to be able to work these (military) services together, to be able to work these joint theaters and to be able to deal with a large, complex operation,” the official said.

The intelligence report said China is developing new medium- and long-range stealth bombers capable of striking regional and global targets.

Such planes will likely reach initial operational capability by about 2025, the report notes.

The official added that China keeps a lot of its military development secret by conducting research in underground complexes, away from the prying eyes of satellites.

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