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Philippines Confirms Communication Between Islamic State in Syria and Local Affiliate

Senior Philippines defense officials have confirmed that Islamic State loyalists in the Asian island nation have established contact with terror group leaders in the Middle East. President Rodrigo Duterte delivered a plea to Islamic groups in the nation to reject the Islamic State and help police contain its supporters.

“I am earnestly asking, I am pleading to the MNLF and the MILF, do not provide sanctuary to the terrorists in your areas,” Duterte said in remarks on Friday. He was referring to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), armed Islamic groups stationed in southern Mindanao who do not have ties to the Islamic State. As mayor of Davao, one of Mindanao’s largest cities, for over two decades, Duterte has a long-established rapport with the MILF and MNLF. Both groups have publicly issued statements of support to Duterte.

Duterte warned the groups that, if they support Islamic State terrorists, “we will be forced to go after them within your territory, and that could mean trouble for all of us. I don’t want that to happen.” Duterte made a distinction between the armed Islamists of the MILF and MNLF — who use violence to attempt to establish an Islamic state within the Philippines — and the Islamic State, which have “killed a lot of innocent people.” Estimates suggest an estimated 120,000 people have been killed by the struggle between the two Moro separatist groups and the government.

Duterte’s outreach to the groups follows the revelation by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana that the Islamic State’s leaders in Iraq and Syria have established communications with groups who pledged allegiance to “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the Philippines. “They’ve made contact,” Lorenzana said Thursday. “One of the leaders… moved to Central Mindanao allegedly on the behest of ISIS people in the Middle East to find out if Central Mindanao is more conducive to the establishment of their wilayat [caliphate].”

The leader in question, Lorenzana added, was also tasked with consolidating the Islamic State’s presence in the region, including communicating with the violent Maute group, who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015.

Manila has already begun acting on the new intelligence regarding communications with Raqqa and Mosul. On Friday, the government announced that troops had already begun an operation, including airstrikes, on an Islamic State affiliate target on one of the nation’s southern islands.

The major Islamic State affiliate in the Philippines is Ansar al-Khilafah in the Philippines (AKP), formerly Abu Sayyaf. The group, an offshoot of the Moro Liberation groups, specializes in abducting Westerners for ransom and made $7 million in profit in ransoms in the first six months of 2016. To cut the flow of assets to the terrorist group, Duterte recently pledged not to attempt to rescue its hostages, warning Filipinos to avoid dangerous areas and not rely on ransom payments to come.

Duterte, who is from southern Mindanao, has previously warned that the Islamic State has been growing increasingly popular in his country, and the battle has become extremely personal for him. To be frank, I have cousins on the other side, with MI [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] and MN [Moro National Liberation Front]. Some, I heard, are with ISIS,” he told reporters earlier this month. Months before that revelation, Duterte warned that the Philippines has “problems with Muslim insurgency, and we have to address them before they get contaminated by the ISIS disease.”

The Philippines has confirmed that some of its citizens have joined the jihadist group in Iraq and Syria, even appearing in the group’s gruesome propaganda videos.

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