Tight watch in the South

A new chapter in the military’s counterterrorism drive may yet begin to unfold with the Taliban’s ascent to power in Afghanistan

THE military is stepping up both its intelligence and combat operations against local and foreign-aligned terrorist groups in Mindanao in the aftermath of the Taliban’s assumption to power in Afghanistan following two decades of conflict with its Western-backed government.

The Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom), which has operational jurisdiction over areas where Moro militants, terrorists and fundamentalists operate, is not ruling out the possibility that the Taliban’s success may encourage local outlawed groups to aspire for power and unleash their own forms of “adventurism.”

Kabul—where the government crumbled and its army melted in the onslaught of Taliban fighters who immediately declared Afghanistan as an Islamic emirate—is almost 6,000 miles away from the Philippines, but the military certainly knows that beliefs and ideologies transcend boundaries.

“We are intensifying our intelligence operations to monitor the movements of armed groups here in Mindanao to preempt any terror ploy in our area of operation,” Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan Jr., commander of  WestMinCom, told the BusinessMirror.

“Our gallant soldiers are always on full alert for any security challenge. The military is always on guard against emerging threats in the area,” added the military commander, who had been credited with stopping the rampage of terrorists in Mindanao.

Ties that bind

WITH the current state and strength of the terrorist groups operating in Mindanao, described as much weakened and badly bruised due to the deaths of their key leaders and members, Vinluan believes that the terrorists can no longer carry out another strategic operation.

“Our deliberate offensives debilitated the terror groups, hence we don’t think that the remaining members of the said groups have the capacity to replicate what was done by the Taliban in Afghanistan,” the military commander said.

Nonetheless, he and the rest of WestMinCom are not taking any chances.

The Taliban, a terrorist group, had harbored and accorded security and protection to the late al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and other key leaders of the international terrorist group in Afghanistan until bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces during the term of former President Barack Obama.

During its heyday as the world’s number-one terrorist group, the popularity of the al-Qaeda was embraced by Moro militants in Mindanao by taking up its cause and even welcoming its members into their midst while providing them security, sanctuary and protection.

Presence in Mindanao

AFGHANISTAN was where known Moro militants have fought and were fully immersed into the cause of jihad before they returned to the country and became the original founders and leaders of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which began in Basilan.

The presence of al-Qaeda in Mindanao was repeated in the case of the Islamic State (IS), whose members were welcomed by local terrorist groups who were later led into joining the siege of Marawi City in Lanao del Sur in 2017.

The IS did not only manage to recruit members among the local groups, but its leader in Southeast Asia even came from the ASG in the person of the late Isnilon Hapilon, the former ASG commander in Basilan.

The IS, while training local terrorists in bomb making and terror activities, and even indoctrinating some of them to become suicide bombers, had struck alliances with local terrorist groups like the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Maute Group and Daulah Islamiyah, aside from the ASG.

Even the regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah had set foot in Mindanao.

The WestMinCom holds operational jurisdictions over where all these international terrorist groups have operated or have been present and where local terrorist groups operate in dwindling numbers—like the provinces of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan, the Lanao provinces, Zamboanga Peninsula and in Central Mindanao.

Security gains

GIVEN the history of Western Mindanao in hosting international terrorist groups where their local counterparts have been partly lured by their funding, the last thing that the country wants to happen is to see local terrorists being goaded by the Taliban’s success, if not seek funding from the group. The Taliban is already in full control of Afghanistan’s national coffers, but reports said it may find it hard to govern in the next few days as the West has frozen much of its assets.

Vinluan said that beyond developments in Afghanistan, they continue to bolster their offensive and “employ peaceful mechanisms to sustain the growing peace and possibly neutralize the remaining members of the different threat groups” in Mindanao.

“Through our nonlethal operations, we are able to win not only the trust of the people but the enemies’ as well. Such is evident in the mounting number of rebels that surrendered to the government forces, the terror ploys that we thwarted, and the enemy strongholds that we overran,” he explained.

“So to a greater extent, the security situation in the region has momentously improved; thus we are confident that we will be able to sustain the momentum,” Vinluan said.

In pursuit of peace and development, Vinluan said, WestMinCom’s intelligence operations as well as its combat and noncombat efforts have been intensified, even before the chaos in Afghanistan took its present course, and the tempo will be maintained in order to prevent local terrorists from creating havoc in peaceful communities.

For one, the WestMinCom commander said that both the right hand and left hand approaches that they made in dealing with the ASG and other IS-linked groups have led to the “debilitation” of these groups.

“Kidnappings, ambuscades, bombings and other atrocities were reduced and, to a greater extent, eradicated through the security operations we continuously conduct,” he said.

“The current strength of the IS-linked groups has constantly dwindled with the all-out campaigns that we launched. There is also a surge in the number of capitulations of militants in the operational area,” Vinluan added.

The bloody rampage of the IS and its allies in Marawi City has degraded the terrorists’ manpower and capability to carry out hostile plans, while leaving them “worn out,” weakened by the neutralization of their leaders and fighters, Vinluan said.

The sustained security operations also prevented their re-emergence and constricted their strongholds.

“But we cannot deny the fact that the threat will continue to exist even with the neutralization of hard-core leaders. As long as there are hard-core rebels willing to risk their lives and limbs to sow terror and perpetrate violence against the innocent, the line of succession will always be followed to carry out the operations of the armed groups,” Vinluan admitted.

“There will be armed groups that will attempt to raise arms and repeat the rampage in Marawi, but if we relentlessly pursue terrorists through deliberate operations and convergence, then we can contain these groups. So, the key is really to sustain our gains to defeat terrorist groups,” he said.

In Vinluan’s view,  to end Mindanao’s security threats, the military must intensify its operations and “engage in peaceful mechanisms through the intercession of the people and the convergence of the different sectors,” which he said is the “holistic approach” and the effective way to defeat terrorism in Mindanao.

“With the significant breakthroughs that we have attained in the campaign against terrorism and violent extremism in the previous years, we have learned the best approaches that we should apply towards the attainment of lasting peace and development. We continuously implement peaceful mechanisms to address the grievances of the vulnerable groups of the society and prevent them from being indoctrinated with false ideologies of the radical groups. Together with our partners and stakeholders, we continue to engage in the communities to prevent them from embracing radicalization,” he said.

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