A member of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters shows off his firearm in this 2013 photo. (Photo by Mark Navales)
Even before the attack in Jakarta on Jan. 14, alarm bells have been ringing over the possible expansion of violent Islamist groups, especially the so-called Islamic State (IS), in Southeast Asia.
In the Philippines, at least four bandit groups — Ansar Al-Sharia Battalion, Ma'rakat Al-Ansar Battalion, Ansar Khilafa, and Alharakatakul Islamiyah or Abu Sayyaf — have declared a wilayat or Islamic province in Mindanao.
A video released Jan. 4 on a jihadi website shows Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon and other bandit leaders pledging allegiance to the IS. Hapilon has a US$5 million bounty for various atrocities, including the 2001 kidnapping of three American nationals and 17 others.
Security analysts warned that with terror camps being set up in the provinces of Sulu and Basilan, known lairs of the Abu Sayyaf group, the influence of IS will not only spread in the southern Philippines but also in eastern Malaysia.
Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, warned that the merger of terror groups in Mindanao "will present an unprecedented challenge to the Manila government."
Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, also said that IS influence in the Philippines will pose an "imminent threat to the country" and affect regional security.
Religious leaders in Mindanao said that people are afraid. "We cannot say that we are totally safe," said Spanish missionary priest Angel Calvo who has been involved in peace-building initiatives in the southern Philippines for the past 30 years.
Government troops pursue Islamist rebels in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao in this 2013 photo. (Photo by Mark Navales)
Regional terror alliance
Following the Jakarta attacks, Luhut Pandaitan, Indonesia's coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, announced that while the explosives used in the attacks were assembled in Jakarta, some of the weapons might have come from Mindanao.
The Philippine military said it will look into the report, although a military intelligence official did not discount the possibility because of the proliferation of firearms in Mindanao that might have been smuggled into Indonesia.
As early as last year, several terror cells in Southeast Asia have shown signs that they are forming an alliance under the banner of IS. This unification is not alien to these groups, which have shown effective alliances in the past.
In 2002, Filipino Islamist fighters were linked to the Bali bombing that killed about 200 people. There were also reports that some of the bombers trained in Mindanao under the Abu Sayyaf.
Malaysia's Mahmud Ahmad, also known as Abu Handzalah, a proponent of the unification of Southeast Asia's various terror cells, also has reportedly trained with the Abu Sayyaf and took part in several operations, including an attack of an army installation, in Mindanao.
Malaysian and Indonesian fighters continue to be involved in clashes between the Philippine military and terror groups in the provinces of Sulu and Basilan.
In November 2015, an Indonesian national was reported killed in a firefight in Palimbang town in Sultan Kudarat province. Early in the year, Malaysian terror bomber Zulkifli Abd Hir, also known as Marwan, was killed in Mindanao after a bungled police operation that cost the life of 44 police commandos.
Steven Rood, Asia Foundation country representative to the Philippines, said that the presence of foreign fighters in the Philippines hints at "transnational links" between Southeast Asian militant groups.
Although the Philippines has heightened its alert level in the wake of the Jakarta attacks, security officials are trying to downplay the terror threats in the country.
When asked about any possible security threat, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, said there has been "none monitored so far."
He assured that there are no specific threats except for the "usual threats from local terrorist groups" like the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Abu Sayyaf.
A joint police and military statement following the Jakarta attack said the Philippine government is aware of the "emerging threat" and security officials are conducting operations "to prevent terror acts anywhere in the country."
A soldier holds a damaged crucifix following an attack by a suspected Islamist group in a Christian village in Mindanao in December. (Photo by Mark Navales)
Countering terrorism on the ground
Peace advocates and religious leaders in Mindanao are confident that a negotiated peace deal between the government and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will counter the influence of extremist groups in the region.
"From the global security perspective, [the peace deal is] also a containment measure against jihadist extremism," said Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the government's peace negotiator with Islamist rebels in Mindanao.
In September last year, Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro warned of a rise of Islamic extremism in Mindanao especially if the Philippine government fails to address the clamor of Muslim Filipinos for an autonomous region in the southern part of the country.
"A failed [peace process] will favor the growth of extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism in Mindanao. It will not help solve the conflict," Ledesma told ucanews.com.
Ferrer said the creation of an autonomous region for Muslims will strengthen current efforts by different stakeholders in Mindanao to stop the armed conflict and stem the tide of extremism that has sprouted in other parts of the world.
She said the success of the peace process in Mindanao "can help us arrest the spread of extremism around the globe by showing clearly that an Islamic movement can address its grievances and pursue its interests through a legitimate mode of democratic political engagement."
But with less than 10 session days before legislators depart for the long election campaign, the proposed law to create a Muslim region in Mindanao seems doomed.
So it's back to the Philippine security forces to go after the terror groups.
If it's an assurance, the Philippines, compared to Indonesia, has been in conflict with terror groups for decades, even before the so-called global war on terror.
A 2015 analysis done by Combating Terrorism Center of the United States said that the Armed Forces of the Philippines "has the structure, the aptitude, and support of both the government and the populace to pursue the terrorist groups."
Joe Torres is the Philippines bureau chief for ucanews.com