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Mindanao 'has become base' for Indonesian militants

Experts fear southern Philippines emerging as an Islamic State terrorist training ground

Mindanao 'has become base' for Indonesian militants

A man holds up a banner during a prayer vigil after bomb attacks in Jakarta in this Jan. 14, 2016 file photo. (ucanews.com photo)

Concerns are mounting that the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, where a siege by so-called Islamic State-linked gunmen is underway, has become a base for Indonesian militants with the group being increasingly shut out of Syria and Iraq.

Indonesian fighters, as well as others from Malaysia and elsewhere in Asia, have been reportedly slipping into Mindano, where Marawi City is under attack and where up to 1,500 people, including a Catholic priest, are trapped or being held hostage.

They are also suspected of funneling funds into the region.

"Indonesian militants have known about the region for years. They have built relations and communications with the Abu Sayyaf group and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. No wonder the region has become one of their bases for training and consolidation," Taufik Andrie from the Jakarta-based international peace-building institute of Yayasan Prasasti Perdamaian told ucanews.com on June 13.

"Indonesian militants find it difficult to enter Syria and Iraq. So they look for another region which is safe for them to join in terror attacks."

Mindanao is only a 45 minute speed-boat ride from Borneo, a large island home to Indonesian and Malaysian provinces.

Andrie added that it would not be easy to build a terrorist base in Indonesia, as counterterrorism efforts have been effective.

"Once a militant cell in uncovered, it will lead to the arrest of other militants. The only way for them to prevent arrests is to move out of the country to the north," he noted.

Indonesian police formed the anti-terror squad Densus 88 in 2003 to curb terrorism. In 2010, the government established the National Counterterrorism Agency to de-radicalize arrested terrorists.

Andrie also warned that Indonesian militants currently residing in the region could however return home, leading to a fresh wave of terrorist attacks on Indonesian soil

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Father Antonius Benny Susetyo, a social activist, sees this as a clear threat to the archipelago nation. "It will be very dangerous if we cannot counter the militants' ideology. This is not only the government's responsibility but society's," he said.

He suggested that law enforcement be tightened. "There is a need for better digital policing because social media is an effective medium for terrorist recruitment," said Father Susetyo, who is also the national council secretary for the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace.

Previously, the counterterrorism agency head, Suhardi Alius, told reporters that more than 40 Indonesian militants belonging to the IS-linked Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) group were believed to have joined militants of the local Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups in clashes with Philippine security forces in Marawi.

Gunmen claiming to have links with the Islamic State group that attacked the city on May 23, burning a Catholic cathedral and a Protestant school as well as kidnapping a Catholic priest.

According to Alius, JAD shares a similar objective with the region's radical groups, which is to establish an Islamic state.

Established in March 2015, JAD is led by Aman Abdurrahman, who is now serving time in Nusakambangan prison in Central Java. Its militants are believed responsible for terror attacks in Jakarta, including May 25 suicide bombings in East Jakarta that killed three policemen and injured 10 people.

Early this month, Densus 88 arrested 11 suspected terrorists belonging to JAD — three in North Sumatra; two in West Java; five in Banten; and one in Yogyakarta.

National Police spokesman, Martinus Sitompul, said that one of these suspected terrorists allegedly facilitated Indonesian militants' passage to the southern Philippines and transferred money amounting to about US$7,500 to the region in February.

"We will help the Philippine government identity Indonesian militants and ascertain their relationship with terrorists in Marawi," Sitompul was quoted by tempo.co, as saying.

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