Updated: April 19, 2017 04:43 AM GMT
A peace deal with rebel groups in the southern Philippines is hoped to deter the rise of Islamic militancy in the region. (Photo by Mark Navales)
A Filipino Muslim leader dismissed reports of what is supposed to be a growing threat of Islamic State-inspired attacks in the southern part of the Philippines.
"The people involved in abductions and terror attacks in the past are the same people who are into it these days," said Mujiv Hataman, governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
He acknowledged the existence of groups like Abu Sayyaf and Maute, which have pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State, " but their numbers have dropped."
"Although there are some new recruits, many have been arrested or have already died in armed clashes with the military," said Hataman in an interview with ucanews.com.
The governor said an attack by Maute fighters carrying black flags of the town of Butig in central Mindanao in November last year was a "show of force."
"They want us to believe that they can do it by taking a video and posting it on social media to impress the international terror network," said Hataman.
"But it only happened in one area and was done by the same people," he said. "It did not spread to other places," he added.
"There was nothing new about it. The situation is the same as in the 1990s, or even better," said Hataman.
He said the Abu Sayyaf or Maute fighters might be capable of exploding bombs in cities, "but it doesn't mean that the number of terrorists in the country has grown."
"These explosions do not need many people," he said.
In Basilan province, where Abu Sayyaf started in the 1990s, the military has taken over the bases of the terrorist group with the help of local government units and communities.
Several Abu Sayyaf leaders, a group known for beheading hostages, have already fled the island province "because they have nowhere to hide."
Hataman said economic development and the building of government infrastructure projects, like roads to hinterland villages, helped in the decline of the number of people who help the terror group.
"The military can now enter mountainous areas," said Hataman.
He cited the recent abduction of a village leader in Basilan who was rescued by the military through the help of villagers.
"The military knew that the people in the village knew the whereabouts of the kidnappers," said Hataman.
"They don't hide where there are no people because they have no food supply," said the governor, adding that it is impossible for a village leader, a town mayor, even the governor not to know the whereabouts of the terrorists.
He said to fight terrorism the community should be involved. "The local government should be encouraged to participate in law enforcement against terrorists," he said.
The southernmost province of Sulu that shares a maritime border with Malaysia is a different story, said the governor.
"We have to strengthen border security, we have to improve our military assets like navy boats, fast craft, and helicopters," he said.
The people should also be more involved in efforts to go after terror groups.
Hataman also said a final peace agreement with the rebel groups Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) will avoid "vulnerabilities" that terror groups might take advantage of.
"If there is no peace deal, the armed units of the MILF and the MNLF might be demoralized and join militant groups," he said.
The governor said, warnings by the international community about the possible rise of terrorism in the region, is "understandable."
"It's in the news and has a semblance of being a new phenomenon, but it's not new. We know where these militants are operating and in what areas," said Hataman.
Even the reported entry of foreign terrorists in the Philippines is not something alarming.
"If there's only a few of them, if there are only ten, what can they do? The can be identified easily," he said.
Hataman said the situation in the southern Philippines is not comparable to what happened in Syria, Libya or Iraq.
"Nobody in Mindanao will launch suicide bombings, and the people are already tired of war," he said.