ISLAMIC State-inspired extremist groups and foreign terrorists who joined their ranks had originally wanted to occupy three cities in Mindanao, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said Monday.
“They were trying to take over [a] much bigger [territory],” Cayetano said. “Not only Marawi City [but] at least two or three cities in Mindanao.”
Cayetano said the Islamic State was looking for new areas for their caliphate because if they lose the war in Iraq and Syria, they will need another base.
Earlier, President Rodrigo Duterte said the attack on Marawi City was carried out on direct orders from Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The plot to take over more cities, however, was foiled when government troops launched a preemptive raid on Marawi to capture Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the Abu Sayyaf group and the Islamic State’s “emir” of Southeast Asia, Cayetano said.
“We saw money coming in and we already saw… narco-politicians were joining,” he said.
He added that Indonesia and Malaysia have offered to share intelligence information to crush extremism at the regional level.
A security official who requested anonymity told the Manila Standard that IS-inspired extremists were planning terror attacks in Davao City, some areas of Maguindanao and Cotabato City, as well as the cities of Zamboanga, Lamitan and General Santos.
Abu Sayyaf attacks in Palawan were also a possibility, the security official said.
Security officials said they were also closely monitoring movements of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which was establishing networks in the Davao region.
On Sunday, Duterte said he’d received information from his security officials saying the ISIS leader ordered the conduct of terroristic activities in the Philippines.
Cayetano said the Indonesian foreign minister proposed a dialogue on how radicalization can be solved on a regional scale.
“We want to coordinate very well with Indonesia and Malaysia so they won’t also suffer at the hands of extremists,” Cayetano said.
“But the President knew at the start of his term that, as the allies become more successful in Syria and Iraq, they [Islamic State] will be looking for a land base, and Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines will be a potential target to them,” Cayetano said.
In Marawi City, troops raised the Philippine flag to mark Independence Day Monday in a tearful ceremony dedicated to the scores killed in the conflict.
Thousands of soldiers, advised by US Special Forces, are locked in fierce combat with hundreds of insurgents who overran Marawi City on May 23, flying black flags of the Islamic State group and using up to 2,000 civilians as human shields.
As gunfire rang out and planes flew bombing raids to pummel districts of the largely-abandoned city, a crowd of soldiers and officials gathered outside a nearby government building to raise the Philippine flag.
“This is dedicated to soldiers who offered their lives to implement our mission in Marawi City,” said Col. Jose Maria Cuerpo, commander of a Philippine Army brigade fighting in Marawi.
The annual ceremony marks the anniversary of an armed revolt against Spanish colonial rule.
Fighting in the city has left 58 soldiers and police and more than 20 civilians dead, the military said, estimating that almost 200 militants have been killed in the clashes.
Tens of thousands have fled Marawi, which is the Catholic country’s most important Muslim city, since troops unexpectedly interrupted plans by the fighters to take over Marawi in a spectacular event to show that IS had arrived in the Philippines.
President Duterte has said the militant attack was part of a wider plot by IS to establish a base in the southern region of Mindanao, and declared martial law there to quell the threat.
But the military has struggled to defeat the heavily-armed gunmen, who have used hostages and pre-existing bomb-proof tunnels to entrench their positions.
“As you know the target was to liberate Marawi today, June 12, but... you can see how complex the problem is and how many new developments there are,” Cayetano told reporters in Manila.
On Sunday, the region’s military chief, Lt.-Gen. Carlito Galvez, told a news conference that the fight would be “most difficult, deadly, bloody, and it will take days and months to clear up.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said a captured militant told the military the IS chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had directly “incited” the gunmen to attack the city of 200,000.
As the conflict intensifies, the US embassy in Manila said on Saturday American forces were providing assistance to the Filipino troops, although it declined to give details for security reasons.
The two countries are bound by a 1951 mutual defense treaty, though Duterte has tried to steer the Philippines away from US influence since he became president last year.
On Monday, the Justice Department asked the Department of the Interior and Local Government to allocate resources for the detention of members of the Maute terrorist group and their supporters.
Authorities arrested last week Cayamora and Farhana Maute, parents of brothers Omar and Abdullah who are leading the terrorist group that attacked Marawi City.
Some of their relatives have also been arrested as authorities confiscated cash and various types of firearms. With Rey E. Requejo, AFP
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