June 19, 2018, 4:36 pm
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Army chief: ISIS has sleeper cells in PH

ARMY chief Lt. Gen. Rolando Bautista yesterday said the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has sleeper cells throughout the country, ready to be activated for terrorist attacks.

Bautista made the remarks in an interview at the Army headquarters in Fort Bonifacio, a day before the first anniversary of the attack on Marawi City by the Maute group which has declared allegiance to the ISIS. 

“We discovered after the Marawi campaign that there are ISIS sleeper cells not only in Mindanao but also in Luzon and the Visayas,” said Bautista, who served as head of the Joint Task Force Marawi.

The task force liberated the city on October 23, or five months after its occupation. The conflict resulted in the death of 974 terrorists, 168 soldiers and policemen, and 47 civilians.

“You can see the presence of ISIS cells in Baguio, Dagupan, Tarlac, Pangasinan. In the Visayas, there are (cells) in Samar, Cebu and so forth. If they will orchestrate terrorist activities, it might be in the form of lone wolf,” said Bautista.

“If they are activated, they can create simultaneous terrorist activities, for example, one or two explosions in one area and an assassination in Cebu, liquidation. That will create a big impact although two or three persons will carry that out. That is their most probable strategy in the meantime,” said Bautista.

Bautista said terrorist groups may not be able to launch a Marawi-like attack in the next three to five years, noting that their strength had been degraded during the military operations in Marawi City.

He noted the deactivation of the Joint Task Force Marawi and the activation of the National Joint Task Force Bangon Marawi which is spearheading the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the city.

He said the enemy strength has been “totally reduced in terms of leadership, in terms of armament, in terms of foreign support.”

“Their hardcore fighters have been neutralized in the main battle area,” he added.

Bautista nevertheless said the ISIS- influenced groups “are still recruiting” although the Maute group had been “reduced in terms of strength and capability.”

Bautista named the Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and the Khilafah Islamiyah Mindanao as among the ISIS-influenced groups. These groups, along with the Maute Group, have pledged with the ISIS a few years ago.

A security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bautista’s statement may not be entirely accurate.

“I think the statement is purely speculative and not based on actual or factual information... With all due respect to CGPA (Commanding General, Philippine Army), I think his statement is a product of an intel assessment that is highly speculative,” he said.

“When you say sleeper cell, they were recruited a long time ago, projected to a specific area, lied low for some time and maybe just gathering information, and then activated for a specific mission or tasking,” the source said.

He said those who joined the “jihad” in the Marawi siege came from various areas and were not members of sleeper cells. 

“If ever some were able to go back to their area after the siege to consolidate and recover, it will be difficult for them to launch individual and simultaneous attacks at different parts of the country due to financial, logistical, security and cultural reasons,” he said.

He said sleeper cells have leaders, bomb makers, surveillance people, and logistics man. He said these are deployed in certain areas for “future attacks.”

“Now assuming that there are ISIS members who went back to Luzon after Marawi (siege), they cannot be considered immediately as sleeper cells,” he said.

He said “lone wolves” are entirely different from sleeper cells. 

“Lone wolves, for all intents and purposes, have no connection with ISIS because their attacks at the time of execution have no support or were not planned by the group (ISIS) or any of its leaders,” he said.

He said lone wolves are mostly “self-radicalized and act on their own based on their belief that they are contributing to jihad and they will become martyr.”

Meanwhile, 641 Army enlisted personnel have been promoted to the next higher rank for their contribution in the liberation of Marawi City. Bautista led the donning of the rank for the soldiers yesterday in Fort Bonifacio.

Bautista told them, “You put your lives on the line and you did not fail your country all in the name of service. I hope that when the time comes that you are needed, you won’t hesitate to give your best, even your lives, for the country.”

Col. Romeo Brawner, spokesman of the military’s Joint Task Force Ranao, said Air Force and Navy personnel would also be promoted for their role in Marawi but could not immediately give details.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said President Duterte is satisfied with efforts to rehabilitate Marawi City.

Government has launched a P72-billion rehabilitation program. 

Roque said about 70 percent of displaced residents have returned to the city and provided with temporary or permanent shelters.

Roque also said the government has lined up some activities to commemorate the siege which include a possible visit to Marawi by the President. – With Jocelyn Montemayor
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