The Indonesian defence minister has claimed there are 1,200 Islamic State (IS) fighters operating in the Philippines.
Speaking at an international security forum in Singapore, General Ryamizard Ryacudu also estimated there were up to a million IS sympathisers in his own country.
Referring to the ongoing chaos in Marawi City, the minister called the militants “killing machines” and urged full-scale regional cooperation against them.
“I was advised last night, 1,200 ISIS in the Philippines, around 40 from Indonesia,” he told the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“The terrorism threat in this region has evolved into an unprecedented immediate level of emergency.
“The death group’s area of operation has gone global.”
He also urged the expansion of the join anti-piracy patrols conducted by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in the waters around Mindanao to include Singapore and Thailand and focus more on terrorism.
However, speaking at a press conference today (Monday, June 5), Philippine military spokesman Restituto Padilla Jr said the figure 1,200 “came as a surprise”.
“The revelations of the Indonesian defence minister is something that came as a surprise to us because as what was mentioned by senior defence officials, in truth, we don’t have those numbers.
“We don’t have specific proof yet of the presence of foreign fighters.”
The threat of heightened terrorism, including the potential return of hundreds of battle hardened Southeast Asian fighters from the Middle East, has been a major focus of the three-day summit, which is also attended by US Defence Secretary James Mattis.
Hundreds of Islamist terrorists continue to hold out in Marawi City since going on the rampage on May 23. The chaos broke out after a failed attempt to arrest, Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf commander who has been named as IS’s representative, or ’emir’, in the region. It is believed he was being harboured by the local Maute terror group and seeking to ally the various Islamist groups in the Philippines under the blag flag of IS.
Up to 50 gunmen are still controlling parts of the city nearly two weeks after the start of fighting that has left 177 people, including 120 terrorists, dead.
“How can we tackle these foreign fighters? We have to be comprehensive,” said Gen Ryamizard.
“We have to find complete ways but we must exercise caution, they are killing machines. Their aim is to kill other people so that’s why it’s our responsibility that we have common understanding, consensus and common proceedings on how to fight these foreign fighters.”
Philippine Defence Undersecretary General Ricardo David, speaking at the same forum, also said he didn’t recognise the 1,200 figure.
“I really don’t know, my figure is about 250-400, a lot less,” he told reporters.
However, he added that there were 40 foreign jihadists identified in Marawi, eight of whom — from Malaysia, Indonesia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya — were killed by government forces.
He also said the foreign fighters used “back channels” in the Sulu and Celebes Seas to reach Mindanao and link up with local terror groups.