The head of the Philippine Army has warned that Islamic State sleeper cells across the country could launch deadly attacks at any time.
Lieutenant General Rolando Joselito Bautista said the military had learned of groups — particularly in the south of the country — that were capable of carrying out “lone wolf” attacks.
The intelligence was uncovered during ongoing army operations on the island of Mindanao, where the city of Marawi was attacked one year ago today (May 23) by local and foreign terrorists.
More than 1,000 people died in the five-month battle and about 360,000 were forced to flee their homes. Much of the city centre remains in ruins and some 50,000 residents are still displaced.
There are also concerns that Southeast Asian IS fighters returning from the Middle East may look to the southern Philippines as a new stronghold.
Zachary Abuza, a security expert at the National War College in the US, told Rappler that foreign fighters could help to unite the country’s islamist groups under the black flag of IS.
“There are many pro-Isis groups in the south, but they are geographically apart in a region with very poor infrastructure, or riddled with factionalism and egos. If they could ever co-ordinate their efforts, they could really spread the AFP [Philippine army] thin,” he told the Manila Times.
He added that sleeper cells were also present in places such as Baguio City, Dagupan City, Tarlac, Samar and Cebu.
“If they will be able to orchestrate such terroristic activities, it might be in the form of a ‘lone wolf’,” he said.
However, General Carlito Galvez, the army chief of staff, emphasised that the military was working double time to contain the problem. “We cannot stay complacent but for us we are very confident about our level of counter-terrorism efforts,” he said.
As reported earlier this month, the US Ambassador to the Philippines has also warned of a continuing terror threat in the south of the country.