Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the country’s military to go “full force” to wipe out the Islamic State (IS)-linked Abu Sayyaf terrorist group.
While President Duterte, who swept into office in May on a pledge to eliminate criminals, had initially called on the Abu Sayyaf Group to lay down their arms, he quickly adopted a tough stance when his overtures were rejected. Sources have reported that an additional 2500-strong force is being deployed to back up thousands of soldiers who are already stationed on the islands of Jolo and Sulu.
Abu Sayyaf was founded in the early 1990’s to fight for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines, which is a Catholic-majority nation. For years, the militant group has eluded Philippines security forces, which had the support of US military logistics, as its militants carried out some of the country’s worst terrorist attacks, including a ferry bombing in 2014 that killed at least 100 people. The militants, who are believed to number around 500, have also kidnapped dozens of foreigners and Filipinos for ransom, in a business that has netted them millions of dollars, which they then use to carry out their operations. The militants are believed to be currently holding at least 23 hostages, including a Dutch birdwatcher who was kidnapped in 2012 and a Norwegian man who was abducted from a beach resort last year. Abu Sayyaf militants also beheaded two Canadian hostages this year who had been held for several months. Australian adventurer Warren Rodwell was held by the group for fifteen months after he was kidnapped from his home in a coastal town on 2011. A ransom of about US $100,000 was secured for his release.
While last year, Abu Sayyaf claimed allegiance to IS, analysts believe that the group has been mainly focused on kidnappings. Southeast Asian leaders however have expressed their concerns that regional militants, who have been fighting alongside IS fighters in Syria and Iraq, may return and seek sanctuary amongst Abu Sayyaf – further bolstering its strength with hardened fighters.
A United States military spokesman reported on 29 September that in the last thirty days, air strikes by the United States and it s allies have killed eighteen Islamic State (IS) “leaders,” adding that thirteen of them were killed in Mosul, the militant group’s de facto Iraqi capital.
Colonel John Dorrian, a spokesman for US forces in Iraq and Syria, told a Pentagon briefing that many of those targeted where military commanders, propagandists and those facilitating foreign recruits into territory controlled by Islamic state, which has sympathizers worldwide. Dorrian further disclosed that “by taking these individuals off the battlefield, it creates some really disruptive effects to enemy command and control. He added that there are now between 3,000 and 4,500 IS fighters left in Mosul, noting that while new fighters are not able to enter the city in large convoys, they continue to move in small formations.
Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced that the US would deploy around 600 new troops to Iraq in order to assist Iraqi forces in the battle to retake Mosul from IS militants, who control parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria. The US currently has 4,565 troops in Iraq as part of a US-led coalition that is providing extensive air support, training and advise to the Iraqi military, which collapsed in 2014 in the face of Islamic State’s territorial gains and lightning advance towards the capital, Baghdad.
France warned in early September that so-called Islamic State (IS) group fighters could flee towards Egypt and Tunisia after being flushed from their former Libyan stronghold of Sirte.
Speaking on 5 September during a defense conference in Paris, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that “we should begin to look seriously at the question of the spread of the terrorists once Sirte…(is) emptied of the terrorists.” He further disclosed that “they don’t disappear. There’s a new risk that appears,” adding, “indirectly this will pose new risks for Tunisia and Egypt.” He also indicated that it was a “shame, perhaps political reasons prevent it, that all the neighbouring states of Libya don’t meet” over the issue.
Le Drian’s Tunisian counterpart, Farhat Horchani, has also called for effective regional coordination. Horchani, who attended the same defense conference in Paris, stated, “we have a large number of foreign fighters who arrived from Sirte, or from Syria. I can see no strategy, no cooperation between the states,” to deal with the problem.”
Forces loyal to Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which has been backed by weeks of US air strikes, have recaptured nearly all of what had been the jihadists’ main stronghold in the North African country. On 3 September, pro-GNA forces launched a new attack against IS in Sirte, reporting the following day that it could take several days to gain full control of the city.
IS took advantage of the chaos in oil-rich Libya in the wake of the 2011 uprising. They went on to seize Sirte in June 2015, which sparked fears that the jihadists would use it as a springboard for attacks on Europe. While the loss of Sirte would be a reversal for IS, French and US figures indicate that there are between 5,000 and 7,000 jihadists that remain in Libya, with one French security source disclosing that many “have evaporated in th south of he country.”
According to a new report compiled by a Cluster Munitions Coalition, more than 400 people were killed by cluster bombs in 2015, with most of the deaths being reported in Ukraine, Syria and Yemen.
Cluster bombs scatter explosives a wide area and often fail to detonate on impact. The report indicates that 248 deaths were recorded in Syria, followed by Yemen (104); and Ukraine (19). Civilians made u 97% of the death toll while more than a third of the casualties recorded from 2010 – 2015 have been children, who are at a particular risk. The report indicates that the weapon is not banned in all three of these countries, adding that they are not signatories of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of the weapons.
The Syrian military has denied possessing or using cluster munitions and in December 2015, the Russian Defense Ministry, which supports the Syrian government, also insisted that “Russian aviation does not use (cluster munitions).” The report however suggests that despite Russia’s denial, “there is compelling evidence that it is using them” in Syria.
In recent weeks, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group has suffered a series of setbacks in Syria, including the loss of access to the Syria-Turkey border and the killing of a number of top leaders. Analysts however warn that the terrorist group remains a potent force – a fact that has been demonstrated by a series of deadly attacks.
The growing pressure on IS, which includes Turkey’s decision to launch an operation against it in northern Syria, has seen the militant group lose ground at an unprecedented pace. IS however continues to maintain the capacity to obtain weapons, attract recruits and deploy fighters to carry out devastating attacks abroad.
On 4 September, the Turkish operation reclaimed the last stretch of the Syria-Turkey border from IS, effectively sealing off its self-styled “caliphate” in Syria and neighbouring Iraq and forcing the group to rely on smuggling networks instead. For IS, this was just the latest setback as the group is now under attack from Syrian and Iraqi troops, as well as Kurdish fighters, Syrian rebels, Turkish Forces, Russian warplanes and a US-led coalition. Experts believe that IS now controls just 20 percent of Iraq and 35 percent of Syria. At the height of its expansion, after it seized Syria’s Palmyra in May 2015, IS controlled around 240,000 square kilometres (more than 92,000 square miles) in both countries – an area roughly the size of Britain. Today however experts indicate that this number has fallen by more than a third to around 150,000 square kilometres, adding that the population it now controls has also declined from some eight million people in mid-2015 to 4.5 million people today. In another major blow to the group’s mobility, in August, IS lost Jazirat al-Khaldiyeh, an area in Iraq’s western Anbar province that was a key crossroads. Meanwhile in Libya, IS is on the verge of losing its stronghold of Sirte. Along with the territorial losses, IS has been affected by a number of high-profile assassinations of its key leaders, which include senior commander Omar al-Shishani and spokesman and top strategist Abu Mohamed al-Adnani.
While these setbacks paint a picture that IS is on the decline, analysts are increasingly warning that the group is far from finished, noting that its focus may simply be shifting from territorial expansion to consolidation of population centres, such as Syria’s Raqa and Iraq’s Mosul, and to launching new attacks against civilians in the region and the West. IS has proven capable of adapting to the changing territory, and it likely that it will do the same this time around. The loss of the border with Turkey will hamper the group’s abilities to import new weapons and recruits, as well as to export resources such as oil. However this challenge is hardly a new one as pressure from Kurdish forces coupled with a Turkish crackdown on the border had already forced IS to mainly rely on smuggling networks. In regards to attaining weapons, IS has always relied to some degree on purchasing from corrupt individuals among its enemies, or capturing arms from defeated opponents.