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ML made South more vulnerable, says US antiterror exec

By: - Reporter / @deejayapINQ
/ 07:00 AM September 08, 2018

WASHINGTON—Imposing martial law may make places like Mindanao more vulnerable to terrorism and create safe havens for extremists, a US Department of State official told visiting journalists here on Wednesday.

Irfan Saeed, director of the Office of Countering Violent Extremism under the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Terrorism, said a community approach, rather than a military one, might be a better tool at a time when Islamic State (IS) fighters were turning to Southeast Asia as a refuge for their activities.

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Asked if martial law had been effective in combating terrorism in Mindanao, Saeed said: “No. That is the short answer.”

He added: “The response to terrorism and our efforts in countering violent extremism cannot be an excuse for an overly aggressive law enforcement approach.”

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The US State official said the “suppression of basic human rights (was) a potential driver of terrorism … (because) you’re actually bringing a greater ability to recruit people to violent extremism.”

‘Safe havens’

During a briefing for the 2018 East-West Center Senior Journalists Seminar, Saeed noted that the Philippines, especially Mindanao, was at a pivotal point considering the risks it faces from IS recruits.

Saeed said an approach increasing the community’s awareness and responsibility in denying safe havens to terrorists might be more appropriate, “because when you have (only the) government being responsible for (this), you have the possibility of an overly aggressive approach, and that, as we know, does not work.”

An alarming trend has emerged among IS-inspired foreign fighters who, instead of returning to their home countries upon radicalization, go to third countries where “they feel they can have safe havens,” Saeed told the visiting media fellows in the East-West Center program.

Mindanao has been under martial law since mid-2017 in the aftermath of the May 2017 siege of Marawi City by IS-inspired militants. Congress later approved two extensions of military rule and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in the region.

Despite martial law, Mindanao has seen a number of violent attacks in recent months, the latest in late August when homemade bombs killed at least two persons and injured dozens of others in Isulan, Sultan Kudarat.

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Conflict’s rising toll

Col. Romeo Brawner Jr., deputy commander of Joint Task Force Ranao, acknowledged that, despite intensified operations, the military has failed to catch and arrest the leaders of the Maute group in Lanao del Sur.

One of the surviving leaders, Owayda Benito Marohombsar, also known as Abu Dar, was earlier reported to have escaped with dozens of Maute gunmen and has reportedly been active in recruiting new members,  Brawner added.

The conflict continues to exact its toll, with six people killed, including a soldier and two civilians, in a clash early Thursday morning between troops of the the 49th Infantry Battalion and remnants of the Maute in Sultan Dumalondong, Lanao del Sur.

Brawner said two of the three bodies recovered after the encounter were identified as those of minor leaders of the Maute group under Abu Dar, namely alias Mubarak Manalao and alias Popular.

The military is also facing the IS-inspired forces of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Maguindanao, with sporadic fighting erupting between government troops and the BIFF in parts of Maguindanao known as the SPMS box, for the adjacent towns of Shariff Aguak, Pagatin (Datu Piang), Mamasapano and Salibo. —WITH A REPORT FROM INQUIRER MINDANAO

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