The Philippines defence ministry said on Thursday that it has received intelligence reports showing closer links between domestic militants and Islamic State. The closer ties between militant cells has added to fears that the Middle East extremists are building a network in Southeast Asia.
According to Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, intelligence from allies showed a leader of the Abu Sayyaf militant group was trying to spread into new areas of the Philippines upon the instruction of the Islamic State militant group. The group has long been known to have Isis links and has gained notoriety for piracy and kidnapping in the southern Philippines.
Referring to an Abu Sayyaf leader, Lorenzana said in a press conference: "Isnilon Hapilon left his traditional area of operation on Basilan island and went to Lanao del Sur to see the area and find out if it is conducive for them to move there."
Lanao del Sur, a province on the main southern island of Mindanao, is located to the northeast of the much smaller Basilan island. It is a stronghold of the Maute rebel group that has also pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Although Lorenzana did not reveal the name of the country that has provided the intelligence he said that according to the information Hapilon had made the move to survey the new area "at the behest" of Islamic State.
Recently, the army said the Abu Sayyaf group had no existing links between the Islamic State and added that the Muslim militants in the Philippines had only pledged allegiance to the network to boost its profile.
Over the recent years, the Abu Sayyaf militants have kidnapped dozens of foreigners and beheaded a number of them, including two Canadians in 2016. The United States has a $5 million bounty on the head of Hapilon for leading the kidnapping of 20 people in 2001 that included three Americans on a resort island. Later, he was identified as Abu Sayyaf's commander on Basilan.
Recently, President Rodrigo Duterte raised the alarm regarding the prospect of Islamic State "contaminating" the Philippines if driven out of Iraq and Syria.
"They were communicating before but not as much as what they are doing now when ISIS in the Middle East are having trouble retaining their areas," Lorenzana said as he referred to contacts between Abu Sayyaf and Islamic State.
Lorenzana added that the Philippine forces dropped bombs and fired shells at rebel positions in the mountains of Lanao del Sur on Thursday in an effort to finish off Hapilon.