President Benigno Aquino III said Friday authorities are concerned that Islamic State jihadists could recruit Filipinos working in the Middle East, a day after militants linked to the group carried out an attack on Jakarta.
The President told reporters that intelligence authorities would ask their Middle East counterparts to monitor possible radicalization within the Filipino community in the region, which numbers up to two million.
Aquino said there was no "credible threat" of attacks by the Islamic State group (IS) in the Philippines in the wake of Thursday's attacks in the Indonesian capital, which left two civilians and five attackers dead, but warned of a "general threat".
"We need to be prudent. We will coordinate with (Middle Eastern) intelligence agencies to monitor these communities to see if they have been influenced by ISIS," he said, using another acronym for the group.
"We can't be like an ostrich, which burrows its head in the ground to avoid seeing the problem," he said.
"Is there a credible threat? Is there a specific threat? There is none. Is there a general threat? Yes. We are not immune from the extremism problem."
In particular, he said a Filipino-Lebanese and a Filipino-Saudi, both of whom were living abroad, had attempted to join the jihadist group.
This month, the Philippine-based Abu Sayyaf extremist group released a video pledging allegiance to IS.
Aquino said the Philippine government wants to make sure Filipinos abroad would not be influenced by the ISIS.
“Malaki ang population natin sa Middle East—one to two million. Marami na raw ang na-radicalize ‘nung Internet," Aquino said.
“Pinipilit nating ma-thwart lahat ng potensyal na problema. So mula doon sa ‘saan ba pwedeng mag-radicalize’ hanggang doon sa pagsasaayos ng kabuhayan dito ng mga kapatid na baka ma-radicalize para, ‘di ba, hindi na sila ma-attract doon sa ganoong ideolohiya at saka pilosopiya,” he added.
Meeting with top brass
Aquino said he met with Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Ricardo Marquez, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gen. Hernando Iriberri, and National Security Adviser (NSA) Cesar Garcia following the Jakarta terror atacks, and the report that reached him was there was no “imminent” and “credible” threat.
“Pero walang mawawala sa atin na paalala sa lahat na kailangan tuloy-tuloy ‘yung pagbabantay natin,” Aquino reminded the public.
The President also downplayed the the Abu Sayyaf's pledge of allegiance to ISIS, saying the group was simply jumping on the bandwagon.
Aquino, however, belittled the group's claim and said they were riding on IS's notoriety. The group had previously been associated with IS rival Al-Qaeda, he noted.
“Ngayon na ISIS ang sikat, ISIS naman sila. Bukas ‘pag may bagong grupo iba na naman ang pangalan nila,” he said.
The Abu Sayyaf, a group of several hundred fighters notorious for kidnapping foreigners for ransom, is also responsible for the worst terror attacks in the Philippines. In 2004, it bombed a passenger ferry off Manila Bay killing over 100 people. — Agence France-Presse with a report from Kathrina Charmaine Alvarez