KUALA LUMPUR: The illegal drug trade in the southern Philippines is funding remnants of pro-Islamic State (IS) militias in Marawi city as they regroup and consolidate their forces following their defeat by the military in October last year, according to a security analyst.
While the pro-IS militants are a long way off from mounting a large-scale attack similar to the Marawi siege last year, they are planning bomb attacks in major cities in the southern Philippines, warned Professor Rommel Banlaoi, head of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
“There is evidence of groups engaged in illegal drugs which are still in touch with remnants of pro-IS groups in Marawi city,” Professor Rommel Banlaoi, a security analyst, told Channel NewsAsia.
“The IS group is headed by Abu Dar … which I call the Abu Dar Group (ADG). The illegal drug trade continues to fund the activities of the ADG,” said Prof Banlaoi.
The drug trade forges ties with militants as they want to foment conflict which then provides a conducive environment for them to sell their drugs, he said.
“The state of conflict in an area can provide a conducive environment for drug traders to sell because the attention of the law enforcement agency will be divided with many, many concerns,” said Prof Banlaoi, adding that some of the combatants are also drug-users.
In May 23 last year, the pro-IS Maute Group led by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, together with Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf Group, seized control of Marawi city and held on to it for five months before the military wrestled back control on Oct 17, 2017.
More than 1,100 people died in the fighting which also displaced some 400,000 people.
It also marked the most serious assault by IS in its bid to establish a foothold in Southeast Asia, unsettling governments in the region.
The Maute brothers and Abu Sayyaf’s Hapilon were killed in the fighting. Hapilon was also the IS head in Southeast Asia.
Some local press reported that Abu Dar succeeded Hapilon, but this was dismissed by Prof Banlaoi as speculation.
“It is just speculation. There is no official recognition of Abu Dar as being the head of IS Southeast Asia. But we consider him to be the head of pro-IS groups operating in Lanao del sur,” said Prof Banlaoi.
Lanao del Sur is the province where Marawi city is the capital.
“Currently Abu Dar is a nomadic militant, moving from one place to another in Lanao del Sur according to my monitoring of his activities,” Prof Banlaoi added.
PRO-IS REMNANTS OF MARAWI BEING LED BY ABU DAR
The ADG is currently recruiting, regrouping and consolidating their forces as many of the pro-IS leaders and militants have been killed.
“They are recruiting from the ranks of displaced people in Marawi who are disgruntled,” said Prof Banlaoi.
Up until today, more than 200,000 people in Marawi city displaced from their homes during the violence remain in temporary shelters.
“It will take time before they (ADG) are able to develop the same kind of capabilities they enjoyed during the Marawi siege,” said Prof Banlaoi.
“But pro-IS militants are planning and have the capacity to carry bomb attacks in major cities in Mindanao and Manila,” Prof Banlaoi added.
ILLEGAL DRUG TRADE PARTIALLY FUNDED 2017 MARAWI SIEGE
According to Prof Banlaoi who just published a book titled Marawi City Siege and Threats of Narcoterrorism in the Philippines, the Marawi siege was also partially funded by illegal drugs money.
The Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf Group linked up with the illegal drug trade to get funding for their armed activities, according to Pro Banlaoi.
“One of the prime reasons the Maute Group linked up with the drug groups was to get funds for their activities. Some members of the armed groups were also drug users,” said Prof Banlaoi.
“Some of the (IS) combatants the military encountered during Marawi siege were high on drugs in order to sustain their energy during the fighting. Based on forensic investigations their DNA sample indicated usage of drugs.”
Prof Banlaoi interviewed displaced persons from Marawi and several other cities in Mindanao as well as other stakeholders involved in the fighting for his book.
According to his research, proceeds from arms sales and remittances from overseas Filipino migrant workers were also used to fund the Marawi siege.
“These workers are relatives, friends and former classmates of the Maute Group,” said Prof Banlaoi.
The financier for the siege was former Malaysian university lecturer Mahmud Ahmad whom the Philippines has declared dead. The Malaysian government has yet to do the same, as his body has not been found.
“Apart from Mahmud, many other Malaysian personalities associated with IS also contributed huge sums of money to the Marawi siege,” said Prof Banlaoi.
Following Marawi, the militants have since gone underground, making their activities and existence difficult to track.
“Before Marawi, they openly displayed the IS black flag; openly displayed their activities on social media, their propagation of Islamic State,” said Prof Banlaoi.
“Now, they are more cautious and discreet, less visible, making it difficult for authorities to track and monitor them. That is their intention.”