It's hard to believe, but we are now 16 years into the Global War on Terror. Today, there are some signs of success in the Middle East against the Islamic extremists known as ISIS. U.S. and coalition forces have retaken Iraq's capital, Mosul, from ISIS hands. And the terrorists are losing ground in Syria. But knocking down ISIS in one spot, means their battled-hardened fighters are turning up in new places you probably haven't heard much about. That happened this summer, when ISIS-linked insurgents joined established Islamic extremists in the Philippines. We went to southeast Asia and the islands of the southern Philippines region of Mindanao... where kidnappings, firefights and the threat of terrorism is growing.
These tropical islands and pristine beaches disguise a dangerous reality.
After our nighttime arrival, in a province named Mindanao, in the southern Philippines,
we’re riding in a caravan guarded by armed security forces
Mindanao is the target of US State Department warnings due to terrorist fighting and kidnappings.
Sharyl Attkisson:This is Zamboanga City which is under martial law as the country attempts to contain Islamic extremist violence which has been bubbling up recently.
We were invited to board military fast boats accompanied by heavily armed commandos. It’s the safest way to see the worst areas.
Our guide is a hero in this longstanding war against Islamic terrorists: General Lito Sobejana. He heads up a Joint Task Force of the Philippine military.
Today, the general and his men are actively working to save more than a dozen kidnap victims held by Islamic extremists. The day before, one of the general’s men was shot and six terrorists killed.
Sharyl Attkisson: Was the fighting yesterday related to the kidnappings or something different?
Lito Sobejana: Yes it’s part of our rescue effort.
The battle actually goes back decades.
Lito Sobejana: (gestures) That island is the island province of Basilan. I was stationed there in the 90s, and I was even wounded in that island. Seriously wounded.. because I had five gunshot wounds all over my body.
Sharyl Attkisson: Fighting Abu Sayyaf?
Lito Sobejana: Fighting Abu Sayyaf.
Abu Sayyaf is considered one of the most violent Islamic jihadist groups-- responsible for the Philippines’s worst terrorist attack, the 2004 bombing of a ferry that murdered 116 people.
Sobejana received the Philippine medal of honor for his heroics in fighting Abu Sayyaf in the 90s.Two decades later, Abu Sayyaf is now said to be lining up with ISIS- prompting some to make the argument that Islamic extremism in the Philippines deserves more of the world’s attention.
Lito Sobejana: We are now in the middle of the two islands of Santa Cruz. These islands are part of Zamboanga
Earlier, we spoke with General Sobejana at Camp Navarro, headquarters of the Western Mindanao Command.
Sharyl Attkisson: Could you explain in just a sentence or two to the American audience what the fighting is about?
Lito Sobejana: Well initially we followed the ideology of establishing Islamic independence in Mindanao
Islamic separatists here in the southern Philippines, he says, have been using violence to try to break away and establish an islamic state.
We’re there when the General takes a call from the frantic wife of a hostage. If she doesn’t pay ransom, the terrorists say they’ll behead him. But there’s a strict no ransom policy.
ISIS didn’t pioneer the notion of violently establishing an international Islamic state or “Caliphate.” Muslim extremists in Mindanao have been conducting a terrorist campaign for an independent Islamic state since the 1970s.
Gene Yu: We've had reports and information coming in that there’s foreign fighters from Saudi and Yemen, ec cetera, down in Mindanao for four years now.
Gene Yu is a former Green Beret with US Special Forces, supporting Philippine troops fighting the terrorists. He now helps run a private security firm here.
He says with ISIS losing its footing in Iraq and Syria seasoned fighters fleeing the Mideast are now showing up in the Philippines where there are many sympathizers.
Gene Yu: These guys are battle hardened fighters or terrorists that have survived essentially the war going head to head with western military special operations. These people are not dumb. Okay, they're not incompetent fighters, right, to survive that long, only the best guys have survived that long...
In May, fighting escalated when hundreds of terrorists attacked the Philippine Army in the region’s island city of Marawi, population 200,000. Civilians were taken hostage, thousands fled— nearly the entire city was later evacuated. After months of fighting, 400 terrorists were dead so were more than a 100 civilians and Philippine troops.
After the latest siege in Marawi, the Philippines has requested additional support from America in its ongoing fight against Islamic extremists.
At a recent hearing in the U.S., Joints Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. Paul Selva suggested that with ISIS now moving into the Philippines, it might be time for a new commitment. Or else, he said, there would be a possible “long-term catastrophe.”
Paul Selva: "In every case where we see that the resurgence of terror networks, particularly in the fragile areas of the southern Philippines, I think it’s worth considering whether or not we reinstate a named operation,"
The ongoing battle is what prompted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to declare emergency martial law in May in the Muslim-majority region.
It allows the military to act as the police and to make arrests without warrants.
The declaration of martial law has sparked some criticism both in the Philippines and internationally.
We were there in July when their Congress voted overwhelmingly to extend martial law through the end of the year.
We also found support on the streets of Zamboanga From people actually living under the terrorist threat.
Sharyl Attkisson: Do you support the martial law?
Woman: Yes for the peace and order in this country, especially Mindanao.
Sharyl Attkisson: Do most people support martial law do you think, most people who live here?
This man sells pork at a local market and worries about terrorists coming from the Mideast and connecting with local groups like Abu Sayyaf.
Man:This martial law here in the Philippines, in Mindanao, is favorable for us
Here in the southern Philippines there are places where tourists and locals can’t move freely without fear of being snatched off the street by Muslim terrorist thugs who raise money demanding ransom
One tourist was beheaded in April. Four more victims were captured right before our visit.
Lito Sobejana: Well right now uh in my area of responsibility, that is the whole province of Basilan, there are 20. It used to be 16 and then there were 4 additional victims.
Sharyl Attkisson: Kidnapped?
Lito Sobejana: Kidnap victims yes and we are trying our best to rescue them safely. Uh we have the policy of no ransom so we do not allow ransom money to get into the hands of the abductors
He knows where the terrorists are, he says, but can’t simply blow them up because they hide among their wives, children and community.
Meantime, General Sobejana continues in his third decade of fighting a familiar and brutal enemy.
Sharyl Attkisson: We have talked to some observers who really want this, obviously, to get under control because they fear people like the Islamic State and other extremists could see this as an opening. This region to come in and spread more ideologically based violence here. Do you worry about that happening?
Lito Sobejana: Well I think there are indicators that they are here already.
Sharyl Attkisson: Should we be worried about that?
Lito Sobejana: well i think we should do something about this so that their number will not become large
They’re working to keep a migrating threat in the war on terror from establishing a new beachhead in Southeast Asia.
As for the battleground in the city of Marawi.. after three months of fighting Philippine troops have retaken control. The government estimates it will cost over a billion dollars to rebuild what the Islamic terrorists destroyed.