The State Department has just added seven Islamic extremist terrorist groups to the US list of terrorists including ISIS-Philippines. As we told you when we visited the Philippines last year, ISIS is a growing force there, with the intent of establishing an independent state or “caliphate” in southeast Asia.
We were there when the Philippine Congress extended martial law in troubled Mindanao region of the Southern Philippines. Philippine military officials recently warned that ISIS has built a force of fighters there, where we also visited, in a continuing fight by Islamic extremists to establish an independent state or “caliphate” that can stage terror attacks throughout southeast Asia. We were invited to board military fast boats accompanied by heavily armed commandos, the safest way to see the worst areas. Our guide is a hero in this longstanding war against Islamic extremist terrorists: General Lito Sobejana. He heads up a Joint Task Force of the Philippine military. The battle actually goes back decades.
Lito Sobejana: That island is the island province of Basilan I was stationed there in the 90s and I was even wounded.
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 Philippine’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 and some 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 the ideology of establishing Islamic independence in Mindanao.
The vast majority of Filipinos are Christian most of the Muslims live here in the south. In the troubled Mindanao province, one in five residents is Muslim, according to the 2000 census. 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: So we've had reports about foreign fighters from Saudi and Yemen 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 are hardened fighters and terrorists that have survived the warhead to head with western military operations. These people are not dumb. They're not incompetent fighters 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, the entire city was later evacuated. After months of fighting, 400 terrorists were dead so were more than 100 civilians and Philippine troops. After the latest seige in Marawi, the Philippines has requested additional support from America in its ongoing fight against Islamic extremists. Last November while visiting Manila, President Trump pledged $14.3 million in U.S. aid for the reconstruction of Marawi. Meantime, General Sobejana continues in his third decade of fighting a familiar and brutal enemy.
Sharyl Attkisson: We've talked to some observers who really want this to get under control because they fear people like ISIS and other extremists could come into this region and spread more ideologically based violence here. Do you worry about that happening?
Lito Sobejana: Well I think there are indications that they are here already, and some other?
Sharyl: 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.
America is supporting the Philippines’ fight against Islamic extremist terrorism. In the past 8 years, we've supplied them with more than 85 million dollars in equipment for counterterrorism and 65 million to help with security at sea.