Taliban not yet source of worry for PH war on terror, say officials
MANILA — The rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has no direct impact yet on the Philippine terror threat landscape, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Wednesday (Nov. 3).
At an online forum, Lorenzana said the Taliban, which took control of Afghanistan in a surprising speed as the United States withdrew its troops last August, is currently trying to present itself as a legitimate government both internally and before the rest of the world.
Taliban, Lorenzana said, is also not known to have any significant links with local terror groups in the Philippines. Philippine militants, led by Abu Sayyaf Group– previously funded by Al-Qaeda in its early stages– had linked up with Islamic State, or Daesh, in 2014.
“The Taliban’s main ally Al-Qaeda does not have any significant influence on any of the local terrorist groups in the country since their allegiance has shifted to the Daesh in 2014,” Lorenzana told the forum hosted by the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations.
He also cited the Philippine government’s success in the Bangsamoro peace process, which “contributed to the further decline of Al-Qaeda’s appeal in the country.” The Taliban, he said, also does not have global ambitions as it was focused on gaining control of Afghanistan.
Still, the situation in Afghanistan should be watched closely even if the Taliban takeover is currently not a threat to public safety in the Philippines, Lorenzana said.
“We should still watch the developments in Afghanistan. While a resurrection of Al-Qaeda’s influence in the Philippines is not evident, dwindling resources could spark LTGs renewed interest in the Taliban,” he said.
“It was the financial resources of Daesh in 2014 that enticed LTGs’ allegiance to the extremist group. The Taliban’s next move would most probably depend on how other nation states respond to its regime,” he added.
Two security officials shared the same view with Lorenzana, but they acknowledged that the Taliban’s return to power could have long-term impact.
“The events in Afghanistan in the last few months appeared to have little effect on the local terrorist groups,” said Damian Carlos, National Security Council (NSC) deputy director general, at the same forum.
“And for now, and I emphasize for now, there is a noticeable lack of public expression of support for the Taliban from the local terrorist groups,” Carlos said.
While the chance of Taliban’s renewed influence on Philippine terrorists remained low, it cannot be ruled out because the new rulers of Afghanistan were awash with cash with assets estimated to be worth $1.6 billion to $7 billion in 2020, Carlos added.
“There is also the possibility for the local terrorist groups to join the bandwagon with other terrorist groups in Southeast Asia, as a result, reinvigorate the fraternal networks and alliances already existing between them,” Carlos said. The Jemaah Islamiyah, which has links to Taliban-affiliated Al-Qaeda, could re-emerge as a major terrorist group in the region, he added.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said while Taliban is “not an immediate tactical threat” to the Philippines, “the possible long term repercussions of this return to power” should be watched.
Then Afghanistan-based IS fighter Saifullah, who financed Isnilon Hapilon’s terrorist activities, remained at large. Hapilon, Abu Sayyaf leader and supposed emir of IS in the Philippines, was killed during the Marawi siege in 2017.
“While Saifullah is not a direct threat to the Philippines, his activities could possibly affect the Asean region,” Año said.
Terrorists in Mindanao could also be inspired by Taliban supremacy and view it as “a symbol of victory for mujahideen and jihadism.”
“We must closely observe the situation in view of not only our diplomatic and security dynamics with other countries, but also the Taliban’s previous connection to local terrorist groups, particularly the ASG since the Taliban’s re-emergence could offer the ASG and other local terrorists another avenue to sustain or even reignite their terror activities,” Año said.
There could also be a revival of training sites, sanctuaries, transit points, and launching pads for terror attacks, he added.
With all these developments, Lorenzana said the Armed Forces of the Philippines continued to be vigilant and proactive in its counter terrorism efforts.
“Our troops are ready to control any possible impact of the Taliban rule,” he said.
Aside from modernizing its military, the Philippines has been diversifying and strengthening its defense cooperation with other countries on counterterrorism.
“With the borderless nature of terrorism, more and more nation states are encouraged to adapt collective actions,” Lorenzana said.
The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have been working together to prevent the proliferation of terrorists in case there were Southeast Asian fighters in Afghanistan who might return home, he added. Indonesia will host a trilateral defense ministerial meeting in January.
With the US departure in Afghanistan, Lorenzana said he expected a shift in greater attention to the Indo-Pacific, a region that is becoming the main battleground of the United States and economic rival China.
“We can expect more and deeper engagements with them as they pursue a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Lorenzana said.
He said this was already evident in the renewed commitment on Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—US, India, Japan and Australia—and the formation of AUKUS (Australia, UK, and United States) partnership that shows their commitment to security and prosperity in the region.
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