ISIS recognizing Hapilon a game-changer: U.S. military intel officials

Fernando G. Sepe Jr., ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 28 2016 12:38 PM | Updated as of Sep 06 2016 03:13 AM

HONOLULU -- The U.S. intelligence community is keeping a close watch on Philippine terror group Abu Sayyaf following the release of a video last June by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) -- also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) -- communication group pointing to Isnilon Hapilon, aka Abu Abdullah, as its representative in the Philippines.

Officials of the Special Operations Command for the Pacific (SOCPAC) shared their analyses in a talk with ABS-CBN News at the unit's command center in the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.

These US intelligence officials support the analysis that the international terror group has chosen to name Hapilon and the Abu Sayyaf as part of its network rather than coursing its affiliation to a regional terror group like the Jemaah Islamiya as in the case of Al-Qaeda before.

"It sends a message that if you want to go to Iraq, Syria and fight (the holy wars there), you need to go through the Philippines under Isnilon Hapilon," the intelligence officials who requested anonimity said.

Previously, security experts thought these recruits had to go through Indonesia or the Jemaah Islamiya.

"ISIL recognizing Hapilon has put the the Philippines directly under its terror network...this is a game-changer," the officials added.

In the video, Hapilon and two other group leaders are seen recording their pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. The video also shows men in fatigues carrying weapons, and holding Islamic State flags.

Hapilon is on the FBI's most wanted list for his role in the kidnapping of 17 Filipinos and three Americans in 2001 and carries a bounty of $5 million.

President Rodrigo Duterte expressed his disappointment with the rebels following a spate of beheadings recently, including a Canadian kidnapped on Samal island and a Filipino teenage boy.

The Abu Sayyaf has long been at the forefront of extremist terrorism in the Philippines and has been involved in a series of bombings and high-profile kidnappings. It gained international notoriety in 2000 with the kidnapping of 21 hostages that included several Europeans, and again in 2001 in Palawan that included the American couple Martin and Gracia Burnham.

The continued expansion of ISIL/ISIS admittedly puzzles the intelligence community, according to the same SOCPAC officials.

Unlike the Al-Qaeda which appeals to the "have-nots" only, ISIL's call has resonated across social and income classes, managing to attract not only hardline extremists but professionals, teachers and leaders of the community, said the US intelligence officials.

"We really don't know what resonates in ISIL's messages," they added.

In the case of the Philippines, he lamented the proliferation of terror groups in recent years.

"It's an alphabet soup in the Philippines right now (Abu Sayyaf, Darul Islam, Ansar Khalifa, etc.)," said one on the officials.

He added that if the peace process does not happen fast enough, it will result to more radicalization and this is something they are looking at closely.

NOTE: The author obtained access to the U.S. intelligence officials as part of the East-West Center's Senior Journalists Program currently ongoing in the United States.