Insurgents looted cash, gold and jewellery worth tens of millions of dollars when they occupied a southern Philippines town last year, treasure one of their leaders has used to recruit around 250 fighters for fresh attacks.
The military said Humam Abdul Najib escaped from Marawi City, which the militants had hoped to establish as a stronghold for Islamic State in Southeast Asia, before it was recaptured by the military in October after five months of ferocious battles and aerial bombardment.
Since then, Najib, also known as Abu Dar, has used the booty looted from bank vaults, shops and homes in Marawi to win over boys and young men in the impoverished southern province of Lanao del Sur, military officers in the area said.
Hardened mercenaries are also joining, lured by the promise of money.
As a result, Islamic State followers remain a potent threat in Southeast Asia even though hundreds of militants were killed in the battle for Marawi, the officers said.
“Definitely they haven’t abandoned their intent to create a caliphate in Southeast Asia,” Colonel Romeo Brawner, the deputy commander of Joint Task Force Marawi, told Reuters.
“That’s the overall objective, but in the meantime while they are still trying to recover and build up again — fighters and weapons — our estimate is they are going to launch terrorist attacks.”
In the early days of the occupation of Marawi last May, as black-clad fighters burned churches, released prisoners and cut the power supply, other militants targeted banks and the homes of wealthy citizens, commandeering hostages to help with the plunder.
“It was in the first week. They divided us into three groups with seven people each,” said JR Montesa, a Christian construction worker who was captured by the militants.
Using explosives, the militants blew open the vaults of the city’s three main banks, Landbank, the Philippine National Bank and the Al Amanah Islamic Bank, Montesa told Reuters in a town near Marawi.
They trucked away the booty, easily slipping out of Marawi because a security cordon was not fully in place. They also raided jewellery stores, pawnshops and businesses. Landbank and Al Amanah did not respond to requests for comment.
Philippine National said recovering losses because of the Marawi fighting was a concern, but did not give details.
The Ramadan celebration was looming at the time the militants struck and banks, businesses and homes had more money than usual, said Marawi City police chief Ebra Moxsir.
“There was a lot of money inside the battle area,” he told Reuters.”Maranaos keep millions of pesos in safety vaults in their homes. Gold, also. It is a tradition of the Maranao to give gifts of money (during Ramadan).” Montesa said vans they loaded with the spoils of the raids were “overflowing”, with money, gold and other valuables stuffed into every crevice of the vehicles.The military and police have also been accused by rights groups and by Marawi residents of looting during the conflict.
Brawner said a small number of soldiers had been disciplined for looting but the practice was not widespread.
However, the centre of Marawi — home to its major banks, main market and grandest residences — was under the control of militants for months.
Brawner said authorities were unclear exactly how much was taken by the militants.
“It’s hard for us to say. We have heard about 2bn pesos ($39.4 mn) but that’s just an estimate.”
“In the first days, when we were not able to establish that security cordon around the main battle area, that was the time when they were able to slip out with their war booty.”
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque told Reuters: “There is always the danger of these groups regaining strength enough to mount another Marawi-like operation.”
Najib is believed to have fled Marawi early in the battle. There are conflicting reports about whether he had a dispute with other leaders or left as part of a preconceived plan.
He attempted to return in August with 50-100 more fighters to reinforce the militants, who by then were losing ground, but he was prevented by an improved security cordon, said Brawner.
“According to reports, they were able to recruit another 100 to 150. So the estimate is 250 all in all, and this includes children,” Brawner said. “They are trying to recruit orphans, relatives of the fighters who died and sympathisers.”
Parents of children are offered as much as 70,000 pesos ($1,380) plus a monthly salary of as much as 30,000 pesos ($590) to hand over their sons to the group, according to security sources and community leaders briefed on the recruitment.
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