Jakarta/Bangkok: A merger of terrorist groups pledging allegiance to Islamic State in the Philippines could signal a new threat to the region should radicals from Indonesia also join forces, according to an expert on violent extremism.
A new video from the strife-torn southern Philippines island of Mindanao suggests four Islamic terrorist groups in the long-running insurgency have joined to declare allegiance to IS.
Video shows IS 'supercell'
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Video shows IS 'supercell'
A video showing several Islamic extremist groups in the southern Philippines marching together suggest the groups have joined forces to form a satellite branch of Islamic State.
The video purports to show militants carrying IS flags and the heavily armed commanders of the groups that had declared their allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop said Australia was "concerned about the growing influence" of Islamic State in the region and increased co-operation between security agencies was under way in response to the threat posed by these and other extremists.
The groups, including the brutal Abu Sayyaf, have for years justified using violence for extreme Islamist causes, but analysts say they have presented an ideological facade to cover criminal acts, including lucrative kidnappings for ransom.
"This could set a precedent in the region of disparate groups coming together and declaring bayah (pledging allegiance)," said Professor Anne Azza Aly, an expert on violent extremism, from Edith Cowan University.
"I think the level of transnational co-ordination that could come out of that between a group in Indonesia and a group in the Philippines would signal a heightened threat for Indonesia as well as for the region."
The southern Philippines groups are already known to have recruited several notorious Indonesian terrorists, including militants from Jemaah Islamiyah, the group responsible for the Bali bombings and other attacks in south-east Asia over a decade.
In late November Philippine soldiers said they had killed Indonesian Ibrahim Alih, also known as Abdul Fatah, who was linked to the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2004.
Former Australian Federal Police expert and counter terrorism specialist Mark Briskey said the Mindanao conflict "poisons the entire region".
"We've seen connections from the region over to Malaysia and certainly to Indonesia. It's been an ongoing sore," Dr Briskey said.
Indonesian police reacted cautiously to the apparent merger in Mindanao and any regional implications.
Indonesian National Police spokesman Agus Rianto said the threat to Indonesia depended on whether extremist groups in the two countries "communicate and make a synergy".
"Many in Indonesia have claimed they supported ISIS but so far, thank God, no big problems have occurred," he said.
He said Indonesia was co-operating with neighbouring countries, including police in the Philippines.
Malaysia radicals believed to be in Philippines
Radicals from Malaysia are also believed to have fled to the Philippines to train and recruit IS fighters, and although the Filipino groups began displaying black flags symbolising support for al-Qaeda as early as 2011, the the latest video suggests they might have agreed to consolidate their forces.
The video was posted on January 4, according to the online news webite Rappler, and showed Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon marching with other extremist leaders who operate from bases on nearby islands. The video has since being removed.
Indonesia specialist Greg Fealy, from the Australian National University, said it was unclear whether the central leadership of ISIS in Syria and Iraq was interested in spawning a formal organisation in south-east Asia.
Associate Professor Fealy said ISIS has been willing to accept recruits from the region as well as any funds raised, but despite its large Muslim population, fighters from south-east Asia only played a peripheral role.
Indonesia was on the highest possible alert for a terror attack over the holiday period, with 11 alleged terrorists – suspected to be planning an attack in December – arrested in the lead-up to Christmas.
21 Indonesia groups state IS support
Adhe Bhakti, a researcher at Centre for Radicalism and De-radicalisation Studies in Jakarta, said there were 21 groups in Indonesia that had stated they supported IS.
But he said these groups were fragmented.
"They are just small local groups like in Central Java or in South Sulawesi. Also, there is no emir or leader to unite them. Most importantly the government is monitoring their movement very closely," he said.
Indonesian terrorism analyst Noor Huda Ismail said links between Indonesia and the Philippines were nothing new.
"There is a network of Indonesians fighting in Mindanao now," he said.
In 2012, an Indonesian counter-terrorism squad killed Farhan, a suspected militant who had returned from the south Philippines in 2010.
Farhan was the stepson of convicted terrorist Abu Omar and attended the school radical Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir co-founded.
'He did not know what ISIS was'
Meanwhile, Bashir will apply for a judicial review of his 15-year jail sentence in a court in Central Java on Tuesday.
Bashir was acquitted over charges relating to the Bali bombings but convicted in 2011 of supporting a terror training camp in Aceh.
He pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014 while behind bars in a prison on Nusakambangan, the penal island where Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan were executed last year.
But his lawyer, Achmad Michdan, said Bashir no longer supported IS.
"He did in the past because he did not know what ISIS was. Now after he knows what ISIS is he does not support it anymore. He only supports anyone or any organisation that supports the upholding of the Koran and Hadith."