The death last Saturday of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the ISIS – for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – was big news in the Middle East which has long suffered from ISIS’ brutal drive to establish an Islamic caliphate uniting the Islamic lands in that part of the world.
ISIS had been able to conquer vast areas in Syria and Iraq, fighting the troops of both countries as well as the United States which has long maintained a presence in Iraq. It became known for its brutality in treating the people of the conquered lands as well as Westerners, including newsmen, it caught in the war areas.
ISIS had become the principal Islamic armed group, after the decline of the Al-Qaeda, which had been behind the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001 and the death ten years later of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a raid by America Special Forces on his hideout in Pakistan.
ISIS has lately been losing many areas it used to hold. Then, last Saturday, al-Baghdadi himself fell in a US special forces operation in Syria’s Idlib province, after he was located through information gathered by Syrian and Iraqi intelligence agents as well as Kurdish forces in the region. He chose to blow himself up by detonating his explosives-laden vest when he was cornered in a dead-end tunnel.
The ISIS had ambitions of setting up a worldwide caliphate and had turned to Southeast Asia some years ago, where its fighters began to work with local Islamic forces. They joined the Mautes in the siege on Marawi City in May, 2017, waving black ISIS flags as they seized the city’s central district and outlying communities.
The siege sparked fears of the ISIS gaining a foothold in Southeast Asia, in line with its worldwide ambitions, but after five months, Philippine troops succeeded in driving out the ISIS-supported rebels from Marawi.
In a meeting of Southeast Asian defense ministers later at Clark, Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein of Malaysia said the siege was a wake-up call, for what happened in Marawi can happen anywhere.
Last Monday, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. warned there may be terror attacks by Abu Sayyaf, Maute, and other groups in Mindanao to prove they are still capable of carrying out destructive offensives despite al-Baghdadi’s death. He called for continued alert, especially in certain areas of Mindanao, where extremist groups continue to roam.
Al Baghdadi is indeed dead but some of ISIS’ other leaders are bound to rise to replace him and so the governments of Syria, Iraq, and the US are now on high alert. As the site of the ISIS effort to spread to Southeast Asia in 2017, the Philippines should similarly be on high alert.