MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Islamic State group-linked militants planned but failed to attack another southern Philippine city shortly after troops crushed their siege of Marawi last year, the leader of the country's largest Muslim rebel group said Tuesday.
Al Haj Murad Ebrahim of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front said the plot to attack either Iligan or Cotabato city fell apart after the Marawi siege ended, but the extremists have continued to recruit new fighters to recover from their battle defeats.
Murad said his group relayed intelligence about the planned attacks on the two cities, which are bustling commercial hubs, to government forces through cease-fire channels established during years of peace talks. He made the comments at a forum with foreign news correspondents, stressing how his group has helped battle terrorism.
President Rodrigo Duterte and military officials have also said that remnants of the radical groups behind the five-month siege that devastated Marawi were hunting for new recruits and plotting new attacks.
Duterte mentioned the threats in a speech late Monday in which he criticized Canada for imposing restrictions on the use of combat helicopters the Philippines has sought to buy. He has ordered the military to cancel the purchase.
"They are about to retake another city in the Philippines or to take another geographical unit but I couldn't use the helicopters," Duterte said, explaining that the Bell helicopters could not be employed in combat assaults.
Duterte has not elaborated on the nature of post-Marawi attack threats.
Murad's group, which the military estimates has about 10,000 fighters scattered mostly in the marshy south, hopes the Philippine Congress will pass legislation this year implementing a 2014 autonomy pact with the government.
He said the prospects appear bright, but added that the rebels are aware that the government failed to enforce peace pacts in the past, prompting disgruntled rebels to form breakaway groups.
The rebel leader warned that restive young Muslims in the southern Mindanao region, homeland of Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation, may be drawn to extremism if the peace efforts fail.
As Islamic State group militants lose bases in the Middle East, "we will increasingly find them in our midst as they seek new strategic grounds where the hold of government is weak such as in Mindanao," Murad said.
Last year, Murad said his group lost 24 fighters who were defending rural communities from breakaway militants who have aligned with the Islamic State group. "We know we cannot decisively win the war against extremism if we cannot win the peace in the halls of Congress," Murad said.
The new Muslim autonomous zone, which generally covers five poor provinces, is to replace an existing one that is seen as a dismal failure. The new plan grants much more autonomy, power and guaranteed resources to the region.
The rebels have been fighting since the 1970s for Muslim self-rule in Mindanao in an insurrection that has killed about 150,000 combatants and civilians. The United States and other Western governments have backed the autonomy deal, partly to prevent the insurgency from breeding extremists.