Philippine Islamic extremists open second front on Facebook


Islamic extremists who laid siege to a southern Philippine city launched a separate war on social media that took the country’s armed forces by surprise.

As fighting has raged in Marawi, 830 kilometres south of Manila, the extremists and their supporters flooded Facebook and other social media with propaganda video, photographs and posts.

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The military has asked Facebook to take down dozens of accounts it said were being operated by Maute Group militants allied with Islamic State or their supporters in the southern Philippines and across the world.

“We are requesting Facebook Philippines to take down these accounts … they are spreading lies and misinformation,” said Lieutenant-Colonel J-Ar Herrera, the military spokesman in Marawi City.

“They are creating more problems in our fight versus local terrorist groups,” he said. 

“These Facebook accounts have twisted the truth and twisted the real situation.”

The first images of attacks on Philippine troops and the occupation of the Philippines’ largest predominantly Islamic city on May 23 were posted by the militants.

They included the capture of armoured personnel carries and showed militants planting black Islamic State flags across the city of 200,000 people.

Videos showed heavily armed militants launching rocket-propelled grenades and firing a machine gun from the back of a pick-up truck.

An Islamic State propaganda online magazine featured what it claimed were exclusive images of Christians being executed in the city.

The site has faked images in the past.

In the first days of the siege militants used social media to send direct messages to local officials and the military warning them that dozens of hostages would be executed unless Philippine troops withdrew from the city.

One of several videos posted on YouTube showed kidnapped Catholic Marawi priest Chito Suganob standing in front of blacked ruins repeating the militants’ demands.

Facebook has told Philippines authorities it would remove any account that promoted terrorism.

But officials said many were opened with false names, making it difficult to identity those behind the campaign.

The siege has emerged as a bold well-planned operation backed by militants from a dozen terror groups in the southern Philippines to gain a foothold for Islamic State in south-east Asia.

In his latest comments on the siege, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “specifically ordered the conduct of terrorist activities in the Philippines”.

He did not disclose the source of the information.

There are reports that al-Baghdadi was killed last week in an air strike by Coalition forces in the Islamic State Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, but experts remain sceptical after his death has been falsely reported before.

Mr Duterte, a firebrand former provincial mayor, has repeatedly ordered troops to crush the militants holed up in Marawi, even if it cost the lives of hostages and hundreds of residents trapped in city.

He said on Sunday he was unaware of American support to end the siege after the US embassy in Manila revealed that US forces were providing “technical assistance”.

“I was not aware until they arrived,” he said.

The US, which had troops stationed in the southern Philippines for years,has kept 50 to 100 special forces in the south of the country on rotational exercises.

A US official was quoted by Reuters saying the support included aerial surveillance and targeting, electronic eavesdropping, communications assistance and targeting.

A US P-3 Orion surveillance plane was seen flying over Marawi last week.

with agencies

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