The Philippines on Friday arrested an Australian national with suspected links to foreign Islamist militants after he urged Philippine Muslims on social media sites to support conflicts in Iraq and Syria, recruiting them to go to the Middle East.
The arrest is the first known link between Islamist militants in the Southeast Asian nation and foreign jihadists supporting conflicts in the Middle East.
The Australian government believes at least 150 of its citizens are involved in fighting or actively supporting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq.
Heavily armed special weapons and tactics teams, with Australian Federal Police, surprised Australian Robert Cerantonio, a Muslim convert, before dawn at his apartment near the Mactan-Cebu International Airport in the central Philippines.
“He has been recruiting Filipino Muslims to fight in Iraq and Syria,” said a senior police intelligence official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
“He has been literally calling for jihad, but we’re still validating reports that some Filipino Muslims have responded to his call to arms. His activities here caught the attention of the Australian Federal Police and they alerted us,” the official added.
Philippine police said Cerantonio arrived in the country early in February and began recruiting for ISIL.
Earlier this month, Cerantonio posted messages on social media claiming he had traveled to the region where ISIL has declared a caliphate, or Muslim state, in parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq.
“We don’t believe he actually left the Philippines. Nor did he go to the Middle East,” Australia Federal Police Deputy Commissioner National Security Andrew Colvin told the Daily Telegraph newspaper in Sydney yesterday.
“The grounds for the arrest is something we are still working through with our Filipino colleagues,” he added.
Philippine police believe Cerantonio traveled to Basilan and Sulu in the country’s south, preaching radical Islam to support Syria and Iraq. They are checking into his possible involvement in posting online videos of Philippine Muslims supporting ISIL.
Several videos surfaced recently on YouTube of Philippine Islamist militants making statements in Arabic and Tagalog in support of ISIL. Some of the videos were shot inside a police prison in the capital, Manila.
Cerantonio will be deported back to Australia after his passport was canceled by Australian authorities, Cebu’s deputy regional police chief Conrado Capa said.
As Sunni Islamist rebels surge into Iraq from Syria, security officials in Southeast Asia and Australia worry that the conflict is radicalizing a new generation of militants, who are being influenced to an unprecedented degree by social media.
The Australian government yesterday said it was including the more broadly defined Islamic State on its list of banned terrorist organizations.
“The Islamic State conducts public executions and violent punishments in areas it controls and is one of the world’s most deadly and active terrorist organizations, targeting crowds and public gatherings during holidays and religious festivals to maximize casualties and publicity,” Australian Attorney General George Brandis said.