AFP focuses on Abu Sayyaf troops in Basilan, Sulu in anti-terrorism thrust

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 8) — The Armed Forces of the Philippines is zeroing in on the remaining Abu Sayyaf troops in Basilan and Sulu this year, as it also grapples with the reported influx of foreign terrorists.

AFP chief Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay said the military's anti-terrorism crackdown seeks to "significantly degrade" rebel forces in these areas.

"As far as the Abu Sayyaf Group, we are striving to really end it this year," Gapay said during the Department of National Defense budget briefing on Tuesday, in response to the query of Basilan Rep. Mujiv Hataman about ending the reign of terror in Mindanao. "The entire local terrorist group problem would be (resolved) by 2022, before the term of President Duterte ends, 'yun po ang timeline ng Armed Forces."

Wanted Abu Sayyaf leader Abduljihad "Edang" Susukan, notorious for kidnap-for-ransom activities, was surrendered to authorities last month. He has multiple warrants of arrest for murder, kidnapping, and serious illegal detention.

RELATED: AFP intensifies operations vs. Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao after subleader's arrest

Gapay said the three-year target covers other factions like the Maute Group, which attacked Marawi in 2017; the Al-Khalifa group in Sarangani, and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

Jolo, Sulu fell victim to the most recent terrorist attacks in the country, where twin blasts killed 15 people and injured 78 others in August.

Gapay said there are eight foreign terrorists hiding in the country, most of them affiliated with the Abu Sayyaf group. There are 29 other foreigners on the military's watch list.

Last year's twin explosions, also in Jolo, were triggered by two Indonesian suicide bombers which left 22 dead. The Interior Department previously said the foreigners were likely aided by local Abu Sayyaf members.

"Our counter-terrorism strategy is comprehensive," Gapay said, as he batted for enhanced maritime security to monitor foreigners who sneak in through 'back door' ports.

Better coordination with the Bureau of Immigration will also be useful in detecting foreigners entering air or seaports using different identities, he said.

Lorenzana said local insurgency and terrorism are the country's top security concerns, followed by maritime issues in the West Philippine Sea and illegal drugs.