Philippine authorities have arrested a suspect in the abduction of four people, two of them Canadian, from a yacht marina in the country's south, amid fears about the region becoming an Asian nexus for attacks by extremists linked to the Islamic State.
The suspect, a man named Pandajar Adona, was identified through security camera footage at the Holiday Oceanview Samal, an island resort where 11 gunmen seized the sailors late on Sept. 21, Rodrigo Duterte, the law-and-order mayor of nearby Davao City, told local media. A second suspect has also been identified, he said, but no group has yet stepped forward to take responsibility, and no ransom demand has been made.
Two of those abducted, Robert Hall and John Ridsdel, are Canadian; friends have said a third man, identified by authorities as Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad, also carries a Canadian passport. The fourth person, Maritess Flor, is a Filipina in a relationship with Robert Hall.
The search for the missing has focused in part on the Sulu Archipelago, the lawless region in the western stretches of Mindanao – a large island region hundreds of kilometres south of Manila – that is home to militant Muslim groups, including Abu Sayyaf, some of whose leaders have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
Now, the abductions are training new attention on fears that violent Islamic State ideology and tactics are finding a home in the islands and jungles of the country's south, a place already long riven by fighting and kidnappings.
"I actually think that the Philippines will become one of the key gateways for the Islamic State," said Clarke Jones, a former intelligence worker who is now an expert on terrorism and radicalization at Australian National University. His research brings him regularly into New Bilibid Prison, the Philippines maximum security jail that is among the biggest of its kind on earth, where he interviews convicted terrorists, among them members of Jemaah Islamiya, a south-east Asian terrorist group.
But "all the Jemaah Islamiya basically rolled over to the Islamic State," he said. They have been joined by some members of Abu Sayyaf.
"It's been a worrying trend over the last six to eight months," Mr. Jones said. For extremists in the Philippines, "they've sort of got a new lease on life because the Islamic State is finally giving it to the West."
The southern Philippines offers some advantages for a group like Islamic State: relatively porous borders, places where it can operate largely undisturbed and a country with numerous flight connections to the Middle East, where large numbers of Filipinos are employed as migrant workers.
The organization has also cultivated Asian connections, which are valuable for recruitment and growth of its fundamentalist brand.
Asia has in recent months seen a disconcerting rise in extremist attacks. The bombing of a temple in Thailand, which killed 20, has been linked to Chinese Muslims, some of whom fled to Turkey. Islamic State has directly taken responsibility for the killing of two foreigners, one Japanese, the other Italian, in Dhaka in recent weeks. That comes after the bloody assassination of four secular bloggers in the Bangladeshi capital.
In Sydney, meanwhile, a 15-year-old gunman killed a civilian police employee this weekend while chanting religious slogans in an attack Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called a likely act of terror.
The Philippines has long been notable for how little its Muslim groups have been influenced by foreign extremism. Mindanao, with a population that is 20-per-cent Muslim, is home to a raft of armed militants. But they have been largely absorbed with local concerns – and profit-making from kidnapping.
In Indonesia, "jihadists are really plugged into the jihadi literature," said Joseph Franco, a former Philippines military researcher who is now an associate research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, where he specializes in Philippine militant groups. "But you look over to the Philippines, there's no ideological development. There's no effort to indigenize the narratives from the Middle East."
Islamic State has a Katibah Nusantara brigade made up of Indonesian and Malaysian fighters, and a Bahasa-language recruitment website. It has no such service in Tagalog, or any of the southern Philippines languages.
Historically, even some Philippine groups claiming association with Jemaah Islamiya or al-Qaeda "turned out to be extortion gangs," Mr. Franco added. He doubts Islamic State will establish a Philippines foothold any time soon. "The Sulu guys use the imagery of Islamic State, the flags and the weapons up in the air – but it's a publicity stunt," he said. Last year, Abu Sayyaf threatened to kill two German hostages if Berlin did not pull support for U.S. attacks on Syria and Iraq. Those demands vanished when a $5-million (U.S.) ransom was paid.
Mr. Franco suggested the marina abductions were carried out by a group looking to fund election campaigns for favoured candidates.
Problems with a southern Philippines peace process may, however, provide an opening. Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, one of the area's most prominent militant groups, have negotiated toward creation of a new autonomous Muslim region that would give local leaders significant new power and resource revenues.
But the peace process has faltered, with 43 police commandos killed during a raid on Muslim bomb makers this January. Mr. Duterte, the powerful Davao City mayor, has questioned whether the deal can gain national legislative approval – and warns about the possibility of war if it fails.
"If the peace process really goes south – not just stalls but if skirmishes start and the central leadership really starts to lose command and control – I could see members starting to espouse a pro-Islamic State line, certainly in the hopes that it would lead to the flow of resources," said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C., who has studied Abu Sayyaf.
Mr. Jones has seen that start to happen. One inmate who joined Islamic State said "it certainly paid more. His opportunity to earn money was greater than farming."
And even if the leaders of the major Muslim militant groups in the Philippines show little interest in Islamic State, there remains risk in the group's rise as a talisman of violent cool – a problem that faces nations around the world.
Mr. Abuza, for example, has watched youth in Muslim areas of southern Thailand be drawn in by Islamic State propaganda on social media. "This is also happening in the Philippines," he said. So far, the numbers of Filipinos joining Islamic State have been small – estimates range from a few dozen to just two. But, Mr. Abuza said, "it will happen. It's just a matter of time."