Philippines hails fall of last ISIS territory

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines joined the world in celebrating the fall of the last remaining territory held by the terrorist Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, even as it said the fight "is not over."

US President Donald Trump also hailed the end of the ISIS "caliphate" on Saturday, March 23, and vowed that the US will remain "vigilant" against the die-hard jihadists. (LOOK: The day the ISIS 'caliphate' fell)

"We congratulate all those responsible for this victory," said the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in a statement Saturday.

"The fight is not over yet as the threat posed by Daesh remnants and other affiliated terrorist groups remains. The Philippines stands solidly behind the efforts of the international community in addressing this threat," the DFA said.

Rappler had reported as early as January 2016 that ISIS may establish a wilayat, or province, in the southern Philippines. In December 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte and his defense officials cited ISIS plans to build a wilayat in Mindanao as basis for extending martial law in Mindanao.

ISIS has also inspired local terror groups to mount high-profile attacks in the Philippines, most notably the 5-month siege in the Islamic city of Marawi, and twin bombings that killed at least 23 in a Catholic cathedral in Jolo, Sulu.

The DFA issued its statement after the fall of the town of Baghouz in Syria on Saturday.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces' victory in the remote riverside village of Baghouz, where ISIS made its last stand, capped a 6-month operation against the final remnants of ISIS-controlled territory that once stretched across a vast swathe of Iraq and Syria, with 7 million people in its sway.

Trump warning

"We will remain vigilant...until it is finally defeated wherever it operates," Trump said of ISIS in a statement.

"The United States will defend American interests whenever and wherever necessary. We will continue to work with our partners and allies to totally crush radical Islamic terrorists."

Trump also had a warning for youths who can easily be swayed. (READ: To curb ISIS influence, Bangsamoro gov't must involve youth)

"To all of the young people on the internet believing in ISIS' propaganda, you will be dead if you join. Think instead about having a great life," he said.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan welcomed the "critical milestone," but warned that "our work is far from complete."

"We will continue our work with the global coalition to deny ISIS safe haven anywhere in the world," he said.

"We remain committed to ISIS' enduring defeat and we are confident that we will prevail."

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford Jr added that "the US military remains committed to working closely with our Coalition and regional partners to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS."

The jihadists retain a presence in eastern Syria's vast Badia desert and various other hideouts from which they could wage the kind of deadly guerrilla insurgency that accompanied the rise of ISIS.

While the geographic caliphate has been dismantled, analysts warn remnants of the group can melt back into the population while seeking to convert others to their ideology.

'Historic milestone'

Other countries hailed the fall of what ISIS claimed to be a caliphate, and at the same time called for a continuing fight against the terrorist group and the ideology it ignited all over the world.

British Prime Minister Theresa May called the bastion's fall "a historic milestone" in the fight against ISIS, and said the British government remained "committed to eradicating their poisonous ideology."

French President Emmanuel Macron said a source of potential terror attacks had been "eliminated," but warned that "the threat remains and the fight against terrorist groups must continue."

"A new phase in the fight against terrorists" is beginning, said Mazloum Kobane, the overall commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, adding that the target was now to eliminate ISIS "sleeper cells." 

In March 2018, terrorism analyst Rohan Gunaratna had warned that about the expansion of ISIS despite its loss of physical territory.

"The Islamic State has shrunk in the physical space, but in the cyberspace, it is still very capable. This issue has not been addressed by governments," Gunaratna said in a Rappler Talk interview with Maria Ressa.

"Governments are crawling when the Islamic State is sprinting when it comes to social media. Governments must invest more in controlling and containing the spread of terrorist propaganda in cyberspace," Gunaratna said. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com