MANILA - 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. Philippine Muslims took part in conflict in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Heavily-armed Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams with Australian Federal Police surprised 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,” a senior police intelligence official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press, told Reuters.
“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 continued.
Police said Cerantonio arrived in the Philippines early in February and began recruiting for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He also traveled to Basilan and Sulu in the country's south, preaching radical Islam to support Syria and Iraq.
Police, who said Cerantonio was also using Facebook and Twitter accounts in his recruitment activities, are checking into his possible involvement in posting online video of Philippine Muslims supporting ISIL.
Several videos surfaced recently on YouTube of Philippine Islamist militants making statements in Arabic and Tagalog dialect 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, said Conrado Capa, Cebu's deputy regional police chief.
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.