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Philippines Attack: Robbery Gone Wrong Or Terrorist Act?


The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, says that ISIS was not behind Friday's attack on a casino complex in Manila. The Islamic State claims otherwise. The Philippine government has a history of downplaying the threat posed by Islamic extremists. But last week's occupation of a Filipino city by IS-linked militants is making that harder. Michael Sullivan reports from Manila.


MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The attack occurred just after midnight at Resorts World Manila, a high-end, high-profile complex just a few blocks from the international airport. After several hours of chaos, National Police Chief Ronald dela Rosa told reporters at the scene it was over.


RONALD DELA ROSA: The lone gunman is already neutralized.

SULLIVAN: A lone gunman, he said, who apparently died after setting himself on fire in a hotel room. The 37 others, police say, died from smoke inhalation. Dela Rosa insisted it was not an act of terrorism because the man didn't shoot anybody. Analyst Sidney Jones isn't convinced.

SIDNEY JONES: I think it was pretty clear once the military operations intensified in Marawi that the ISIS coalition would look for other targets.

SULLIVAN: Jones tracks Southeast Asia militant groups at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta, Indonesia. Even if the government's version of events holds, she doesn't expect it's going to be long before Manila is targeted. And she's not alone.

ROHAN GUNARATNA: The threat to Manila is very significant because there are many armed groups that have pledged allegiance to IS in the Philippines. Any of those groups can stage such an attack.

SULLIVAN: Rohan Gunaratna heads the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism in Singapore.

GUNARATNA: Until those groups are contained, isolated and eliminated, the threat to the Philippines, including to the capital of Manila, will remain significant.

SULLIVAN: And what Sidney Jones calls the euphoria on social media about the ongoing fight between IS-linked militants and government forces in the southern city of Marawi is likely to attract more foreign fighters from Indonesia, from Malaysia and perhaps beyond, despite martial law on the island of Mindanao, despite stepped-up security at ports and airports.

JONES: And then I think it's going to be a question about when the Duterte government realizes they've got an ideological problem on their hands that won't necessarily be solved by military force. And I don't think they're prepared for that.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Manila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.