BEIJING — Philippine authorities announced the arrest of a foreign national on Monday for allegedly recruiting local fighters for Islamic State-aligned insurgent groups.
The head of the Philippine National Police, Ronald dela Rosa, presented Fehmi Lassoued and his Filipino girlfriend, Anabel Salipada, at a news conference and said they were arrested over the weekend on weapons and explosives charges.
Lassoued once worked as a “commander” for the Islamic State in Syria and Turkey, dela Rosa said, before entering the Philippines on a fake Tunisian passport in July 2016.
Philippine officials did not provide additional details about the case or proof of ties to the Islamic State. “A thorough investigation is now underway to determine the extent of their involvement with international and domestic threat groups,” dela Rosa said.
Asked by reporters for his side of the story, Lassoued, wearing handcuffs, said he denied the allegations. “Maybe I was in ISIS before,” he said, in halting English, before being led away.
There have been conflicting reports about his nationality, with some media organizations describing him as Tunisian and others saying he is Egyptian.
Philippine authorities last month arrested another foreign suspect, a Spanish national named Abdelhakim Labidi Adib. He was described then as a possible supporter of Islamic State-aligned groups.
Both arrests come just a few months after Philippine troops pushed Islamic State-allied insurgents from the southern city of Marawi, ending a months-long siege. Witnesses to the Marawi conflict reported seeing foreign fighters, but the number of men and the nature of their involvement remains unclear.
Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict and an expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia, said Lassoued’s arrest is a reminder that the role of foreign terrorist groups in the conflict is still not understood.
“What this says is that there may have been a more important international component than the Philippines’ authorities have been willing to admit thus far,” she said.
“While these arrests are being given a lot of publicity, it is still not clear that anybody has a good idea on how strong the pro-ISIS components are in the aftermath of Marawi,” Jones continued, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “I think the Philippines has a real long-term problem on its hands.”