The Philippines has long had a problem with Islamic militants in the South around Mindanao. The former leader mistakenly caved to their demands for separate territory where Islam would rule.
Now, there’s a tough-as-nails president, Rodrigo Duterte, who has vowed to wipe out all the Islamic terrorists, but that was before ISIS became a significant factor.
As the Islamic State loses territory in Iraq and Syria, fears mount that the militant group is gaining a stronghold in the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
The Philippines has become the epicenter for the Islamic State, or ISIS, as it expands into the region where more than 60 groups have pledged allegiance to ISIS, according to the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.
ISIS has been clear about its intentions to turn to Southeast Asia as one of its major sites for operations, drawing recruits from the Philippines and the Muslim-majority countries of Indonesia and Malaysia.
Historically, al-Qaeda had links to extremist groups in Southeast Asia, but ISIS has been connected to several recent attacks, including a May suicide bombing that killed three police offers at a Jakarta bus station and a September bombing in the Philippine city of Davao that killed 14.
The drawn-out siege by militants in the city of Marawi is exposing the vulnerability of the Philippine military, which could undermine the region’s security, analysts say. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law May 24 in Mindanao, the southern island where Marawi is located, citing the rising threat of ISIS.
“I think Marawi is showing the absolute limits of what the armed forces of the Philippines is capable of,” said Zachary Abusa, professor of national security strategy and a Southeast Asia expert at the National War College in Washington, D.C. “After years and years of U.S. counterterrorism assistance, I think we should be very concerned.“
The United States began the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines to assist Philippines counterterrorism efforts in 2002 but ended the operation in 2015.
The U.S. Embassy in Manila acknowledged Saturday that U.S. special forces are assisting the Philippine military in the ongoing fight to retake Marawi. The U.S. help was limited to surveillance and technical support, according to the Philippine military.
The Philippines has become a destination for militants from around the region, analysts say, especially after ISIS released a video in June 2016 advising potential recruits to head for Mindanao if they couldn’t make it to Syria or Iraq.
“The Philippine groups actually control territory,” Abusa said. “There’s just been this slow and steady trickle of foreigners into Mindanao the past few years.”
Dozens of foreigners have been fighting alongside the Filipino militants in Marawi, with several Malaysians and Indonesians as well as a Chechen, Yemeni and Saudi among those reported killed.
At a security forum held recently in Singapore called the Shangri-La Dialogue, defense ministers from around Southeast Asia expressed alarm about the rise of terrorism in the region and pledged closer cooperation, especially in conducting coordinated sea patrols in the Sulu Sea around Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Terrorism is the region’s “biggest security concern,” said Singapore’s defense minister, Ng Eng Hen.
He told the forum that the Philippines is becoming a magnet for extremists: “All of us recognize that if not addressed adequately, it can prove a pulling ground for would-be (extremists) who can launch attacks from there.”
At the same conference, Indonesia’s defense minister, Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu, said around 1,200 ISIS operatives are in the Philippines, including 40 from Indonesia.
“The terrorism threat in this region has evolved into an unprecedented immediate level of emergency,” he said. “The death group’s area of operation has gone global.”
In 2016, ISIS officially recognized Isnilon Hapilon, the head of a faction of the Abu Sayyaf militant group, as leader of its Southeast Asia regional operations and vowed to create a wilayat, or Islamic State province, in Mindanao.
Hapilon was the target of the botched military raid that triggered a siege by Abu Sayyaf militants and the Maute group, which also pledged allegiance to ISIS in Marawi on May 23. Hapilon is on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, with a $5 million reward for his capture.
About 500 militants have seized large parts of Marawi while burning buildings, cutting power and communications lines and taking hostages. The fighting has killed at least 58 government troops, 29 civilians and 138 militants, according to the Philippine military. The ISIS-linked militants still control parts of the central city and have as many as 2,000 hostages, the military said.
Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, said the Philippines has long underestimated the ISIS threat, noting the militant group “wants to capture and control territory and govern territory.”
“You can say Marawi is a game changer in the fight against terrorism in this region,” Gunaratna said. “It demonstrated to all the countries in the region what (ISIS) can do. They thought this business of running cities is something in the Middle East — they never thought it could happen in Asia.”
Sources: BNI and USA Today