BETHESDA, Md. — The Islamic State group’s affiliates in the southern portion of the U.S.-allied nation of the Philippines is a growing threat to U.S. security, a U.S. Army Pacific official said Tuesday at the Global Explosive Ordnance Disposal Symposium & Exhibition.
The group seized the city of Marawi on the Philippine island of Mindanao in late May and have turned the city of 200,000 inhabitants into a battlefield comparable to the brutal slog faced by allied forces trying to take back the Iraqi city of Mosul.
“ISIS affiliated elements took over that city on the 23rd of May, and the Philippine Army is still trying to get it back,” said Col. Gerardo Meneses, director of the Asia-Pacific Counter-IED Fusion Center, which monitors improvised explosive device activity in the region. “It’s a very Mosul-like situation. It’s not making headlines but they’ve had over 600 casualties there. … This is a growing threat.”
Meneses’ organization published a report in June highlighting the dangers posed by the sudden boost the battle of Marawi has been to ISIS-Philippines’ profile in the global jihadi movement and to its leader Isnilon Hapilon.
“The battle for Marawi has materially changed the outlook for ISIS-PHL, suddenly launching Hapilon and his organization into legitimacy while placing the Philippines in the precarious position of having to play its cards exactly right in the rehabilitation of a devastated city, an increasingly brittle peace negotiation, and the upcoming IO battle,” the report concludes, using an acronym for information operations.
“Additionally, the Philippines now finds itself under the global jihad community’s spotlight, bringing an entire new set of challenges even if the Philippines succeeds in negotiating the current minefield it faces. The Philippines must now take every opportunity to deny victories to Hapilon, before he pulls them over the brink.”
U.S. Pacific Command head Adm. Harry Harris has been warning for more than a year about the threat posed by ISIS in the Pacific, and the events of the past 12 months have only made those warning more prescient.
“I often talk about the U.S. strategic rebalance to this region,” Harris said in a July 2016 speech. “Regrettably, I believe that [ISIS] is also trying to rebalance to the Indo-Asia-Pacific. To halt the Islamic State’s cancerous spread in Asia, we can’t work alone. We must work together.”
As ISIS continues to be beset by battlefield losses in Iraq and Syria, officials worry that returning fighters and veterans of ISIS’ wars in the Middle East will further destabilize the Philippines and other countries such as Bangladesh.
The Army report from June said fighters from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Yemen and Chechnya have all been discovered among the dead in the fight for Marawi.