SINGAPORE — The prospect of the Islamic State expanding into Southeast Asia has become a much more distinct possibility in the last few weeks, as Philippine government forces make heavy going of an operation to oust militants who have seized a city in the country's south.
Granted, there is virtually no possibility of the ISIS-linked militants successfully holding on to an ever-shrinking part of Marawi City in the Lanao del Sur province on the southern island of Mindanao against the ongoing military assault. But regional defense and security watchers fear that the perceived success of the Maute group in keeping the Philippine military at bay for even a protracted period could raise the group's profile, making it a more attractive proposition to potential donors and recruits.
The result is that regional defense ministers and other security officials and professionals that lost territory in Iraq and Syria for ISIS might spur trained foreign fighters from the Middle East to make their way to the southern Philippines in an attempt to regroup.
Roots of the crisis
The current round of fighting in Marawi began on May 23, when the Philippine military and police mounted an operation to capture Isnilon Hapilon, named by an Islamic State newsletter in 2016 as "emir of all Islamic State forces in the Philippines." The operation failed and a shootout ensued with militants of the Maute group, one of several insurgencies from the area that have pledged allegiance to ISIS. The group then proceeded to seize the city of 200,000 and its weapons, driving out the local police and city administrators.
According to Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, the ISIS attackers included 260 Maute militants, 100 Abu Sayyaf militants under Isnilon Hapilon and roughly 150 from local militant organizations.
Richard Heydarian, a foreign affairs analyst from the Philippines, suggested to Defense News that the seizure of Marawi might have been timed to coincide with international travel of President Rodrigo Duterte and Philippines' senior military leadership, and conducted in response to a jibe from Duterte last year challenging the Maute to seize Marawi.
Duterte declared martial law for all of Mindanao soon after Marawi's seizure, and the military immediately went on the offensive to take back the city. Despite outnumbering the militants and utilizing armoured assets and airstrikes from aircraft and helicopters, progress has been slow, with Heydarian noting that the military "clearly has some struggles with urban warfare" it encountered in Marawi, along with deficiencies in intelligence gathering and coordination between different forces.
This was painfully brought home May 31, when an errant airstrike hit an army position engaged in close combat with the militants, resulting in the deaths of 10 Filipino soldiers and the wounding of several more.
The military has also lost a number of its GKN Simba and Cadillac-Gage V-150 armored cars to RPGs and recoilless rifle fire, spurring improvised armor in the form of cardboard boxes and wooden planks to prematurely detonate the warheads.
Both the United States and regional countries have been quick to react to the sudden turn of events. Local media covering the fighting between troops belonging to the Armed Forces of the Philippines or AFP and militants in the city of Marawi on Mindanao Island have photographed an AeroVironment RQ-20 Puma Unmanned Aerial Vehicle being operated by Western personnel near the battle, as well as a Lockheed-Martin P-3C Orion circling the city on separate occasions.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in nearby Singapore on June 3, also said the U.S. would continue to "support the modernization of the Philippines' armed forces" and "uphold our commitments to the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty."
This is despite Duterte's regular outbursts against the United States and overtures to China and Russia, who he has approached for assistance to equip the underfunded and poorly equipped Philippine military.
However, analyst Heydarian noted to Defense News that the "reality is both powers are not in a position to provide in a sufficient proportion the assistance the Philippines needs in order to deal with this problem," adding that "only one country can provide the high-grade intelligence, advanced equipment, and has a long history of interoperability with the armed forces of the Philippines, and that is the United States."
Meanwhile, neighboring countries have also indicated they will be pushing ahead with plans to conduct air and naval patrols in the Sulu Sea, which has been used as a conduit for piracy, transnational crime and militancy in the region. At 2016's Shangri-La Dialogue, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, who all have coastlines with the Sulu Sea, had floated the idea of limited coordinated patrols and signed an agreement to that effect soon after. Since then, things have appeared bogged down as the countries have struggled to develop standardized procedures and supporting infrastructure to mount those patrols. The idea was again brought up in 2017's Shangri-La Dialogue, with Malaysian defense minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein revealing that maritime patrols will start June 19.
Heydarian warns that the long-term focus of the Philippine government is not just to deal with the problem of insurgency or terrorism in isolation, but also to address the grievances of the local population in Mindanao, which has a Muslim-majority in contrast with majority Catholic Philippines. As it is, Heydarian notes that the destruction in Marawi could already lead to further grievances to be exploited by extremist jihadi groups for recruitment.
Singapore's defense minister, Ng Eng Hen, has already noted that if the problem in the southern Philippines is not contained, it can affect "all of Southeast Asia and beyond."