Southeast Asia’s jihadists who fought by the hundreds for the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria now have a different battle closer to home in the southern Philippines. It’s a scenario raising significant alarm in Washington.
The recent assault by IS-aligned fighters on the Philippine city of Marawi has left more than 300 people dead, exposing the shortcomings of local security forces and the extremist group’s spreading reach in a region where counter-terrorism gains are coming undone.
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress last week a long-running US military operation to help Philippine forces contain extremist fighters was cancelled prematurely three years ago. Small numbers of US special forces remain in an “advise and assist” role, and the US is providing aerial surveillance to help the Philippines retake Marawi, an inland city of more than 200,000 people.
But lawmakers, including from President Donald Trump’s Republican Party, want a bigger US role, short of boots on the ground. They fear the area is becoming a new hub for Islamist fighters from Southeast Asia and beyond.
US intelligence and counter-terrorism officials note that IS has publicly accepted pledges from various groups in the Philippines. In a June 2016 video, it called on followers in Southeast Asia to go to the Philippines if they cannot reach Syria.
About 40 foreigners, mostly from neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia, have been among 500 involved in fighting in Marawi, the Philippine military says. Reports indicate at least one Saudi, a Chechen and a Yemeni killed. In all, more than 200 militants have died in the standoff, now in its fourth week.
US officials are assessing whether any of the estimated 1,000 Southeast Asians who travelled to Iraq and Syria in recent years are fighting in Catholic-majority Philippines. They fear ungoverned areas in the mostly Muslim region around Marawi could make the area a terror hub as in the 1990s.
Other nations share the fear. Singapore recently warned of IS exerting a radicalizing influence “well beyond” what that of al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah ever mustered. Jemaah Islamiyah carried out major terror attacks around the region in the 2000s. IS already has been linked to attacks in Indonesia and Malaysia, and foiled plots in Singapore, this past year.