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ISIS in the Philippines – Will the Group Take Root in Southeast Asia?

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ISIS in the Philippines

Will the Group Take Root in Southeast Asia?

Even if the ISIS-linked Maute group is defeated in the Philippines, its efforts may still contribute toward the Islamic State’s ultimate goal in the region.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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“While I was giving birth, I could hear the gunfire. But we didn’t run for safety.”

Tarhata Musarip had no choice. Her baby was only moments from delivery, forcing her to remain in her home amid the commotion.

She managed to deliver the baby and, within the hour, escape to another home along with her newborn and husband.

Mrs. Musarip named her new baby Martial Law, a response to the president’s decision earlier this year to put the Muslim-majority island of Mindanao, where Marawi is located, on lockdown. “He was born when we evacuated and then President Duterte announced he was going to declare martial law,” she said. “So I decided to name him Martial.”

She shared this story with CNN from one of the Philippine’s makeshift camps for internally displaced persons (IDP), opened since the uprising of the ISIS-affiliated Maute group in the city of Marawi on the nation’s large southern island of Mindanao.

Since May, over 350,000 Filipinos have fled the city and surrounding area due to the fighting, leading to a humanitarian crisis.

The initial success of the Marawi campaign bolstered ISIS to see Southeast Asia as a region into which it could expand. With its presence in the Middle East diminishing, the terror group has been looking for new territory.

Though Maute is small—and continually shrinking due to casualties inflicted by the Philippine army—the group has continued to frustrate authorities. Fighting is street-to-street and house-to-house, and Maute snipers are shooting at soldiers from rooftops. This has made it difficult for the military, which is used to jungle fighting tactics, to pin down insurgents.

Reports indicate ISIS is actively recruiting others to come to the area and join Maute’s efforts. Their continued presence in Marawi threatens to turn the city into another Aleppo.

ISIS sees the ongoing conflict as a “propaganda coup.” They supply weapons and food to Maute militants and, in the long term, hope to draw additional jihadis to the region.

Philippine Pushback

Conditions for Filipinos residing in Marawi quickly became dangerous after the uprising, forcing residents to quickly move to other regions of the country. A large percentage were dispersed and forced to live with friends or relatives. Others were crowded into IDP camps for the duration of the heavy conflict between insurgents and military forces.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to declare martial law in response to the pro-Islamic State group’s takeover of Marawi was deemed necessary at the time. However, four months in, the fighting continues. The country’s constitution limits martial law to 60 days, yet Mr. Duterte was granted authority to extend it until the end of this year in the continued effort to quell the rebellion.

With other problems such as the nation’s violent drug war, Mr. Duterte has threatened to expand martial law to the entire country. Government officials say this may further tax the military, which some argue is already overstretched.

The subject of martial law is a sensitive one given former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s decision to enforce it between 1972 and 1981 when his country battled a communist uprising. The period was marked by widespread human rights abuses.

The United States expressed concern over Islamist militants’ advancements in the Philippines. During a press briefing in August, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated: “I think our next steps on the global war to defeat ISIS are to recognize ISIS is a global issue. We already see elements of ISIS in the Philippines, as you’re aware, gaining a foothold. Some of these fighters have gone to the Philippines from Syria and Iraq.”

But even as the fighting slows, residents will not find much left when they return. The conflict turned Marawi into a broken shell of the thriving city it once was. Craters left by airstrikes mark places where apartment buildings once stood. Aerial images reveal rows of what were once homes, as well as factories and high-rises turned into indistinguishable piles of rubble. A network of trenches and manmade caves course through the city where militants had their strongholds.

The lives of those dispersed were changed forever—victims of Islamist militants bent on pushing their agenda at any cost.

Desire for Global Reach

The Maute insurgency illustrates the Islamic State’s desire for territory in Southeast Asia. The terror group is increasingly recruiting there rather than Syria or Iraq, in its push to expand from a regional threat to more of a global one.

Philippine military authorities may be in the fight against Islamic extremism for the long haul.

“We see the southern Philippines emerging as an important venue for foreign terrorist fighters,” Rohan Gunaratna, the head of Singapore’s International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, told NPR. He added that fighters have come from nations as far as Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, tracks militant groups in Southeast Asia and says that as ISIS continues to lose territory in the Middle East, fighters are looking elsewhere. “If you can’t go to Syria,” Ms. Jones says, they think “go to the Philippines” (ibid.).

For decades, the Philippines has struggled as a sanctuary for separatist, Islamist groups, mostly due to its porous borders and the inability of fighters to make it to Syria to join the conflict there. Ms. Jones expects to see more ISIS-directed and ISIS-inspired attacks in the region as a result.

Ms. Jones continued, telling NPR that the Philippines is just one alternate area in the region that has opened for ISIS. The implementation of hardline Islam is currently threatening democracy in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. Nearly 10 percent of the population there supports an Islamic caliphate.

A similar situation could develop along the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar, where an armed insurgency already operates. Ms. Jones predicts extremists from Southeast Asia may try to get to Myanmar to join these insurgents. “Indonesian and Malaysian mujahidin [guerrilla fighters] have long been interested in helping their persecuted Rohingya brethren but have had no good channel for doing so.” She called this insurgency the “wild card” in a growing collaboration between Islamist militants in Bangladesh and Southeast Asia (ibid.).

Even if the Maute group is completely eradicated in the Philippines, ISIS still has gained an ideological foothold in the country and made inroads in the region.

In the meantime, citizens like Tarhata Musarip and her newborn baby Martial will remain in doubt of their futures.

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