Islamic State-backed militants’ ongoing assault on Marawi City on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao heralds a bid by the radical extremist group to open a new Southeast Asian front in a spreading campaign of global jihad.
The Marawi battle has established the clear presence of other Southeast Asian nationals fighting side-by-side with the IS-aligned Filipino Maute Group, with confirmed deaths of Malaysian and Indonesian nationals in the battle zone.
On the battle’s seventh day, 61 militants, 20 government soldiers and 17 civilians were reportedly killed.
Philippine Solicitor General Jose Calida publicly announced that “what is happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of citizens, but it has transmogrified into an invasion of foreign terrorists who heeded the clarion call of ISIS.”
Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs has claimed that Muhamad Ali Abdul Rahiman, a Singapore national, has been in Mindanao and was implicated in terror-related attacks across the region since the 1990s. Rahiman’s involvement in the current assault on Marawi is under investigation.
The presence of foreign militants, of course, is not new to the Philippines. The Indonesian terror group Jemaah Islamiah, once affiliated with Al Qadea, is known to have set up a militant training center in the southern Philippines as early as 1994. Since then, the southern Philippines has been a known training ground for militant Indonesians, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Thais and some Arabs.
Analysts and officials are now grappling with how IS has leveraged into these well-established networks, particularly between the Philippines and Malaysia. Some fear that IS may have a deeper network in the region than many previously realized.
The Filipino Maute Group leading the siege of Marawi city has emerged suddenly at the center of Islamic militant ties. The extremist group was founded by Omar and Abdullah Maute, brothers who had previously worked in the Middle East and later returned to the Philippines imbued with hard-line Islamic ideologies.
Upon their return, they reportedly were involved in petty criminal activity in Mindanao’s northern Lanao del Sur province as late as 2012, but eventually transformed their group into an ISIS franchisee after formally pledging allegiance to the global jihadist group in 2015.
At least three other Filipino groups have also pledged loyalty to IS. They include the Abu Sayyaf Group headed by Isnilon Hapilon in southern Basilan, the Ansarul Khilafah Philippines earlier led by Abu Sharifah which pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014, and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) splinter group founded by the late commander Ameril Umbra Kato.
The IS global council, known as Ahlus Shura, is known to have appointed Isnilon Hapilon as its umbrella leader in the Philippines, with the objective of establishing a province in Mindanao and creating a new regional caliphate, or “wilalyat.” It is not clear how closely the four IS affiliated groups collaborate.
The Maute Group, however, is clearly closely aligned with the Abu Sayyaf Group. It was not considered a serious threat until September 2016, when it fiercely fought a close quarter battle with government soldiers in Mindanao’s Lanao del Sur province. The Islamist group successfully captured Butig town hall in Lanao and hoisted its trademark IS black flag.
Philippine security officials soon thereafter shifted their earlier perception of the armed group as a band of criminals to a potential terrorist threat with members well-trained in bomb-making, urban guerrilla warfare, weapons development and potent Islamist propaganda.
Veryan Khan, an analyst at the Terrorism Research Analysis Consortium, a digital terrorism monitoring outfit, recently wrote that of the four Filipino groups that have pledged allegiance to IS, the Maute Group is the most educated and dangerous, even more than the Abu Sayyaf Group known for its piracy and kidnap-for-ransom activities targeting foreigners. – ATimes
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