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Philippine soldiers ride in trucks into the fighting zone as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group in Marawi City, Philippines, on June 28.   © Reuters
Politics

As Philippines battles terror, neighbors worry who is next

Majority-Muslim nations vulnerable as Islamic State flees Middle East

MANILA -- Entrenched armed conflict between Islamic State-linked militants and the Philippine military on the southern island of Mindanao has majority-Muslim nations across Southeast Asia on high alert for signs that extremism is on the advance.

Weeks ago, two armed groups active on Mindanao gathered in an undisclosed location to plot, in intricate detail, a full-scale takeover of the city of Marawi. Video obtained by the Associated Press shows more than 10 men consulting a hand-drawn map and discussing plans to spring prisoners from jail and take hostages from a school.

Isnilon Hapilon, head of the Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf, sat front and center, and was flanked by brothers Abdullah and Omarkhayam Maute, founders of the Maute group, another extremist organization. Both groups have pledged allegiance to IS. When Philippine security forces attempted to arrest Hapilon on May 23, the Mautes put the takeover plan into action, beginning a bloody clash with the military that pushed President Rodrigo Duterte to place all of Mindanao under martial law. Manila apparently called in help from U.S. special operations forces, despite the president having ordered the American military out of the country.

Attempts to suppress the insurgency, including aerial bombings by the Philippine military, have left more than 400 dead, including 44 civilians and around 300 of the 500 Maute fighters.

Home-grown

"I am very, very, very sorry," Duterte said June 20 to a group of those forced by the conflict to evacuate. The president's roots on Mindanao run deep: he served as mayor of Davao, a large city on the island, for more than 20 years, during which time he established his law-and-order reputation with a harsh crackdown on drug users and those involved in the drug trade. But Duterte seems to have underestimated the difficulty of the current conflict. The military is gearing up for a long fight, and it is impossible to predict with certainty when the insurgents will be subdued.

The Philippines' population is roughly 90% Christian. But the country's southern regions are home to a sizable Muslim population. Abu Sayyaf began as a local separatist group, only gradually adopting the extremist ideology of IS. The Mautes were prominent members of Marawi society before becoming radicalized. Both groups have since been involved in bombings and kidnappings. Hapilon is considered the leader of IS in Southeast Asia.

The Islamic State's activities do in fact span the region. Citizens of Indonesia, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia were among the fighters killed in the Marawi siege. Groups and lone actors radicalized through social media have carried out attacks, including suicide bombings, in various nations. In Indonesia, there are already IS cells "in almost every province," Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo said in June, calling the largely Christian province of Papua a rare exception. Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, an Indonesian group that has pledged allegiance to IS, was behind a May suicide bombing in Jakarta that killed or injured 10, according to security officials.

Extremist groups are also behind a spate of kidnappings in waters off Mindanao, an area bordered by the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. The three neighbors have started joint maritime patrols to bring the matter under control.

Strategic misstep

Joint military exercises on Mindanao with the U.S. in 2002 under Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo significantly weakened Abu Sayyaf. Her successor Benigno Aquino strengthened the country's military alliance with the U.S., keeping a lid on the threat. But Duterte, inaugurated at the end of June 2016, wasted no time in distancing Manila from Washington and pushing the U.S. to reduce its military footprint in the country. The resulting decline in America's military presence let extremists re-emerge, some have said.

If these groups take root in Southeast Asia, the region's booming economy could falter. While it is largely business as usual in the Philippines outside Mindanao, there is nevertheless concern that foreign investment in the region more broadly could dry up just as governments kick infrastructure investment into high gear. Foreign businesses from Japan and elsewhere that rely on the region's massive market or have a physical presence there are at risk as well.

The largest IS stronghold in the Middle East, the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, is on the brink of falling to U.S.-led coalition forces. But as the organization's power declines in that region, members are heading to Southeast Asia and strengthening ties to local extremist groups there, according to Jens Wardenaer, research associate at British think tank International Institute of Strategic Studies. That influx threatens to derail the plan Duterte has drawn for the Philippines' economic development -- one in which improved security pulls in foreign business to drive the economy as a whole.

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