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Philippines' Mindanao crisis sparks 'caliphate' fears

Manila and Washington quietly ditching differences in joint effort to defeat IS

| Philippines

Growing worries over transnational terrorism dominated the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, which brought together 23 defense ministers and hundreds of security experts.

The ongoing crisis in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where an Islamic State affiliate group has laid siege to the Muslim-majority city of Marawi, figured prominently in discussions at the event. After two weeks of intensive military operations, which include air raids on enemy positions across the sprawling city, the Philippine government is yet to take full control of the besieged town.

The speed and audacity of the attack led by the Maute group, a self-styled extremist organization based in the province of Lanao, took many by surprise. There is growing concern about the prospect of a caliphate being established in Southeast Asia, as a burgeoning alliance of indigenous jihadi elements and foreign fighters seeks to create an IS Wilayat (or province) in the region. As a result, the Philippines is doubling down on its cooperation with international partners, particularly with the U.S.

The crisis marks the intersection of two troubling developments. One is an IS command pivot to the Orient. Since 2015, large-scale migration of foreign fighters to the so-called caliphate established by IS in eastern Syria and western Iraq has become increasingly difficult. Successive military setbacks at the hand of U.S.-backed coalition forces have compelled IS to search for alternative havens outside the Middle East.

Conflict-ridden and poverty-stricken areas of archipelagic Southeast Asia, where borders are highly porous and socio-cultural grievances run deep, have proven a particularly attractive target. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, places such as Mindanao attracted large numbers of al-Qaeda-trained fighters, who set up training camps in the southern Philippines and planned terror operations across the world. No wonder then, that Southeast Asia became the "second front" in the George W. Bush administration's "Global War on Terror" campaign.

Second, the crisis in Mindanao is partly the result of a stagnation in peace negotiations between the Philippine government and major Islamist insurgent groups, particularly the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. This has provided a suitable environment for the proliferation of extremist ideology and mobilization of disaffected individuals who have little hope for the future.

Public anger

The so-called Mamasapano clash in Mindanao in 2015, which resulted in the deaths of dozens of government and rebel forces, dramatically undermined public support for the peace process. Amid growing public anger, the Philippine Congress refused to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which would have paved the way for the creation of a new autonomous region across Mindanao as a first step toward peace in the island.

The subsequent election of President Rodrigo Duterte, a longtime Mindanao-based mayor who claims to have Moro (Filipino Muslim) lineage, injected some hope into the peace process. Yet the new president, the first from Mindanao, devoted much of his political capital to a controversial campaign against illegal drugs, as well as peace negotiations with a separate group of communist insurgents.

To be fair, he supported the passage of the BBL, and sought to grant Muslim-majority regions greater autonomy under a grand plan to establish a federal system in the Philippines. But Duterte's legislative allies have shown little interest in the BBL, while deliberations on the creation of a federal system have been slow and could take many years.

In the meantime, local extremists, particularly the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups, have gradually congealed into a formidable inter-ethnic and increasingly internationalized coalition, which has pledged its allegiance to IS in the Middle East. Over time, ideology rather than profiteering has become a growing factor in bringing together disparate extremist groups of divergent ethnic backgrounds.

Last year, the IS command designated Isnilon Hapilon, a longtime Abu Sayyaf leader, as the chief of all IS-affiliate groups in Mindanao and across Southeast Asia. Soon after, he moved his operational headquarters to the jungles of Lanao del Sur to avoid large-scale assaults by the military in Basilan, which has been historically the stronghold of Abu Sayyaf.

Last month's invasion of Marawi by the Maute group, also known as the Islamic State of Lanao, was likely a well-timed revenge operation. It came on the heels of a botched raid by Philippine government forces on a safe house used by Hapilon, who has evaded the authorities for a decade. It also coincided with the departure of the president and the bulk of his national security team, including the military chief of staff and national security adviser, for a days-long visit to Moscow.

Martial law

As hundreds of fighters rampaged across the city, overwhelming local security forces and taking a priest and several civilians hostage, Duterte had to cut his Russia trip short. Portraying the Marawi attack as both rebellion and invasion, he swiftly declared martial law across all Mindanao. Expanding the geographical scope of the emergency powers to the whole island was likely based on concerns about possible coordinated attacks by IS affiliates.

The decision was widely supported by the president's legislative allies, who dominate both houses of the Congress, as well as broad sections of Philippine society. Critics, however, have raised concerns about the lack of proper scrutiny, especially in light of a threat by Duterte threat to extend martial law to the whole country.

Among some sections of society, there is growing fear of a retreat to the authoritarianism of President Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. Cognizant of public anxieties over the proclamation of martial law, the Philippine military immediately released a set of guidelines to underline its commitment to safeguard citizens' basic constitutional rights, including in Mindanao.

The Duterte administration is particularly troubled by the presence of foreign fighters, including from the Arab world, among the Maute group's ranks. During the Shangri-La Dialogue, Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu warned that there could be as many as 1,200 IS-affiliated fighters in Mindanao.

There are deep concerns over the possible transformation of Mindanao into a regional hub for extremist groups from around the world. In response, the Philippine government has sought assistance from the international community, including tried-and-tested allies such as the U.S., which can provide high-grade intelligence and appropriate equipment and training. Washington also boasts a long history of interoperability with the Philippine military.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has seemed sympathetic to Duterte's war on drugs and refused to criticize his abrupt declaration of martial law, has vowed to provide "support and assistance to Philippine counterterrorism efforts" as a "proud ally" of the Southeast Asian country.

On the sidelines of the Singapore dialogue, Admiral Harry Harris, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, confirmed that Washington is currently "involved in [military] activities in Mindanao to help the Armed Forces of the Philippines take the fight to ISIS in the Philippines."

A day earlier, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis expressed "sympathy and support," and assured Manila that the Trump administration will "stand with the Philippines in the fight" against IS-affiliates in Mindanao. In a strange turn of events, shared concerns over terrorism have served as a springboard to bring Manila and Washington together, as both allies quietly set aside their differences over human rights concerns.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author of "Asia's New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific." and author of forthcoming book "Rise of Duterte".

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