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Asia Watch: A New Front Opens

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Michael Shannon


Faced with a protracted, complex urban battle against Islamist insurgents in Marawi, a city of 200,000 people in Mindanao's Lanao del Sur province, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has cleared the decks for a long, no-holds-barred fight against an elusive and fanatical enemy.

Having already declared martial law across the entirety of Mindanao, Duterte has dispatched more troops to Marawi to drive out Maute and Abu Sayyaf terrorists who seized the city on May 23 to establish an enclave for the Islamic State (IS) group in the southern Philippines.

Duterte has been disdainful of offers by local religious and political leaders to negotiate with the rebels to end the crisis in which, at time of writing, a total of 327 people have been killed in four weeks of fighting, including 242 terrorists, 59 soldiers and 26 civilians.

"I will not [negotiate]. How about my soldiers who have died? How about [the terrorists'] murderous rampage?" Duterte said.

Accustomed to operations in open field and jungle settings, Philippine troops have struggled in the urban battlefield of the country's largest predominantly Muslim city, where the militants have been using hostages and hundreds of trapped residents as human shields. Friendly fire has killed at least 11 soldiers and civilian casualties have gone hand-in-hand with sporadic air raids across urban districts.

Another reason for their difficulty has been that the insurgent groups, proclaiming an alliance with Islamic State, have been preparing for the fight for some time. Armed with intimate local knowledge from the Maute group, headed by two brothers from a powerful local clan, the militants spent months building tunnels and stockpiling weapons in the city with a view to claiming the territory at the beginning of Ramadan.

Open hostilities began with a botched army raid to capture Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group on Basilan island and the purported "Emir" of Islamic State in South-East Asia. He had reportedly gone to Marawi to form an alliance with the Maute in order to set up a base for the IS caliphate in the region, an officially recognised wilayat or province of the caliphate. That partnership would have spelled a major threat for Mindanao, military intelligence says, because of growing fears across the region that even a small base of IS-controlled territory would attract jihadis from around the world.

This has already happened. Reports from the front lines indicate foreign fighters from places as far-flung as Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, India, Malaysia and Indonesia are battling alongside the Maute group.

Regional security officials had earlier estimated that at least 100 Southeast Asian nationals had returned home from Syria and Iraq in recent months, while Indonesian security officials have claimed there are now as many as 1,200 IS-linked foreign militants in the southern Philippines.

Financial support from IS backers is all but confirmed with the discovery by troops of bundles of banknotes and cheques worth more than US$1.6 million in a house that was being used by the militants as a machine-gun post.

No doubt the IS-linked militants fighting in Marawi were keen to leverage the siege via social media to win new recruits and additional funding, conspicuously flying the Islamic State flag over the districts they controlled, even from a captured army jeep.

After weeks of fighting, Philippine security forces still face stiff resistance from militant fighters spread across the sprawling city, which now lies in ruins. Government troops have suffered heavy casualties due to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and snipers, echoing the harrowing experience of coalition forces fighting Islamic militants in Iraq.

Although the fighting has now been contained to a limited area, a knockout blow appears impossible in an area awash with weapons and where militants can dissolve into jungle hideaways.

Duterte, having expressed his strong preference for downgrading strategic ties with Washington in favour of stronger military relations with Beijing and Moscow, has had to opt for pragmatism. US Special Forces are once again providing ground support to Philippine soldiers.

Under a decade-long US$150 million grant program, Washington has provided large caches of grenade launchers, cutting-edge machine guns and automatic rifles - the latest delivery was made on June 5, coinciding with the battle in Marawi.

On another important track, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia will begin joint patrols and intelligence-sharing to curb the influence of local Islamist terror groups, according to a joint statement released by the three governments on June 19. The Trilateral Maritime Patrol Indomalphi (the name incorporates each of the three countries) will include a Maritime Command Centre in each nation and maritime patrols will also include air and land forces.

There is clearly much work to do.

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