For the last couple of weeks, Islamic State has gained a stronghold in the Philippines as sympathizer Maute group continues to attempt planting the ISIS brand on Mindanao starting with the war-torn city of Marawi and this could just be the beginning of the militant group’s imminent expansion to the region.
According to the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, over 60 groups of sympathizers have pledged allegiance to ISIS. The group has long indicated its intention to turn Southeast Asia as one of its major sites for operations, drawing recruits not just from the Philippines but also from the Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.
Al-Qaeda historically had connections to Southeast Asian extremist groups, but ISIS has been linked to several recent attacks. These include a May suicide bombing that killed three police offers at a Jakarta bus station and a September bombing in Davao which killed 14.
However, analysts say the Philippines has specifically become a destination for militants from around the region after ISIS released a video in June 2016 telling potential recruits to go to Mindanao if they fail to make it to Syria or Iraq.
ISIS in the Philippines
“The Philippine groups actually control territory,” Zachary Abusa, a national security strategy professor and a Southeast Asia expert at the National War College in Washington, D.C said. “There’s just been this slow and steady trickle of foreigners into Mindanao the past few years.”
Dozens of foreigners have been fighting alongside the Filipino militants in Marawi, with several Malaysians and Indonesians as well as a Chechen, Yemeni and Saudi among those who were reported killed.
In light of the rise of terrorism in the region, defense ministers pledged closer cooperation at a security forum held recently in Singapore called the Shangri-La Dialogue, especially in deploying coordinated sea patrols in the Sulu Sea around Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Terrorism is the region’s “biggest security concern,” said Singapore’s defense minister, Ng Eng Hen. “All of us recognize that if not addressed adequately, it can prove a pulling ground for would-be (extremists) who can launch attacks from there.”
ISIS in the Philippines has killed at least 66 Philippine soldiers and wounded hundreds more since the conflict began which is the highest military death toll in recent Philippine history. It has also forced around 350,000 to flee Marawi and surrounding areas, creating a humanitarian crisis the government is struggling to contain.