Terror groups in PHL: Removing the masks

In Photo: Residents look at a burning structure during early-morning air strikes by government forces in the continuing fight for Marawi City by Muslim militants on June 23. The siege by militants aligned with the Islamic State group continues as it enters its second month on Friday.

Conclusion

ACKNOWLEDGING that the threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia has become more intense and realistic, given the expected exodus into the region of returning jihadists who have fought with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, regional leaders have vowed to further work together in order to ensure that the radical Islamic threat will not turn into reality.

In particular, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore have agreed to strengthen and escalate their collaborative efforts in ensuring that “Islamic terrorism” will not take place and prosper in the whole region. The countries are also supporting Manila in its push to boot out a combination of Maute and ISIS fighters in Marawi City.

While the four countries have recognized the threat of terrorism long pointed toward the whole of Southeast Asia—in fact, most of them have already actually experienced it or are still dealing with it courtesy of the regional terror group Jema’ah Islamiyah (JI)—the threat borne by returning ISIS fighters has become more than just a reality.

Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines are included in the pan-Islamic state that has earlier been envisioned for the region by the Indonesian-based JI.

The Southeast Asian countries were specifically alarmed by two earlier pronouncement of the ISIS. One is that it has put up a division-size armed force in the region, apparently with the returning fighters as its members. A typical military division consists of between 10,000 and 20,000 soldiers.

Another alarming pronouncement by the ISIS is the presence in their ranks of a great mixture of foreign jihadists who are now fighting alongside members of the Maute in Marawi City.

Even before the fighting in the city broke out, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have already agreed to set up and conduct trilateral joint patrols within their areas of maritime concern, apparently to stem the movement and activities of regional terrorist groups, especially the Abu Sayyaf Group.

Traditional allies

AS regional leaders clamp down against the threat of ISIS, Manila’s traditional defense allies, the United States and Australia, in particular, immediately provided direct assistance to the Philippine military by sending surveillance planes in Marawi City for the much-needed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations.

The Philippines has an existing Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (Sovfa) with Australia and a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, the latter having continuously trained Filipino soldiers in every theater of war operations, including on counterterrorism.

Canberra deployed two AP-3C Orion for surveillance support to the operating Filipino troops, which the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Mindanao Command admitted was very crucial in the ongoing effort to liberate Marawi City.

On the other hand, the US, which continuously receives bashing from President Duterte, deployed a P-3 Orion, while its forces work on the ground. US officers said the Americans are providing “only technical and intelligence assistance” to the engaged troops. The American soldiers are not allowed to join the actual operation.

A couple of days ago, Duterte called the US a “lousy” country after some US legislators pushed for an investigation into his war on drugs and its effects on human rights.

Last month the US also replenished the dwindling requirement of the military in its ongoing operations against the terrorists in the city by packing full a Philippine Air Force cargo plane sent to Tucson, Arizona, for supply mission with rockets and munitions.

The US has been the biggest single contributor of the Philippine military, continuously providing it with a combination of weapons, armaments and assets.

In the area of counterterrorism alone, a huge amount of money has been provided in the form of technical assistance, equipment and even training that has also benefitted other agencies of the government.

Likewise, billions worth of US-funded projects have been put up and constructed in areas in Western Mindanao since the government began dealing with the threat of the Abu Sayyaf Group.

The projects were designed by the Philippine government to conquer the “hearts and minds” of supporters of the terrorist and other lawless groups in Mindanao.

A learning lesson

WHILE the ongoing operation in Marawi City has turned into a direct international collaborative effort against local and regional terrorists, it also has imparted valuable lessons to the Philippine military and still continuing to do so.

For one, the operations have underscored the need for the military to revisit its training and doctrines in order to operationally accommodate and efficiently deal with the changing complexities of the antiterrorism operations. In the case of Marawi City, the military operation has evolved into urban warfare. Still this requires the combined use of all resources available to the military, including its air and land assets.

The military’s counterterrorism operations have also spelled the necessity for the military, again to hasten its acquisition of much needed firepower, equipment and assets.

Likewise, the Marawi City  operation has exposed the vulnerabilities of the Armed Forces; that it could not fight more than one enemy group in a major battle at a given time, contrary to its long-standing claims that it could simultaneously deal with a three-pronged war.

Last, if it has to conduct a massive antiterrorism campaign again in a city or an urbanized center, the armed forces must do it quick, a lesson the institution must bear in mind as government prepares to undertake operations on a wider scale in Mindanao under the extended martial law, taking into consideration the political, economic and social effects of such daring operations.

Image Credits: AP

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Rene P. Acosta covers defense, law enforcement and national security for the paper. He had written for a number of publications, including abroad before he joined BusinessMirror. His works had appeared in the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Asia Pacific Defense Forum, both in the US. He took up regional security with the International Visitor Leadership Program, US. He is currently the chairman of the board of the Defense Press Corps of the Philippines which he had headed in 2009.