SOUTHEAST Asia may have been spared becoming a destination for the bulk of Islamic State (IS) fighters who have retreated from Syria, but countries, including the Philippines, must keep up the pressure against the international terrorist group, a United States official said.
The IS has carved out its presence in the region through Mindanao, attacking and occupying Marawi City in 2017 through its mixture of local and fighters in a devastating war that saw the death of Isnilon Hapilon, its emir in Southeast Asia.
“We have seen a few indications of an interest in traveling to Southeast Asia, but truth be told, it’s not one of the regions that Isis fighters seem to be heading to in droves,” said Nathan Sales, ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the US Department of State.
Sales was in Manila over the weekend to confer with Philippine counterterrorism officials on the two countries’ ongoing joint effort against the IS, the al-Qaida and even local terrorist groups in Mindanao.
The ambassador told international journalists during a telephonic press briefing that while the region has not seen the mass exodus of foreign fighters, Southeast Asian countries, especially the Philippines, must ensure that this trend continues.
“It’s incumbent upon us to make sure that they’re not able to, should they ever wish to, and that’s why I’ve been talking to—and why the United States government has been talking to—counterparts here in Manila about bolstering our cooperation on border security efforts to prevent people from hopping on a plane and flying to the region or exploiting the maritime environment to gain access to countries in the region,” he said.
“So far we haven’t seen a huge problem, but we have to make sure we keep it that way,” he added.
Analysts warned, at the defeat of the IS in March this year, that countries should brace for the return of fighters, thus raising the stakes of worldwide terrorism attacks, including in the Philippines which has seen its cases of suicide bombings.
A 2019 third-quarter report by the Lead Inspector General for the US Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines, the counterterrorism project of the US Indo-Pacific Command in Mindanao, listed IS membership in the country at roughly about 500, most of whom are also members of the local terrorist groups, like the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Maute Group.
Sales said that while the IS had not directly carried out attacks anywhere after its defeat in Syria, it modified its tack by relying on its regional networks, especially in South Asia, including Afghanistan, and in Africa.
In the Philippines, the US concerns focused more on the export from the Middle East of terrorist tactics, techniques and procedures, and even radicalism, as shown by the suicide bombing carried out by Filipino Norman Lasuca against soldiers in Indanan, Sulu.
“We have seen an increased focus on Isis’s part, in particular, in cultivating networks around the world in places like South Asia, in places like West Africa and we hope to address the challenges that Isis sympathizers and Isis affiliates pose in Southeast Asia, as well,” Sales said.
He said the efforts in addressing the challenges involves a “whole-of-government” approach, which includes tightening border security, law enforcement measures, curtailing the flow of funds and de-radicalization, all of which are being carried out in Mindanao.
“So we have to be working closely with regional partners who share our concern about these threats, to bring to bear all the tools of national power—again, border security, law enforcement, crisis response and so on—to make sure that these budding al-Qaida and Isis affiliates are kept from metastasizing further,” the ambassador said.