The Philippine Senate and House of Representatives have “overwhelmingly approved” a 5-month extension of a 60-day imposition of martial law on the southern island group of Mindanao that had earlier been declared on May 23, 2017. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had made the initial declaration of martial law and requested its extension in order to allow the military to combat insurgents affiliated with the Islamic State (IS).
As Chieu Luu notes, this 5-month extension is unconstitutional as the Philippine constitution “only allows for martial law to be declared for 60 days at a time,” but the Duterte administration and the Philippine lawmakers considered the security situation in Mindanao to be serious enough to warrant the extraordinary measure, which will effectively leave Mindanao under martial law until December 31. Should the IS-linked insurgents spread their insurgency from Mindanao to the other Philippine island groups of Luzon and Visayas, Duterte has pledged to impose nationwide martial law on the Philippines. However, as the spread of the insurgency has not yet happened, nationwide martial law will not be declared, at least for the time being.
The security threat in Mindanao centers on the city of Marawi, which on May 23 was overrun by IS-linked insurgents. The persistence of the insurgency has dragged out the battle with government forces, and as of July 25, at least 453 militants, 109 government troops, and 45 civilians had been killed in the fighting, bringing the combined death toll above 600. In addition, almost “350,000 people in the city and surrounding areas have also been forced to flee — creating a humanitarian crisis which authorities have been struggling to contain.”
General Eduardo Año, the Philippine Army Chief of Staff, explained that the imposition of martial law on the whole of Mindanao rather than just Marawi was “necessary to restrict the movement of the Islamist militants,” and warned that “the ongoing rebellion could spread to other cities on the island.” While the military estimates that there are just 60 fighters “left in a 49-hectare area of Marawi,” there remain “nearly 1,000 pro-IS militants” elsewhere in Mindanao. Indeed, the Philippine military has deployed troops to Iligan, another city in Mindanao, following their discovery that 96 insurgents had escaped Marawi “with instructions to create a diversionary attack” on another city.
Of special concern to security experts is the presence of foreign fighters among the insurgents. General Año noted that most of these foreign fighters were Indonesian. Other foreign fighters have been identified as having come from locations as varied as Chechnya, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Morocco, Turkey, India, Pakistan, and Singapore. The presence of these foreign fighters is related to the fall of the IS stronghold of Mosul in Iraq, which has led to a global displacement of IS militants, some of whom have shifted their operations to the Philippines, especially in support of their fellow militants in Marawi.
As Rohan Gunaratna points out, “IS is shrinking in Iraq and Syria, and decentralizing in parts of Asia and the Middle East. One of the areas where it is expanding is Southeast Asia and the Philippines is the center of gravity.” In view of this threat, the Philippines is strengthening cooperation with Malaysia and Indonesia “to counter terrorism and extremism in Southeast Asia.”
Security experts have traced the chain of command as well as the sources of funding for the Marawi insurgents to Katibah Nusantara, the IS military unit in Syria consisting of Southeast Asians.
Even as veteran IS fighters who survived the fall of Mosul find their way to the Philippines, security experts fear that the battle for Marawi will itself catalyze further IS operations in Southeast Asia. As Sidney Jones warns, “The risks won’t end when the military declares victory … Indonesia and Malaysia will face new threats in the form of returning fighters from Mindanao, and the Philippines will have a host of smaller dispersed cells with the capacity for both violence and indoctrination.” In addition, the battle for Marawi could lead to “greater cooperation among Southeast Asian extremists, and new leadership for pro-ISIS cells in Indonesia and Malaysia from among returning fighters from Marawi.”
Indeed, the connection between IS and Marawi extends beyond the foreign fighters. Security experts have traced the chain of command as well as the sources of funding for the Marawi insurgents to Katibah Nusantara, the IS military unit in Syria consisting of Southeast Asians, and predict that “the Syria-based Southeast Asians could have a say in setting strategy for (the) region when the siege is over.” For example, these Southeast Asian IS commanders may “encourage Indonesians to go after other targets, including foreigners or foreign institutions—especially if one of them comes back to lead the operations.” These commanders have also used the Telegram app to encourage their followers to “attack targets in Singapore, Thailand, Burma, South Korea, Japan and China,” and to “bring shariah in place of the laws that these territories have.”
In the meantime, the Marawi crisis has prompted China and the US to send aid to the Philippines. On June 28, the Philippines received its first shipment of emergency military assistance from China: “3,000 units of rifles — including sniper rifle, automatic rifle and high-precision rifle — and six million pieces of ammunition,” worth USD 7.35 million in total. In addition to the military assistance, the Philippines also received 15 million pesos from China to help pay for the reconstruction of Marawi once peace is restored. Chinese ambassador Zhao Jianhua explained that this initial assistance provided by China “is not big but it is big in the sense that it marks a new era in relations between our two militaries.”
Despite the decline in US-Philippine relations following the Obama administration’s human rights criticism of the Duterte administration’s violent war on drugs, the US has actively supported the Philippines in its fight against the insurgents in Marawi. Apart from the presence of US Special Forces personnel who are “operating equipment to provide … situation awareness” to Philippine troops, the US has also provided a “a P-3 surveillance plane as well as intelligence gathering from a drone,” as well as a weapons package which included “300 M4 carbines, 200 Glock 21 pistols, four M134D Gatling-style machine guns and 100 M203 grenade launchers.”
As and when the Philippine military delivers its “one big punch” that will defeat the insurgents and end their siege of Marawi, it is clear that the geopolitical situation in the Philippines and the region has been transformed. Not only has Marawi inaugurated a new and more dangerous phase in the war against terrorism in Southeast Asia, the event has served as an opportunity for Sino-Philippine and US-Philippine relations to achieve increased levels of cooperation. This could in turn complicate China’s relationship with the Philippines and the US vis-à-vis the South China Sea. As such, the progress of the battle for Marawi and the changing security situation in Mindanao will continue to be closely watched.
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