AFTER 154 days of fighting, the siege in Marawi, which displaced more than 400,000 residents, and killed more than a thousand people finally ended. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana reported that about 95 foreign terrorists were killed, wherein 33 terrorists have been positively identified. This latest act of terrorism cemented the presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS) in Mindanao reinforcing assertions that while IS lost its main territory in Raqqa, it is known to operate in a number of countries, including the Philippines.
According to Rohan Gunaratna of the International Center for Political Violence and Research (ICPVTR), there are about 60 groups in the region, which pledged their allegiance to IS’ self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It is believed that IS wants Mindanao to be their foothold in Asia. IS has not reportedly declared a caliphate in Southeast Asia. However, Isnilon Hapilon, the leader in the Marawi siege and commander of the Abu Sayyaf Group, has been reported as the designated emir for Southeast Asia.
Armed Forces Chief of Gen. Eduardo Año said that IS had financed the Marawi siege with at least $1.5 million. In addition, foreign fighters aided Hapilon, including an Indonesian militant, Mohamad in Ilham Syaputra and Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad, the reported liaison between the Islamic State and the local terrorist groups, particularly the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups.
The military has identified the foreign terrorists who fought alongside the local terrorist groups, counting two Malaysians, two Saudis, two Indonesians, a Yemeni, and a Chechen. At the height of the siege, Reuters, quoting intelligence sources, cited the presence of 400 to 500 fighters in the Marawi siege, about 40 of whom were foreigners, particularly from Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi, Chechnya, Yemen, India, Moroccan, and Turkey.
As IS lost its grip in Syria and Iraq, there are concerns that foreign fighters in IS-held areas will return to their respective countries of origin with their expertise and extreme ideologies. The Carnegie Council has reported that as many as 1,000 fighters from Southeast Asia traveled to IS-controlled areas in the Middle East. In addition, the Philippine Embassy in Baghdad has reported the presence of 30 Malaysians, 30 Indonesians, and three Filipinos fighting for IS in Iraq.
Government authorities have long recognized that the very porous borders in the region necessitate regional cooperation, not just with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Beyond Asean, Australia, for instance, has offered training for the AFP in urban warfare counterterrorism, surveillance and reconnaissance, information sharing and maritime patrols.
Over the years, terrorist groups have increasingly evolved, expanding their global reach beyond regional borders. They have also become more sophisticated in their use of the Internet and social media, particularly to recruit, train, communicate, and rally support worldwide.
Thus, more than ever, there is a need for intensive international cooperation in combatting terrorism as terrorist networks increasingly become dispersed and structurally less centralized. It is also high time that the Philippines strengthen its cooperation with the international community. The Philippines could indeed benefit from deeper cooperation with other countries, beyond its traditional partners and allies, in countering extremism and terrorism.
Role of Russia
The Philippines has affirmed its interest to keep its traditional allies, and seek new partners in promoting its development and security. In this regard, Russia has expressed a willingness to support the Philippine efforts to combat terrorism. The Russian Ambassador to the Philippines, Igor Anatolyevich Khovaev said that Russia stands “…ready to become a new reliable partner and close friend of the Philippines.” During the visit of the Russian Navy Pacific Fleet to the Philippines, Rear Admiral Eduard Mikhailov, head of the flotilla, also expressed interest in holding joint maritime exercises to help combat terrorism and piracy.
Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Cayetano has expressed his appreciation to Russia for its commitment to strengthen cooperation with the Philippines, particularly in security and intelligence matters, and in combating terrorism.
Considering the continued partnership of the Philippines with its traditional allies, the Philippines can benefit in deeper cooperation with Russia in terms of: 1) information exchange, particularly in threat monitoring, intelligence sharing, and surveillance; 2) eliminating terrorist access to expertise, tools, and technologies, including drone technology; 3) cybersecurity and counterpropaganda using social media; and 4) intensified efforts to counter terrorism financing. In an increasingly globalized world, the battle of ideas is important in countering extremism, and an effective counter-messaging strategy is crucial. Thus, there is also the need for private sector contribution and innovation, not just utilizing traditional government measures to counter terrorism.
With intensified joint counter-terrorism efforts, deeper cooperation with new partners, and learning from effective counter-terrorism strategies, the Philippines can become more proactive in countering terrorism within its borders. It can then minimize its vulnerability to urban terrorism, and hopefully, the fall of Marawi will be the last.
The author has a master’s in public administration from Harvard Kennedy School, a master’s in international relations (with merit) from Victoria University of Wellington, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.