WITH Islamic State-linked Maute terrorists fighting for their lives in Marawi, and the Resorts World attack turning out to be a gambling addict’s robbery gone bad, many are heaving a sigh of relief that the looming IS-driven threat isn’t looming so large after all.
That would be the wrong reaction, akin to a homeowner cheering at having wiped out termites under his bedroom floor with insecticide, then discovering that the crumbling front door was water-damaged, not termite-infested.
The right and prudent response is to check where the infestation has reached, lurking to cause more damage. And that applies to terrorists as well as termites.
In fact, the anti-terror campaign has just begun, and will uncover the full scale of the threat only in the weeks and months ahead.
That was how the anti-drug war went in the past year, starting with 192 killed in police operations between Duterte’s May election victory till his first month in office. Over 8,000 were arrested, and some 35,000 surrendered in those nine weeks.
Since then, both the body count and the arrests have risen tenfold, exceeding 2,000 and 80,000, respectively. Another 1.2 million users and pushers have turned themselves in. And estimates of users nationwide reach as high as President Duterte’s 4 million.
IS eyes Mindanao
If the drug war erupted out of nowhere, it’s largely because the past administration did relatively little to curb narcotics. In his presentation to the United Nations Human Rights Council last month, then-Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano noted that anti-drug police operations in Duterte’s first nine months exceeded the total over several years under then-President Benigno Aquino 3rd, hence the leap in suspects arrested or killed.
It’s much the same story on the terrorism front. The Anti-Terrorism Council, created by law under then-President Gloria Arroyo, was hardly visible under Aquino. The ATC, headed by the Executive Secretary, mounted no major security initiatives.
Nor was it involved in the biggest counter-terrorism operation under Aquino: the January 2015 police commando raid in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, in which Malaysian bomb maker Marwan was killed, but 44 Special Action Force troopers of the Philippine National Police were also decimated.
Fortunately, global terrorism was not paying much attention to the Philippines in the past several years, with both al-Qaida and IS focused on conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and attacks in Europe and the United States.
While Asia’s only Christian country seems a likely target for jihadists, with Moro separatism and the US alliance further stoking Muslim animosity, the headline-hungry IS has tended to focus on Western capitals like Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, and most recently, London.
But now, IS and an estimated 30 or so Southeast Asian groups swearing allegiance to it may well see the Philippines the way international media has portrayed the Marawi conflict: as frontline for IS’ expansion in the region.
Indeed, weeks before Marawi exploded, terrorism, experts at a Singapore regional security conference already warned that Southeast Asian fighters returning from the Middle East after fighting with IS, were likely to go to Mindanao as a haven.
What may make the Philippines an even more inviting target is our less formidable security capabilities compared with our neighbors. Jihadists looking around for a haven would tend to avoid even Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia due to their well-equipped and highly trained forces, and their deep intelligence on extremists, thanks to their extensive network of contacts in Muslim communities across the region.
Now, with the utterly dismal establishment security laid bare by the Resorts World attack, IS and its Southeast Asian allies must be even more keen to target Manila, well before they try their luck in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta or Bangkok.
Probably also making extremists think they can take on Philippine security forces is the unexpected difficulty faced by the Armed Forces in taking control of Marawi and crushing the hundred or so Maute fighters holed up there, despite unchallenged warplanes and choppers firing precision ordnance.
And if those apparent security weaknesses weren’t attractive enough to IS, there is now the lure of global media coverage, given the much higher international profile of the Philippines, lifted by President Duterte’s controversial policies and soundbites, the economy’s Asia-pacing growth, and now the juicy new narrative of IS exporting terror to Southeast Asia via Mindanao.
Terrorists, drug lords and rebels
If IS taking notice of the Philippines isn’t scary enough, there’s also the equally fearsome prospect of terrorists and narco-syndicates joining forces and war chests, as President Duterte himself has warned.
Whether that’s true or not, his order for the military and the police to go after drug lords allegedly funding Maute, will ensure that the two armed and dangerous groups become more aggressive and probably work and fight together against the Duterte government.
Thankfully, the main Muslim armed groups in Mindanao, the Moro National Liberation Front and its splinter faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, have found common cause with President Duterte in his war against terrorism. If it had gone the other way, with MNLF and MILF backing the extremists, the carnage would have been far worse and sure to go longer.
The communist New People’s Army, on the orders of the Communist Party of the Philippines, was set to escalate attacks on the government after Duterte placed Mindanao under martial law and suspended peace talks.
Yesterday, however, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd, chief government negotiator with the CPP-NPA, announced that the government was accepting the late rebel offer to join in the battle against Maute, and would sign a ceasefire agreement with the leftists.
So, where is all this going?
First, as argued above, the war on terror will get more intense before it subsides. So, don’t be surprised if martial law goes beyond 60 days, and warrantless arrests are extended outside Mindanao.
Second, while Marawi is the immediate focus of the counter-terrorism campaign, real victory requires destroying the extremists in their lairs in parts of Mindanao, and blocking the flow of IS fighters into the island.
Third, Manila will likely be targeted, especially if establishment security remains as porous as Resorts World’s. And it must improve fast before the UN World Tourism Organization holds its conference at the Marriott Hotel, right next to Resorts World, in just over two weeks.