Is­lamic State fac­tion puts up tough U.S. fight in Pa­cific

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUÑOZ

A South­east Asian fac­tion of the Is­lamic State is putting up an un­ex­pect­edly tough fight in the face of un­re­lent­ing mil­i­tary pres­sure from U.S.-backed coun­tert­er­ror­ism forces in the Philip­pines, three months af­ter the ex­trem­ists stunned the re­gion by seiz­ing con­trol of a ma­jor city in the south­ern part of the coun­try.

Philip­pine mil­i­tary of­fi­cials said this week that the five dozen or so mil­i­tants still hold­ing out in Marawi have be­gun putting out “feel­ers” on end­ing their re­sis­tance, but the ter­ror­ist group’s abil­ity to hold out so long is reignit­ing con­cerns that the Is­lamic State will look to the Pa­cific to re-es­tab­lish its self-pro­claimed caliphate as it is pushed out of its strongholds in the Mid­dle East.

Is­lamic State claimed over the week­end that its Philip­pine af­fil­i­ate, known as the Maute group, killed 50 troops as govern­ment forces launched a mas­sive of­fen­sive to drive mil­i­tants out of Marawi. It was some of the heav­i­est fight­ing since the group took con­trol of the city, 64 miles south of the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of Cagayan de Oro.

The enemy force is de­creas­ing day by day and end­ing the cri­sis is only a mat­ter of time, Brig. Gen. Rolando Bautista, com­man­der of the troops in Marawi, told re­porters this week.

Al­though the fight­ing may be wind­ing down, the fe­roc­ity and du­ra­tion of re­sis­tance put up by Is­lamic State forces try­ing to hold this city of 200,000 peo­ple have led an­a­lysts to con­sider that the ter­ror­ist group may be stronger than pre­vi­ously thought in the re­gion.

“Not­with­stand­ing the Philip­pine mil­i­tary’s widely an­tic­i­pated Pyrrhic vic­tory over the ISIS-in­spired mil­i­tants, darker clouds [can] be seen on the horizon,” Mark Davis Madarang Pablo, an an­a­lyst at the Philip­pines-based Al­bert del Rosario In­sti­tute, wrote Wed­nes­day in The Diplo­mat. The an­a­lyst noted that the govern­ment lists 20 ac­tive ter­ror­ist cells al­lied to the Is­lamist force lead­ing the Marawi re­sis­tance.

Govern­ment troops pushed Maute fighters off po­si­tions near the strate­gi­cally crit­i­cal bridge in the Bang­golo neigh­bor­hood, where Is­lamic State mil­i­tants had been able to choke off Manila’s ad­vance into the city. The bridge is one of three link­ing Marawi’s city cen­ter to sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods.

Capt. Jo-ann Pet­inglay, Joint Task Force Marawi spokes­woman, told re­porters Fri­day that the bat­tle zone had been nar­rowed to a roughly 50-acre patch in the city, al­though the fight­ing is in a densely ur­ban dis­trict packed with high-rise build­ings. Filipino mil­i­tary lead­ers now say they hope to wrap up the cam­paign in Oc­to­ber, and tough-talk­ing Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte has ruled out any deal to al­low the last fighters to flee in ex­change for the re­lease of dozens of hostages, the Reuters news agency re­ported Mon­day.

On Mon­day, the pres­i­dent made his fourth trip to Marawi since the fight­ing be­gan. He vis­ited crit­i­cal sites that had been painstak­ingly re­claimed from the ter­ror­ist forces.

Pres­i­den­tial spokesman Ernesto Abella said this month that mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions re­mained “in­tense and fo­cused, with the safety of hostages in mind, in the hope of bring­ing a quicker end to the re­bel­lion and re­take Marawi from the evil hands of the Maute ter­ror­ist rebels.”

De­spite claims from Manila that the Maute group was on its last legs in Marawi, Mr. Duterte re­in­stated mar­tial law across the south­ern prov­ince over the week­end af­ter Maute af­fil­i­ate Ja­maatu al-Muha­jireen wal An­sar re­took an ex­trem­ist train­ing camp in the south­ern Philip­pine town of Datu Sal­ibo 62 miles away.

The camp had been pro­tected by a joint force of govern­ment troops and mem­bers of the Moro Is­lamic Lib­er­a­tion Front. The group’s co­op­er­a­tion with Manila is part of a land­mark 2014 peace deal.

The out­spo­ken Mr. Duterte de­fended his ex­ten­sion of mar­tial law across the south by ar­gu­ing that it was an ef­fort to keep the Is­lamic State threat from spilling into the rest of the coun­try.

“As mar­tial law re­mains in ef­fect in Min­danao … I was think­ing that we could, you know, lift it ear­lier. But the way it looks, [it] may spill over” into Datu Sal­ibo and other Mus­lim-dom­i­nated re­gions across the south­ern Philip­pines.

Some 147 govern­ment troops and at least 45 civil­ians have been killed since fight­ing broke out in Marawi, ac­cord­ing to the Philip­pine mil­i­tary. Govern­ment forces have killed over 660 Maute fighters since Manila’s of­fen­sive to re­take the city be­gan in earnest in late May.

Is­lamic State sup­port

Marawi and the sur­round­ing ar­eas in Min­danao prov­ince have long been a hot­bed for South­east Asian ex­trem­ist groups. Moro groups and Abu Sayyaf, which has long-stand­ing ties to the al Qaeda-backed In­done­sian ter­ror­ist net­work Je­maah Is­lamiyah, have used the area’s is­land chains as a base of op­er­a­tions.

Most of the coun­try’s Mus­lims live there, al­though they con­sti­tute just a fifth of the prov­ince’s pop­u­la­tion. Marawi, now de­scribed as a bul­let-scarred ghost town, is al­most en­tirely Mus­lim. The Red Cross es­ti­mates that the fight­ing has driven 300,000 peo­ple from their homes.

A mas­sive govern­ment crack­down against the ex­trem­ist groups, backed by U.S. forces at­tached to Op­er­a­tion En­dur­ing Free­dom-Philip­pines in the wake of the Sept. 11 at­tacks 16 years ago, drove the Moro ter­ror­ist groups to the ne­go­ti­a­tion ta­ble with Manila.

Maute group leader Is­nilon Hapi­lon de­clared al­le­giance to the Is­lamic State in 2014 and was sub­se­quently named the group’s “emir” in South­east Asia. The as­sault on Marawi was re­port­edly trig­gered by a failed raid by the Philip­pine mil­i­tary and po­lice on Hapi­lon’s base near the city.

The ve­rac­ity and tenac­ity of the Maute group’s hold on Marawi are bol­stered by an in­flux of ad­vanced weaponry and com­bat-hard­ened Is­lamic State ad­vis­ers — mostly from the Mid­dle East and Chech­nya — di­rected into the coun­try by the group’s op­er­a­tional lead­er­ship in Syria.

“Through Hapi­lon, ISIS has pro­vided an in­flux of sup­plies, am­mu­ni­tion, high­tech com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment and for­eign fighters,” said Rory MacNeil, a re­search associate with the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity’s Philip­pine Project. “By con­trast, the [Philip­pine mil­i­tary] is poorly equipped and in­ex­pe­ri­enced in con­duct­ing ur­ban coun­terin­sur­gency op­er­a­tions” since the ma­jor­ity of its coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions ex­pe­ri­ence is rooted in jun­gle war­fare against small bands of in­sur­gent forces, he said in an anal­y­sis of the Marawi op­er­a­tion.

Aside from op­er­a­tional sup­port, the Maute group and other Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ates in the re­gion have adopted some of the ter­ror­ist group’s suc­cess­ful pro­pa­ganda tac­tics, in­clud­ing the use of so­cial me­dia, to ex­pand their reach in the re­gion.

The Maute group “rep­re­sents the next gen­er­a­tion of Is­lamic ex­trem­ism in South­east Asia, with a lead­er­ship ed­u­cated in Egypt and Jor­dan and ties to ji­hadist al­lies in both the Mid­dle East and other parts of South­east Asia,” said Ge­of­frey Hart­man, a fel­low in the South­east Asia Pro­gram at the Wash­ing­ton-based Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

But crit­ics say the fact that the Marawi cri­sis was sparked by a failed at­tempt to cap­ture Hapi­lon in a sus­pected safe house near Marawi is proof that the Philip­pine mil­i­tary is not up to the task.

“The whole siege be­gan with a botched raid, and there is com­pelling ev­i­dence that the Maute group set a very ef­fec­tive am­bush for them. Sec­ond, the [Philip­pine army] can­not claim to have been taken by sur­prise. The Maute group has be­sieged towns and cities twice in 2016. This is part of their play­book,” Na­tional War Col­lege pro­fes­sor Zachary Abuza, an an­a­lyst of South­east Asian in­sur­gen­cies, wrote in an op-ed for The Diplo­mat.

Mr. Duterte’s de­ci­sion to fun­nel mil­i­tary funds and man­power into his crack­down on drug traf­fick­ing also has put the coun­try’s coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions at a dis­ad­van­tage, Mr. Abuza said. Mr. Duterte “has made his war on drugs his pri­or­ity is­sue, rather than do­mes­tic se­cu­rity, de­spite am­ple ev­i­dence of a rapidly de­te­ri­o­rat­ing sit­u­a­tion” in the coun­try’s south.

While mil­i­tary an­a­lysts ex­pect the com­bined might of Wash­ing­ton and Manila to even­tu­ally re­sult in the bat­tle­field de­feat of the Maute group, the pro­longed re­sis­tance in the city could be a ma­jor pro­pa­ganda vic­tory for the Is­lamic State.

The fight for Marawi “has al­ready boosted the pro­file of th­ese groups and made them more at­trac­tive to aspir­ing fighters, both for­eign and do­mes­tic,” Mr. Hart­man said. “This will make the chal­lenge of stem­ming the flow of for­eign fighters into the Philip­pines that much more dif­fi­cult, putting a pre­mium on boost­ing co­op­er­a­tion with neigh­bor­ing coun­tries like In­done­sia and Malaysia.”

Amer­ica’s ally

U.S. spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces in the Philip­pines have main­tained a strictly ad­vi­sory role in the Marawi of­fen­sive. Roughly 100 U.S. Marines and spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces based in Zamboanga, over 250 miles east of Marawi, have pro­vided in­tel­li­gence and lo­gis­tics sup­port to Philip­pine forces in Min­danao.

The small team of Amer­i­can troops rep­re­sents one of the ear­li­est U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions launched in the wake of 9/11. At the height of Op­er­a­tion En­dur­ing Free­dom-Philip­pines, over 400 task force mem­bers pro­vided com­bat sup­port to Manila’s ef­forts to quash groups such as Abu Sayyaf.

The Pen­tagon has de­nied claims that it is weigh­ing whether to for­mally re­in­sti­tute the U.S. spe­cial op­er­a­tions task force in the south­ern Philip­pines in the wake of the Marawi op­er­a­tion. The task force was of­fi­cially shut­tered in 2015. But since then, Wash­ing­ton has con­tin­ued to fun­nel weapons and sup­port to the Philip­pine mil­i­tary.

U.S. of­fi­cials an­nounced Mon­day that it had de­ployed a Gray Ea­gle un­manned sur­veil­lance air­craft over Marawi.

In Fe­bru­ary, the Pen­tagon ap­proved a weapons deal with Manila, de­liv­er­ing over 400 grenade launch­ers, 85 sniper ri­fles and three RQ-11B Raven sur­veil­lance drones to Philip­pine forces based in Min­danao. Last month, Wash­ing­ton de­liv­ered a pair of Cessna 208B Grand Car­a­van in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance air­craft to the coun­try’s air force as part of a $33 bil­lion mil­i­tary aid pack­age de­signed to bol­ster Manila’s coun­tert­er­ror­ism ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

But Philip­pine com­man­ders say U.S. forces are al­ready on the front lines in Marawi.

Philip­pine mil­i­tary spokesman Brig. Gen. Resti­tuto Padilla said in June that U.S. forces based in Zamboanga had “been moved to help ground forces in Marawi.” He de­clined to say how many Amer­i­can troops were in Marawi, only that they were “very few.”

“They are in Marawi but are not al­lowed to join com­bat,” he told re­porters.

His com­ments were the first of­fi­cial con­fir­ma­tion of U.S. forces tak­ing an ac­tive ad­vi­sory role on the ground in­side Marawi. On Fri­day, Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull said his coun­try was will­ing to pro­vide mil­i­tary sup­port as well.

“We have a vi­tal, vested in­ter­est in that ISIL in­sur­gency be­ing de­feated,” Mr. Turn­bull told re­porters in Syd­ney.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mus­lims from the be­sieged city of Marawi protest the mar­tial law im­posed by Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte in the whole south­ern Min­danao re­gion.

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