- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Support for the Islamic State has deepened cooperation among several extremist groups in Southeast Asia, which soon could focus on a decades-old insurgency in the Philippines as their “jihad of choice” while the terrorist group is beaten back half a world away in Syria and Iraq.

Those findings, highlighted in a report this week by an Indonesia-based think tank, are likely to vex the Obama administration, which moved two years ago to phase out what had been for more than a decade a robust U.S. Special Forces counterterrorism operation in the southern Philippines.

The report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict stresses how the Middle East-based leaders of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, are expanding operations into Southeast Asia and view the Philippines as an annex.

The Philippines is important because as far as the ISIS leadership is concerned, it is the extension of the caliphate in the region,” says the report, noting that the terrorist group has not declared a province but has increased ties with the formerly al Qaeda-aligned Abu Sayyaf in the nation’s restive southwest.

“Over the last two years, ISIS has provided a new basis for cooperation among extremists in the region,” Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said in a statement on releasing the report Tuesday. “That cooperation could take on a new importance as ISIS losses in the Middle East increase and the incentive to undertake violence elsewhere rises.”

“As getting to Syria becomes increasingly difficult for Southeast Asian fighters, Mindanao may be the next best option,” Ms. Jones said, referring to the southern Philippines conflict zone where Muslim rebel groups have waged an on-again, off-again insurgency against Manila since the late 1960s.

Such predictions have brought into question the shrewdness of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policy toward the region at a time when U.S. officials are scrambling to assess wider implications of the campaign to retake Islamic State territory in Iraq and Syria.

While Iraqi military and Kurdish forces have advanced under the cover of American airstrikes on the Islamic State-held Iraqi city of Mosul, concerns have risen in some intelligence circles about repercussions thousands of miles away.

U.S. military officials have warned of a growing Islamic State foothold in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as in countries farther east, in recent months.

With regard to the “metastasis of the cancer of ISIL, Southeast Asia clearly is a place they aspire to be spreading,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in September.

“Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore … [and] the Philippines,” Mr. Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Those four come to mind. I have spoken to the defense ministers in each of those four countries. They have concerns, particularly about the possibility that ISIS could establish a foothold there.”

The prospect of an Islamic State surge in the Philippines, a former U.S. territory, is likely to prove most daunting — in part because of the Obama administration’s drawdown of counterterrorism forces there and because of recent political shifts in the nation.

The George W. Bush administration created the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines shortly after 9/11, deploying hundreds of U.S. troops to help Filipino forces wage war against Abu Sayyaf and other insurgent groups in Mindanao. The task force was also key in assisting regional efforts against groups such as the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah.

A ‘separation’ from the U.S.

The Obama administration disbanded the task force in the summer of 2014 on grounds that its mission had succeeded in fracturing the extremist groups to the point that they no longer posed a serious regional or international threat.

The prospect of re-establishing the effort — in light of predictions about the Islamic State’s impact on the region’s jihadi landscape — is likely to be complicated. The U.S.-Philippines relationship has grown tense from antagonistic posturing by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Mr. Duterte, a former provincial mayor from Mindanao, sent the Washington-Manila alliance to a new low last week when he told an audience in Beijing that he was pursuing a “separation” from the U.S. and moving closer to China and Russia.

Because Mr. Duterte stopped short of saying he would formally revoke a 70-year-old treaty alliance with Washington, the Obama administration sought to downplay the Philippine president’s remarks.

But his comments sparked fears in some circles that the Philippines may soon try to revoke U.S. access to five key military bases in the nation. The Obama administration negotiated access to the bases recently as its focus shifted from counterterrorism to countering China’s growing military dominance in the region.

Before Mr. Duterte’s recent posturing, meanwhile, some American lawmakers had pressured President Obama to pursue a goal of revamping the counterterrorism operations in the Philippines.

“When the Joint Special Operations Task Force officially concluded its operations in 2014, the U.S. had successfully helped the Philippines take great steps forward to curb the rise of Islamic extremist groups, like Abu Sayyaf,” Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican, wrote in a letter to Mr. Obama in September.

“Unfortunately, much of the progress that was made has been lost as we continue to see these groups regain strength, increase aggression and alarmingly unite beneath the flag of ISIS,” wrote Ms. Ernst, a combat veteran and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

She called on Mr. Obama to explore ways in which Washington and Manila might work together toward leveraging “the five new bases recently announced for U.S. personnel in the region to counter the rise of ISIS.”

Tuesday’s report by the Institute for Policy Analysis and Conflict stresses the growing need for expanded regional coordination and intelligence sharing against the Islamic State.

“ISIS has deepened cooperation among extremist groups in Southeast Asia, but most law enforcement agencies retain a strongly national orientation, without in-house expertise on groups outside their own borders,” the report says. “At a time when an accurate assessment of the security threat in Indonesia or Malaysia may depend in part on understanding developments in the Philippines, this gap needs to be filled.”

With that as a backdrop, the report explores the history of Indonesia-Malaysia links to each of the four Philippine organizations, showing how ties going back more than a decade to a shared prison experience or fighting in the communal 1999-2000 conflicts in Indonesia have come back into play in support of the Islamic State.

The report also notes how “ISIS has endorsed an Abu Sayyaf leader, Isnilon Hapilon, as emir for Southeast Asia, and Southeast Asians in Syria have pledged their loyalty to him.”

“Support for ISIS in Mindanao has meant more than a repackaging of old kidnapping-for-ransom groups,” the report says. “It has facilitated cooperation across clan and ethnic lines, widened the extremist recruitment pool to include computer-savvy university students and opened new international communication and possibly funding channels.

“It means that more deadly violence in the Philippines involving alliances of pro-ISIS groups is a matter of when, not if. It may also increase the possibility of cross-border extremist operations.”

• Carlo Munoz contributed to this report.

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