Western powers and media outlets convulsed in shock at last week’s horrific suicide attack on a pop concert in Britain, but little attention was paid to a surge of violence by the Islamic State on the other side of the world — specifically in the Philippines and Indonesia.
Dozens have died since a Southeast Asian faction of the organization also known as ISIS and ISIL raised its black flag over a key southern Philippine city on Wednesday, the same day that a double suicide bombing since claimed by the terrorist group rocked the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.
With terrorism analysts having warned months ago that the Islamic State could surge in the region as it lost territory in the Middle East, U.S. intelligence officials have expressed particular wariness in recent days over the group’s push to hold territory in the southern Philippines.
“ISIS has publicly accepted pledges from various groups in the Philippines and has called on followers in Southeast Asia to go to the Philippines if they cannot travel to Syria,” said one American intelligence official, who spoke with The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity.
The group “harbors global ambitions and seeks to expand its influence in Southeast Asia by cultivating a network of adherents and supporters,” the official said. “As it has done in its main battle space of Iraq and Syria, ISIS seeks to exploit ungoverned space.”
The comments were underscored over the weekend by chaos gripping the city of Marawi, a predominantly Muslim enclave of about 200,000 people woven into the vast jungle terrain of the southern Philippine region of Mindanao.
Philippine military forces launched fresh airstrikes on Marawi on Sunday, following days of ground operations aimed at retaking the city — a provincial capital — from an Islamic State faction that roared through the streets last week burning and looting homes and businesses.
The brunt of the Islamic State push came Wednesday, a day after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law throughout the region. The controversial move marked the first use of martial law in the Philippines since President Ferdinand Marcos instituted it nationwide in 1972.
The Islamic State may have laid siege to Marawi as a show of defiance in the face of the declaration, just days before the start of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan.
While the timing has prompted confusion and speculation among analysts, the result has been a clash long in the making between the Philippine military and jihadis in the city.
Military officials say some 61 militants, at least 11 soldiers and four police officers have been killed, according to The Associated Press, which Sunday cited the discovery of what appeared to be eight civilians executed by extremists in Marawi.
In Indonesia, meanwhile, authorities have ordered an investigation into the extent of Islamic State involvement in a dual suicide bombing that hit near a pre-Ramadan parade in Jakarta on Wednesday.
The attack, which killed three police officers and injured at least 12 people, was the deadliest pinned to jihadis in the Indonesian capital in more than a year. The Islamic State claimed credit via an online propaganda portal.
A new caliphate?
Concern is high that extremists who traveled to join Islamic State’s Middle East “caliphate” will return home to carry out terrorism. While many came from North Africa and Europe, a February analysis by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point argued that “Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia, will likely [also] provide key staging posts for the group.”
A separate analysis in October asserted that the Islamic State had already deepened cooperation among several Islamist groups in Southeast Asia, with an eye toward exploiting a decades-old Muslim insurgency in the Philippines as their “jihad of choice.”
“The Philippines is important because as far as the ISIS leadership is concerned, it is the extension of the caliphate in the region,” said the analysis by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, an Indonesia-based think tank.
Mindanao has long been home to the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, as well as several smaller factions that use the region as their base. Abu Sayyaf was previously tied to the al Qaeda-backed Indonesia-based group Jemaah Islamiyah.
But Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon declared allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014 and was subsequently named the group’s emir in Southeast Asia. Local reports have said the assault on Mawari was triggered by a failed Philippine military raid on Mr. Hapilon’s base near the city.
Marawai is some 250 miles east of Zamboanga, one of Mindanao’s largest cities and home to more than 100 U.S. Marines and special operations forces conducting counterterrorism operations in the Philippines.
The small team of American troops had been part of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, one of the earliest U.S. counterterrorism operations launched in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. At its height, the operation had more than 400 personnel, with the primary mission of providing intelligence and logistics support to Filipino-led operations.
While the mission officially ended in 2015, a small contingent remained in Zamboanga, continuing operations as the Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group.
American officials in the Philippines say the group sealed a weapons deal with Manila in February, delivering 400 grenade launchers, 85 sniper rifles and three RQ-11B Raven surveillance drones to Philippine forces based in Mindanao.
The Pentagon has declined to comment on the extent to which American forces may be involved in a Philippine military push to retake Marawi.
Special Operations Command-Pacific spokeswoman Maj. Kari McEwen told The Times over the weekend that U.S. forces are “providing support and assistance in the southern Philippines” and that “over the last year, we have been consulting with our Filipino partners at senior levels to support the Duterte administration’s counterterrorism efforts.”
A growing ‘mess’
While Manila has pledged to end the Mawari fight quickly and decisively, the battle could drag on for weeks or longer, said Greg Poling, an Asia analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“This is all a mess,” Mr. Poling said, pointing to a complex mix of jihadi, militant and criminal groups on the ground in Marawi.
Members of the Islamic State-rebranded Abu Sayyaf consist largely of foreign fighters and “are extremists in every sense of the word [and] don’t represent local interests,” Mr. Poling said.
Conversely, other groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic National Front are among the oldest and most locally minded separatist groups in the region.
Mr. Poling noted that the Moro groups actually took up arms alongside Filipino military forces to battle Islamic State fighters since 2014 — an alliance that helped facilitate a landmark peace deal between the Filipino government and the Moro groups that year.
That cooperation with Manila was a key requirement of the landmark peace deal between the Filipino government and the Moro groups that year.
But the Islamic State’s expansion into the southern Philippines and now the Mawari siege have put the peace deal in danger, according to Mr. Poling.
“These guys have their deal, and they do not want to upset that,” he said, referring to the Moro groups.