- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2017

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, high-tech 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.

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