A growing diaspora of battle-hardened Islamic State fighters fleeing lost territory in Syria and Iraq have returned to the southern Philippines, providing a major complication just as the Trump administration quietly ramps up a U.S. counterterrorism operation in the Pacific island nation.
There are more Islamic State-affiliated foreign fighters in Southeast Asia, especially from jihadi groups based in the southern Philippines’ autonomous Muslim Mindanao region, than there ever were fighting in *Afghanistan at the height of the Soviet Union’s invasion of the country in the 1980s, according to figures compiled by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A State Department assessment puts the Philippines for the first time among the five countries with the most terrorist attacks. The Philippines, along with Afghanistan, India, Iraq and Pakistan, were the sites of nearly 60 percent of terrorist attacks last year, State Department officials said in their latest assessment of terrorist activity around the globe.
“ISIS, al Qaeda and their affiliates have proven to be resilient, determined and adaptable,” said Ambassador Nathan Sales, the State Department’s top counterterrorism coordinator. “They have adjusted to heightened counterterrorism pressure in Iraq, Syria, Somalia and elsewhere.
“Foreign terrorist fighters are heading home from the war zone in Iraq and Syria or traveling to third countries to join [Islamic State] branches there,” he said in the report.
As Islamic State’s plan for a homeland in the heart of the Middle East collapses, foreign fighters have found other places to wage war against the West, including in their own backyards, said Greg Poling, an Asia analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“As we execute victories on the ground in Iraq and Syria, [Islamic State] is going to disperse” to other areas around the globe, including Southeast Asia, Mr. Poling said. “The Southern Philippines is still an ungoverned region,” he said.
The threat exploded into view in May when members of the Maute group — a splinter faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State — overran and held the Philippine city of Marawi for three months. The Islamic State’s black banners flew over Marawi — the first city to be seized by an Islamic State affiliate in Southeast Asia — until November, when Philippine forces, backed by U.S. intelligence and air power, took back control.
Although the top echelons of the Maute’s leadership were killed in the aftermath of Mawari, including group leader Isnilon Hapilon, the goal of establishing an Islamic State caliphate in Southeast Asia, with the southern Philippines as the de facto capital, will remain a key goal for the group’s affiliates in the region, Mr. Poling said.
“Affiliates will try to hold territory, they will try to establish a new caliphate,” he said. “That is a requirement if you want to be an ISIS affiliate, and they did it [in Marawi]. They held a major Philippine city for six months — they were not supposed to be able to do that.”
Islamic insurgencies in the southern Philippines’ Muslim Mindanao region have long been a source of concern for Manila and Washington. Al Qaeda-linked groups such as Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have waged a decadeslong guerrilla war for independence against the Philippines. Fighting reached a peak after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
It was not Afghanistan or Iraq, but rather the southern Philippines, where U.S. forces launched their first major counterterrorism offensive of the post-9/11 era against al Qaeda. Operation Enduring Freedom — Philippines was launched three months after U.S. forces began airstrikes in Afghanistan.
The task force was disbanded in February 2015, but U.S. forces remained quietly engaged with the Philippine military as it battled jihadi groups that were quickly flocking to the Islamic State banner.
Manila seemed to reach a breakthrough in 2015 by establishing the Bangasomoro peace plan with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and other entrenched al Qaeda affiliates.
But the plan quickly stalled in January 2015 when 44 Philippine police commandos were killed in a counterterrorism raid in the Mamasapano district of the southern Philippines’ Maguindanao province. After that, “a lot of people were on the fence on whether the government can be trusted” to make peace, Mr. Poling said, and the raid served as a recruiting tool for the country’s Islamist insurgents.
President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire island of Mindanao under martial law in May 2017 at the height of the siege. The Congress extended martial law to the end of this year and may extend it through next year.
Philippine military officials have sent mixed signals about the dangers of the Islamic State.
“The greatest threat that we have now is really ISIS,” Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., chief of the armed forces, told a congressional hearing in late August. He cited in particular the terrorist group’s influence on local movements such as the Maute group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in Central Mindanao and Abu Sayyaf in Western Mindanao.
But the general also warned about the Islamic State’s penchant for claiming responsibility for every act of violence, even if it had no hand in the attack.
“They are claiming everything,” he told reporters last month. “Even what happened in Manila, they were claiming to have had a hand in it. They are doing it to heighten the support and to show that they are still there.”
Despite the jihadis’ battlefield defeat, the seizure of Marawi by the Islamic State-linked Maute “provided recruitment propaganda for former MILF fighters and commanders who formed more extreme breakaway groups” with strong ties to the terrorist group that overran and held Syria and most of northern Iraq for four years beginning in 2014.
The Pentagon funneled $16 million in fiscal 2017 into another counterterrorism mission in the southern Philippines. For now, the mission mirrors the disbanded task force in providing intelligence and air support to Filipino forces, but officials at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the Pentagon are reportedly drafting orders to possibly expand the mission.
Operation Pacific Eagle
Roughly 200 to 300 U.S. troops are serving in advisory roles in the Philippines, according to figures provided by the Pentagon. The deployment is unlikely to grow despite the new mission, U.S. officials say. The small military footprint will focus more on preventing rather than responding to terrorist attacks, Mr. Poling said
The U.S. and its regional allies “are much more proactive than we were in 2001 and 2002. … We are more committed to preventing, and not just rolling back, the threat,” he said. In addition, the Philippine military is “far more capable, far better equipped than any of the jihadi groups” in the southern part of the country.
“If they were forced to fight another fight like the one in Marawi, they would lay waste to another major urban center” in the country, Mr. Poling said.
But a rising level of American support can be dangerous to indigenous counterterrorism operations led by Manila, the analyst said. U.S. forces run the risk of creating “a situation of dependency” among local forces should commanders with the new Philippines operation conduct business as usual.
The U.S. mission will have the desired effects against Islamic State’s growing presence in the Philippines only if military measures to curb extremism in the southern Philippines “are a stopgap” to allow for a counterinsurgency run by Manila.
* (Correction: The original version of the story incorrectly cited statistics regarding Philippine jihadists. The number of Philippine jihadists fighting for ISIS is more than those who fought the Soviet Union during its Afghan invasion in the 1980s. The story has been corrected.)