THE Islamic State (IS) threat in Mindanao is real and the battle for Marawi City is crucial. That seems to me to be what I can conclude after reading various materials from independent sources on the Marawi conflict. That is why even as we criticize some of the policies of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, we should make sure that these won’t slow down efforts to end the Marawi siege once and for all.
I tend to believe the claim of Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa and even of Solicitor General Jose Calida that the government already got wind of plans by militants to attack Marawi City days before the siege was launched. Okay, the information was that the IS-loving militants were planning to establish a caliphate in Mindanao, meaning seize control of a territory and hold on to it.
On this, a point raised to Reuters by Rohan Gunaratna, a security expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, is worth noting. “IS is shrinking in Iraq and Syria, and decentralizing in parts of Asia and the Middle East. One of the areas where it is expanding is Southeast Asia and the Philippines is the center of gravity.” I would add that the word “Philippines” actually refers to Mindanao.
This seems to be bolstered by the information that foreigners are involved in the Marawi fighting. A research by the S. Rajaratnam School stated that eight of the 33 militants killed in the first four days of fighting in Marawi were foreigners. Authorities in Jakarta stated in an intelligence brief that 38 Indonesians traveled to Mindanao and about 22 of them joined the fighting in Marawi. Malaysians, a Pakistani, a Saudi Arabian, a Chechen, a Yemeni an Indian, a Moroccan and a Turkish were also mentioned.
But while I believe the government may have gotten wind of an IS assault early on, I doubt if they got the full information that have surfaced now. It looks to me like the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which launched the offensive to capture militant leader Isnilon Hapilon in Marawi City, were caught off-guard when the militants launched an intense counter-attack.
By the way, I would say that de la Rosa’s attempt to link the Mautes, said to be the main militant group in the Marawi siege, to the drug trade is lame because it tends to downplay the magnitude of the threat government is facing in Marawi. Some of the militants may be engaged in the drug trade but this is mainly about terrorism, a bigger threat, than mere trading in illegal drugs.
By the way, while my activist friends frown on the presence of some Americans in Mindanao, I say this is an important development if our focus is on defeating the militants in Marawi and quelling the surge of terrorist activities in other areas in Mindanao. The AFP must admit that while it has experience in battling insurgents, it lacks enough know-how in battling terrorism.
The battles in Marawi are no longer waged in a jungle setting but in an urban setup like in the Middle East. US forces are more knowledgeable of such kind of warfare done on the streets and inside tall buildings by the same kind of enemy.
Published in the SunStar Cebu newspaper on June 19, 2017.
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