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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Report: IS galvanized in Asia by Marawi City siege

JAKARTA, Indonesia (Updated) -- The attack by Maute terrorists, who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, on Marawi City in the Philippines has galvanized the IS's Southeast Asian supporters and spells trouble for the region, a top terrorism researcher said.

In a new report, Sidney Jones, an expert on terrorist networks in Southeast Asia at the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said there now may be a higher risk of attacks in other Philippine cities and cooperation between terrorists across regional borders could expand.

Terrorists in Indonesia and Malaysia will want to redouble efforts to attack police and may also lift their sights to targeting foreigners, she said.

"The initial photographs from Marawi released over social media as the Isis assault began — smiling fighters hold guns aloft on trucks — seemed to have the same impact as the iconic Isis victory photos from Mosul in 2014," Jones said, using another acronym for IS and referring to its past occupation of Iraq's second-largest city.

"They generated a shared sense of triumph and strengthened the desire of ISIS supporters in the region to join the battle," she added.

Waving IS-style black flags, the heavily armed fighters stormed into Marawi, a center of Islamic faith in Mindanao, on May 23, occupying buildings, houses and mosques and taking hostages. Foreign fighters, including 20 Indonesians, joined the insurrection, which officials and researchers said received funding locally and from IS in Syria that was coordinated by a Malaysian known as Mahmud bin Ahmad.

At least 565 people, including 421 terrorists and 99 soldiers and police, have been killed in the worst urban uprising by Moro bandits in Mindanao in decades. Nearly half a million residents have been displaced in Marawi and outlying towns by the fighting, which is nearing two months despite a sustained military offensive.

Jones said Indonesians and Malaysians who joined the fight in Marawi could return to their countries, and with their high prestige, provide new leadership, uniting factionalized pro-IS cells.

But a Malawi-style attack in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, is unlikely because unlike the southern Philippines, it does not have the multiple insurgencies that extremists can draw on for fighters and weapons, she said.

The report was based on research in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, interviews with Indonesian terrorists, credible news reports including from The Associated Press, and monitoring of pro-IS groups on the Telegram instant messaging app.

When the terrorists holding out in Marawi are defeated, the rebuilding of the city, which has pounded by airstrikes, will be crucial for the Philippines and Southeast Asia, according to Jones.

Officials need to give those displaced a voice in the rebuilding of Marawi and prevent extremist teachings from finding fertile ground, she said.

"Recruiters (for terror groups) were able to build on the narrative of state brutality long before the battle for Marawi began, but the military's reliance on airstrikes ... enabled the fighters to blame the government for the city's destruction," she said. (AP)

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