Over the past three weeks, the war against ISIS has expanded to the Philippines in Marawi City on the island of Mindanao. On May 17, President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law for Mindanao as Marawi City was under siege by Islamic state militants of the Maute Group led by Isnilon Hapilon. There is currently a $5 million bounty for Hapilon by the FBI for information leading to his apprehension or conviction as he was indicted in Guam in 2002 for kidnapping 17 Filipinos and three Americans. One of the Americans was beheaded. Recent videos have surfaced with Hapilon planning the siege and he is believed to still be in the city according to a military official. He is known as the Emir of the Philippine Province. Is this beginning of a formation of a Wilayat in Southeast Asia? A Wilayat is a first level administrative division in the Islamic State.
To date, 58 Philippine security forces have been killed along with 20 civilians. 138 militant fighters have been killed. Marawi City has seen approximately 200,000 residents displaced while the militants control approximately 2000 hostages.
On June 11, U.S. Special Forces were sent to assist with quelling the three-week old siege. So far U.S. forces are providing technical support but no “boots on the ground” have been reported.
The battle for Marawi has raised concern that the Islamic State, being annihilated in Syria and Iraq, is building a regional base on the island of Mindanao that could pose a threat to neighboring Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore too.Officials have said that, among the several hundred militants who seized the town on May 23, there were about 40 foreigners from Indonesia and Malaysia but also fighters from India, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Chechnya. More than 60 groups in the region have pledged allegiance to ISIS and the drawn out siege is showing vulnerabilities of the Philippine military. The United States began special operations in the Philippines in 2002 but those efforts were discontinued in 2015. According to Zachary Absa at the National War College in Washington, D.C., the “Philippine militant groups control territory and is becoming a magnet for terrorists”.
According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in their recent released publication Beyond The Caliphate:SE Asia, they have released these findings:
• The Islamic State is leveraging local militant groups in Southeast Asia to solidify and expand its presence in the region.
• Forty-five percent of Islamic State-linked attacks and plots in the region had financial and communication ties to Southeast Asian Islamic
State operatives in Syria where group members sought to enable and guide attacks remotely.
• While the majority of Islamic State activity in Southeast Asia occurred in Malaysia and Indonesia, most attacks were conducted in the Philippines, specifically in regions where local militant groups have engaged in violent conflict with the state.
• In the Philippines, the most common attack target was the military, and the most common attack method was the use of small arms.
Only time will tell whether the Philippines can handle this challenge, how involved the United States will become and whether in fact a Wilayat will be established.