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July 21, 2017

Event Summary: ‘ISIS in the Philippines: Terror Groups to Grow in SE Asia?’

by
Henry Jackson Society

By Jordan Auburn 

On Thursday 20th July 2017, The Henry Jackson Society and John Hemmings, Director of the Asia Studies Centre, hosted Dr Ava Avila-Goldman, doctoral graduate from the University of Cranfield, and Justin Goldman, ex-US Marine Corps soldier and current Non-Resident Fellow with Pacific Forum CSIS. The panel engaged in a roundtable discussion regarding the growth of ISIL and extremism in the Philippines, particularly in response to the group’s siege of Marawi this May.

The discussion began with a ten-minute presentation by Dr Avila-Goldman. Having been born in southern Philippines, the topic of extremism was, she noted, a poignant one. Giving a background overview of the crisis, Dr Avila-Goldman described how 90% of Marawi’s population had been evacuated yet, 58 days on from the siege, a significant humanitarian challenge remained. For Dr Avila-Goldman, there exists five important and interrelated questions: Who is behind the siege? What is the role of foreign fighters? Are the armed forces capable of mounting a response? Is Martial law the right thing to do? And, does the government have a grand strategy capable of resolving the crisis?

In response to territorial losses elsewhere, it was argued that ISIL have revitalised terrorist networks in South East Asia. With the jihadi-piracy group Aby Sayyaf having pledged allegiance to ISIL, the latter’s brand is naturally extended. This is, however, made possible by the porous borders in southern Philippines, which allow entry from Malaysia and Indonesia without stringent border controls. Moreover, whilst the armed forces have increased their presence in the south to combat this threat, individuals and groups have increasingly moved in the jungle areas, making it difficult to ‘kettle’ them.

Dr Avila-Goldman noted that it is unclear whether the military is capable of dislodging the threat. Though the extremist groups in question are small in size, their urban setting, in which the military have had little experience or training, restricts efforts at liberation to one strategy: street-by-street combat. Yet, Martial law is a tarnished strategy in the Philippines; the army, as well as the public, know of its limitations. Thus, while President Duterte insists his strategy is capable of fixing the ‘problem’, success will depend on his ability to recognise that extremism is a far ‘deeper’ threat. Martial law, in the absence of a long-term strategy, is therefore counterproductive.

Following this presentation, Mr Goldman took his ten minutes to offer an insight into US-Philippine military cooperation in Marawi. The US and the Philippines have a long-term yet complicated bilateral relationship. Most recently as part of the Joint Special Operations Task Force, each have demonstrated an ability to combat extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda and Abu Sayyaf, in southern Philippines.

However, this ought to be seen in the wider context of a larger US goal in South East Asia: building networks and alliances. Mr Goldman asserted that credit should be given where it is due. The Sea lift programme, for example, showcased both an ability to recognise, and respond to, logistics shortcomings. However, with a two-day travel duration from Manilla to southern Philippines, this maritime strategy is incomplete.

Substantiating Dr Avila-Goldman’s reference to urban fighting, Mr Goldman posed the following question: How do you use air support in areas such as Marawi? Street-to-street fighting increases the risk of civilian casualties, which are not politically palatable. Until recently, limited funding for modern, precision-guided munitions have increased the rate of friendly fire, as well as preventing civilians from fleeing conflict areas. Any strategy capable of pragmatically addressing this crisis, Mr Goldman argued, must take this context into account.