Is Mindanao Southeast Asia’s Syria in the making?

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Pictures of the southern Philippine city of Marawi on fire are sending a worrying message across the world: Will Mindanao, the Philippines’ conflict-ridden southern Muslim province, become the new “Syria of Southeast Asia” and will Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte face the same dynamic of the Islamic State there like Bashar al-Assad in Syria?

It became clear that the Duterte administration takes the problem very serious when they unleashed heavy firepower against Islamist militant positions on May 27 – the beginning of Ramadan – in an attempt to end the siege of Marawi that has paralysed and almost deserted the city for almost a week now.

But it is far from sure that the army will quickly get rid of the problem.

The eruption of violence in the southern Philippines – alongside recent suicide bombings in Indonesia – highlights the growing threat posed by militant backers of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia, experts say, warning that the Islamic State is becoming a new basis for cooperation among various extremist groups in the region.

For example, the Maute group, a spin-off from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and also known as the Islamic State of Lanao, who were the driving force behind the siege of Marawi, are no longer the group of bandits and Muslim separatists they used to be, but are now aligning with the Islamic State and adopting the latter’s radical ideology. Other Islamist groups in Mindanao are Abu Sayyaf and Ansar Khalifa Philippines, which also have pledged to support the Islamic State.

“Islamic State supporters around the region have been urged to join the jihad in the Philippines if they can’t get to Syria and to wage war at home if they can’t travel at all,” Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said.

All this suggests that there is a new hotbed of international terrorism in the making in Southeast Asia, with a scale and destructive potential likely to be as large as it has been in the Middle East, and which may let one assume that the situation in the Philippines might well escalate further and Duterte could become the next al-Assad.

“Setbacks in Syria and Iraq have heightened the importance of other stages for the Islamic State, and in Southeast Asia, the focus is the Philippines,” Jones told the New York Times.

The phrasing by the Philippine government that it was conducting “surgical airstrikes” to drive out the militants from Marawi, where rebel snipers hold strategic positions in the city, indeed resembles the war lingo on Syria.

The southern Philippines has also traditionally served as a base for foreign Islamist extremists, including militants from Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries, who have taken refuge there or were trained at remote jungle camps. Given that fact that the Mindanao region shares a little-patrolled ocean border to neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia, militants can easily travel by boat without having to pass through immigration control.

 

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Reading Time: 2 minutes

Pictures of the southern Philippine city of Marawi on fire are sending a worrying message across the world: Will Mindanao, the Philippines’ conflict-ridden southern Muslim province, become the new “Syria of Southeast Asia” and will Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte face the same dynamic of the Islamic State there like Bashar al-Assad in Syria?

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Pictures of the southern Philippine city of Marawi on fire are sending a worrying message across the world: Will Mindanao, the Philippines’ conflict-ridden southern Muslim province, become the new “Syria of Southeast Asia” and will Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte face the same dynamic of the Islamic State there like Bashar al-Assad in Syria?

It became clear that the Duterte administration takes the problem very serious when they unleashed heavy firepower against Islamist militant positions on May 27 – the beginning of Ramadan – in an attempt to end the siege of Marawi that has paralysed and almost deserted the city for almost a week now.

But it is far from sure that the army will quickly get rid of the problem.

The eruption of violence in the southern Philippines – alongside recent suicide bombings in Indonesia – highlights the growing threat posed by militant backers of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia, experts say, warning that the Islamic State is becoming a new basis for cooperation among various extremist groups in the region.

For example, the Maute group, a spin-off from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and also known as the Islamic State of Lanao, who were the driving force behind the siege of Marawi, are no longer the group of bandits and Muslim separatists they used to be, but are now aligning with the Islamic State and adopting the latter’s radical ideology. Other Islamist groups in Mindanao are Abu Sayyaf and Ansar Khalifa Philippines, which also have pledged to support the Islamic State.

“Islamic State supporters around the region have been urged to join the jihad in the Philippines if they can’t get to Syria and to wage war at home if they can’t travel at all,” Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said.

All this suggests that there is a new hotbed of international terrorism in the making in Southeast Asia, with a scale and destructive potential likely to be as large as it has been in the Middle East, and which may let one assume that the situation in the Philippines might well escalate further and Duterte could become the next al-Assad.

“Setbacks in Syria and Iraq have heightened the importance of other stages for the Islamic State, and in Southeast Asia, the focus is the Philippines,” Jones told the New York Times.

The phrasing by the Philippine government that it was conducting “surgical airstrikes” to drive out the militants from Marawi, where rebel snipers hold strategic positions in the city, indeed resembles the war lingo on Syria.

The southern Philippines has also traditionally served as a base for foreign Islamist extremists, including militants from Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries, who have taken refuge there or were trained at remote jungle camps. Given that fact that the Mindanao region shares a little-patrolled ocean border to neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia, militants can easily travel by boat without having to pass through immigration control.

 

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