This is an important report from Jakarta's Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict - it warns that the Mindanao region of The Philippines is now becoming an entrenched centre for Islamic State terror.
The May 2017 takeover of the southern Philippine city of Marawi by an alliance of pro-ISIS militants will have ramifications for the region long after the Philippines military retakes the city. These could include a higher risk of violent attacks in other Philippine cities and in Indonesia and Malaysia; greater cooperation among Southeast Asian extremists; and new leadership for Indonesian and Malaysian pro-ISIS cells from among returning fighters from Marawi.
The Marawi operations received direct funding from ISIS central and reveal a chain of command that runs from Syria through the Philippines to Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia. ISIS central seems to have been represented by Khatibah Nusantara, the fighting unit led by the Indonesian named Bahrumsyah and his associate, Abu Walid. Khatibah Nusantara in turn sent funding through Dr Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian who sits in the inner circle of the Marawi command structure. Dr Mahmud controlled recruitment as well as financing and has been the contact person for any foreigner wanting to join the pro-ISIS coalition in the Philippines. Tactical decisions on the ground are being made by the Philippine ISIS commanders themselves, but the Syria-based Southeast Asians could have a say in setting strategy for region when the siege is over.
The Marawi battle has lasted for two months as of this writing and defied all expectations of when it would end. It has lifted the prestige of the Philippine fighters in the eyes of ISIS central, although it has not yet earned them the coveted status of wilayah or province of Islamic State. It has inspired young extremists from around the region to want to join. In Indonesia it has helped unite two feuding streams of the pro-ISIS movement, inspired “lone wolf ” attacks and caused soul-searching among would-be terrorists about why they cannot manage to do anything as spectacular. All of this suggests an increased incentive for jihad operations, though the capacity of pro-ISIS cells for organizing and implementing attacks outside the Philippines remains low. That could change with a few fighters coming back from either Marawi or the Middle East.
While governments around the region and particularly the “front-line” states of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines recognise the need for greater regional cooperation, there remain formidable obstacles to working together. These include the deep-seated political distrust between the Philippines and Malaysia that impedes information sharing; concern from Indonesia and Malaysia police about mixed loyalties of local counterparts in Mindanao, especially given clan and family links; and institutional disjunctures that give the lead in counter-terrorism to the police in Indonesia and Malaysia but to the military in the Philippines. The unreliability of official Philippine statements on Marawi, whether on numbers of fighters, identities of those killed, or extent of military control, has not inspired confidence.
Donors need to give urgent attention to Marawi’s evacuees and to the city’s rebuilding to ensure that resentment over its destruction does not make it even more fertile ground for extremist recruitment. Sustained attention to the peace process and better governance remain crucial. But it is also useful to think of a few quick technical fixes that could help with immediate issues that the Marawi battle has thrown up. One is an up-to-date, integrated watch-list of extremists across the region – as of July 2017, for example, neither the Maute brothers, Dr Mahmud nor Bahrumsyah were on Interpol’s “Red Alert” list of wanted terrorists. Another is for a series of short courses for senior police investigators from the region aimed at producing a detailed map of cross-regional extremist links and better knowledge of the groups in each others’ countries. A third is a program to understand and prevent campus-based recruitment and funding.
In this report, IPAC examines how support for ISIS and an “East Asia Wilayah” came about, how the Marawi siege has affected the two main networks of pro-ISIS supporters in Indonesia, and what might happen next. It is based on research in Mindanao in February and April 2017.
[Jakarta, 21 July 2017] The battle for Marawi in the southern Philippines is likely to have long-term repercussions for extremism in Southeast Asia. The ability of pro-ISIS fighters to occupy an entire city and hold the Philippine armed forces at bay for almost two months has already inspired violence elsewhere in the region and may lead to more attacks in the region’s cities; a more coordinated regional strategy among extremist groups; and strengthened capacity among pro-ISIS cells in Indonesia and Malaysia.
The impact of Marawi on the region and especially on Indonesia is analysed in Marawi, the “East Asia Wilayah” and Indonesia, the latest report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC).
“The risks won’t end when the military declares victory,” says Sidney Jones, IPAC director. “Indonesia and Malaysia will face new threats in the form of returning fighters from Mindanao, and the Philippines will have a host of smaller dispersed cells with the capacity for both violence and indoctrination.”
The report has extensive new evidence on how the chain of command functioned between Syria and Marawi, with a crucial role played by the Malaysian professor Dr Mahmud Ahmad. All foreigners wanting to join the East Asia Wilayah – as the command structure in Marawi refers to itself – had to go through Dr Mahmud. He also arranged for ISIS funding for the Marawi operations to be laundered through Indonesia, using operatives of Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD).
Governments need to be thinking now about the role that key Southeast Asians in ISIS, including Dr Mahmud but also the Indonesians in Syria, might play in a post-Marawi scenario; who is most likely to take their place if they are arrested or killed; and whether a new regional ISIS centre could emerge, in the Philippines or elsewhere in the region.
The new report examines how the two main ISIS networks in Indonesia became involved in Mindanao and were eventually forced to cooperate in sending what is now estimated to be about 20 fighters to the Marawi front. Some were from JAD but some were from a little known group called al-Hawariyun whose leader, Abu Nusaibah, was arrested in November 2016 for trying to cause violence during the mass street protests against Jakarta’s then governor. The links through Dr Mahmud to Bahrumsyah in Syria mean that a few of these Marawi veterans, if and when they return, could not only train Indonesia’s extremist to a higher level of competence but become the instruments for the implementation of a regional ISIS strategy.
IPAC notes that despite the calls for more regional counter-terrorism cooperation in light of the Marawi siege, there are formidable political and institutional obstacles at work, including Philippine-Malaysian distrust that inhibits information-sharing. Nevertheless there are some quick fixes that could be easily put in place across the region, such as a better integrated watch-list of terrorist suspects.
The Philippine government and the donor community also need to give urgent attention to Marawi’s evacuees and to the city’s rebuilding to ensure that local resentments do not make the area even more fertile ground for extremist recruitment.