By: Mike Yeo
SINGAPORE — The prospect of the Islamic State expanding into Southeast Asia has become a much more distinct possibility in the last few weeks, as Philippine government forces make heavy going of an operation to oust militants who have seized a city in the country’s south.
Granted, there is virtually no possibility of the ISIS-linked militants successfully holding on to an ever-shrinking part of Marawi City in the Lanao del Sur province on the southern island of Mindanao against the ongoing military assault. But regional defense and security watchers fear that the perceived success of the Maute group in keeping the Philippine military at bay for even a protracted period could raise the group’s profile, making it a more attractive proposition to potential donors and recruits.
The result is that regional defense ministers and other security officials and professionals that lost territory in Iraq and Syria for ISIS might spur trained foreign fighters from the Middle East to make their way to the southern Philippines in an attempt to regroup.
Roots of the crisis
The current round of fighting in Marawi began on May 23, when the Philippine military and police mounted an operation to capture Isnilon Hapilon, named by an Islamic State newsletter in 2016 as "emir of all Islamic State forces in the Philippines." The operation failed and a shootout ensued with militants of the Maute group, one of several insurgencies from the area that have pledged allegiance to ISIS. The group then proceeded to seize the city of 200,000 and its weapons, driving out the local police and city administrators.
According to Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, the ISIS attackers included 260 Maute militants, 100 Abu Sayyaf militants under Isnilon Hapilon and roughly 150 from local militant organizations.
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