Marawi Siege in Southern Philippines, a Sign of ISIS Expansion in ASEAN

Civilians evacuated from Marawi in Southern Mindanao by Philippines troops. (Photo: EPA)

It looks like a distant event in a remote area of the Philippines that nobody knows. But the effect could be actually devastating for the entire ASEAN.

It has been nine days now that Philippines military troops are battling against Islamist militants in the small city of Marawi in Southern Mindanao. The fight-with almost 180 people dead (latest account on 01/06) and hundreds of locals held as hostage by Islamist militant group Maute- shows however the danger of seeing ISIS strengthening its presence all across Southeast Asia, according to terrorism experts.

The looming defeat of ISIS militants in Syria and Irak could effectively have a ripple effect in ASEAN with terrorism acts of fundamentalists spreading across Southeast Asia. According to reports, many Islamist militants in Marawi come from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand beside fighters from the Middle East such as Yemen or Chechnya.

News agency Reuters reported on Thursday afternoon that  the Philippines government believes that the Maute group’s brazen attack and its resilience could strike a chord with the Islamic State leadership in the Middle East and win its endorsement as its Southeast Asian affiliate.

The deaths of the soldiers takes the number of security force members killed to 38, with 19 civilians and 120 rebel fighters killed in the battles in Marawi over the nine days.

Philippines State Secretary for Defense said militants who were Saudi, Malaysian, Indonesian, Yemeni and Chechen were among eight foreigners killed in the fighting, in what experts say is a sign the Philippines may have a major problem on its hands. President Rodrigo Duterte feels concerned that radical ideology is spreading in the southern Philippines and it could become a haven for militants forced out of Iraq and Syria.

But not only to the Philippines. Experts talk about possible ramification into Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country.  In recent weeks, attacks have already been conducted against policemen.

The latest one was conducted a week ago in Jakarta, killing three policemen and wounding 12 others at a bus station. The attack was the deadliest in Indonesia since January 2016. Responsibility for the attack has been claimed by the Islamic State group.

Indonesia President Joko Widodo said that his country needed to accelerate plans to strengthen anti-terrorism laws to prevent new attacks. Long-standing plans to reform Indonesia’s 2003 anti-terrorism laws have been held up by opposition from some parties in parliament and concerns about individual rights.

The revisions would broaden the definition of terrorism and give police the power to detain suspects without trial for longer. The changes would allow police to arrest people for hate speech or for spreading radical content, as well as those taking part in para-military training or joining proscribed groups.

In recent demonstrations in Jakarta against incumbent Christian Jakarta governor “Ahok” Basuki Purnama, many black flags with writing in Jawi (Arabic) could be seen, similar to the flags used by ISIS.

in Malaysia, the government arrested since the start of the year two dozens of Islamist radicals suspected to be ISIS militants, the latest arrest occurring a week ago. Malaysia has arrested more than 250 people between 2013 and 2016 for suspected militant activity linked to the Islamic State.

Coupled with a general rise towards fundamentalism in both Malaysia and Indonesia -two countries known for their practice of a tolerant, moderate Islam-, the threat of ISIS could have a serious impact on tourism. Violence or acts of terrorism could tarnish the reputation of ASEAN as a safe destination. Something that most of the countries in the region do not want to see as many locals depend highly from tourism revenues. Local governments have to ask swiftly and strongly to avoid a spreading of the Marawi “syndrome”.

(Partial source: Reuters)