Thursday, August 17, 2017

City in ruins, IS still a threat

The disgraceful story of Marawi City in the southern Philippines is an embarrassment to the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte. But it is a threat to Asean neighbours, including Thailand. Southeast Asia today is not only a target of the Islamic State (IS) but an actual threat which could, and should, have been avoided.

Smoke rises from burning houses following an air strike at Maute rebels stronghold as fighting between Islamist militants and government forces continues in Marawi City, southern Philippines on May 30. Photo - EPASmoke rises from burning houses following an air strike at Maute rebels stronghold as fighting between Islamist militants and government forces continues in Marawi City, southern Philippines on May 30. Photo - EPA

Marawi is the capital of Lanao del Sur province on Mindanao island in the often restive south. On May 22, it had more than 200,000 residents, almost all Muslims and known as Maranaw. The hospitable “Islamic City” was well along in developing its 2016 master plan to boost tourism by stressing the city and provincial history and arts.

Marawi was, for example, where the Moro Muslims of the Philippines signed the Dansalan Declaration in 1935 demanding independence from the United States.

The next day, May 23, hundreds of armed, trained and highly disciplined attackers overwhelmed the tiny defences of Marawi and occupied the city. They flew the black flags of the IS. President Duterte’s swift reaction was to declare martial law throughout the whole southern Philippines and the nation’s army, nation and air force set about rooting out the IS from Marawi.

They destroyed the city but have failed to save it. The shocking story has emerged that Duterte had a chance to halt the attack. The so-called Maute Group, which fights for the IS, approached the president last December, asking for a cease-fire. Duterte bragged about it. The IS group threatened to “go down upon Marawi to burn the place. And I said, ‘Go ahead, do it’.”

The Philippines’ president thought his bluster would impress the country and show the IS his tough side. As expert analyst Zachary Abuza said last week, it merely showed Duterte’s personal weakness. The Philippines has “largely been in denial about the growth of ISIS and affiliated groups”, Abuza said. What really happened is that the Philippines president pushed his “war on drugs” even more fanatically, and actually helped the IS to expand and even to over-achieve its goals in the Philippines and in Asean.

The IS-loyal guerrillas who seized Marawi City included foreign fighters. For certain, dozens of Indonesians and Malaysians are among the attackers flying the black flag and causing the destruction of Marawi. The civilian death toll is unknown, but tens of thousands are already refugees. As for the jihadis, the successful attack on Marawi showed once again the extreme ideology of the Mideast-based IS. Uprooting and killing Muslims is a specific part of their programme. Attacking the historic “Islamic City of Marawi” demonstrated both the power and ruthlessness that the IS wishes to exhibit.

President Duterte’s decision to ignore the Maute Group has actually abetted the rise of the IS within Asean. In recent months, security forces in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have, thankfully, stopped most IS plots, including a plan to kill the king of Saudi Arabia in Kuala Lumpur. But Indonesia has seen suicide bombings.

Now the Thai authorities have started military patrols along the Malaysian border to try to stop an IS threat including arms smuggling. Last week, over the strong objections of local business, the Thai army shut six border crossings. Even Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has been briefed on the IS threat in Thailand.

All of Asean must now scramble and try better to strengthen defences. Proper planning as recently as last December could have prevented this. Any further expansion of the IS threat will be on the heads of not just Duterte, but all Asean leaders.


 

This editorial was published in the Bangkok Post on June 14, 2017.