More Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL)-linked foreign fighters are in Southeast Asia now, namely in the southern Philippines’ Muslim-majority Mindanao region, than there ever were during the peak of the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Washington Times reported Sunday, citing the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The Washington Times noted:
A growing diaspora of battle-hardened Islamic State fighters fleeing lost territory in Syria and Iraq have returned to the southern Philippines, providing a major complication just as the Trump administration quietly ramps up a U.S. counterterrorism operation in the Pacific island nation.
In its recent assessment of worldwide terrorist activities in 2017, the U.S. Department of State (DOS) placed the Philippines among the top five countries with the most attacks at the hands of Islamic extremist groups, particularly ISIS, the world’s most prolific terrorist group.
An estimated 60 percent of the 8,584 terrorist attacks across the globe took place in Iraq (1,951), Afghanistan (1,171), India (860), Pakistan (574), and the Philippines (483), the Country Reports on Terrorism 2017 issued by the DOS last month revealed.
The Philippines is the only Christian-majority country among the top five nations for terrorist attacks last year.
Ambassador Nathan Sales, the top counterterrorism coordinator at DOS, declared in State’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2017:
Despite our successes, the terrorist landscape grew more complex in 2017. ISIS, al-Qa’ida, and their affiliates have proven to be resilient, determined, and adaptable, and they have adjusted to heightened counterterrorism pressure in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere … the return or relocation of foreign terrorist fighters from the battlefield has contributed to a growing cadre of experienced, sophisticated, and connected terrorist networks, which can plan and execute terrorist attacks.
Echoing other analysts, Greg Poling from CSIS told the Times that ISIS-affiliated foreign fighters had found other places to regroup and recover to continue their war against the West.
“As we execute victories on the ground in Iraq and Syria, [Islamic State] is going to disperse” to other areas across the world, including Southeast Asia, Poling declared, adding, “The Southern Philippines is still an ungoverned region.”
In an interview with Reuters in February, Ebrahim Murad, the chief of the Philippines’ Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), warned that ISIS-linked foreign fighters are traveling to the Philippines to join the terrorist group’s Southeast Asia branch.
Murad’s Muslim organization is a separatist group that joined forces with the Filipino government against ISIS affiliates in the region after reaching a peace pact with Manila in exchange for autonomy granted by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) — charged with American military activity in and around the Philippines — and the Filipino military have also warned that ISIS is trying to regroup in the island nation following the group’s defeat last year.
In 2017, militants from the pro-ISIS Filipino groups Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group attacked and held the southern Philippine city of Marawi in Mindanao for several months, resulting in the death of more than 1,100 people.
The Philippine military ended its campaign in Marawi in October 2017 after killing the leaders of the nation’s two ISIS affiliates — Isnilon Hapilon of Abu Sayyaf and Omar Maute of the Maute group.
Although the death of the two jihadi leaders dealt a blow to the ISIS wing in the Philippines, PACOM warned that the region remained a “fertile for radicals and extremists looking to affiliate with the ISIS brand.”
The Times acknowledged:
It was not Afghanistan or Iraq, but rather the southern Philippines, where U.S. forces launched their first major counterterrorism offensive of the post-9/11 era against al Qaeda. Operation Enduring Freedom — Philippines was launched three months after U.S. forces began airstrikes in Afghanistan.
The task force was disbanded in February 2015, but U.S. forces remained quietly engaged with the Philippine military as it battled jihadi groups that were quickly flocking to the Islamic State banner.
PACOM and the Pentagon are reportedly working on expanding the U.S. counterterrorism mission in the southern Philippines.
In 2017, the Pentagon provided $16 million for its anti-terrorism mission in the island nation, where between 200 to 300 U.S. troops are serving in advisory roles, the Times pointed out.