JAKARTA: The battle for Marawi in the southern Philippines is likely to have long-term repercussions for extremism in Southeast Asia, even after Philippines military regains control of the city, according to a new report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) released on Friday (Jul 21).
The impact 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-Islamic State (IS) cells from among returning fighters from Marawi.
“The risks won’t end when the military declares victory,” said Sidney Jones, IPAC director in a press release.
She added: "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 Marawi operations according to the IPAC report received direct funding from the IS, and show a chain of command that runs from Syria through the Philippines to Indonesia and beyond.
The report said the Islamic State seems to have been represented by Khatibah Nusantara, a dedicated fighting unit led by an Indonesian militant, Bahrumsyah and his associate, Abu Walid.
Khatibah Nusantara in turn sent funding through Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian who reportedly sits in the inner circle of the Marawi command structure.
According to the report, Dr Mahmud controlled recruitment as well as financing and has been the contact person for any foreigner wanting to join the pro-IS coalition in the Philippines. Tactical decisions on the ground are being made by the Philippine IS commanders themselves.
The release warns that governments need to think about the role that key Southeast Asians in the Islamic State, 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 IS centre could emerge, either in the Philippines or elsewhere in the region.
It is estimated that 20 Indonesians are among the foreign fighters in Marawi, and if those estimates are proven to be correct, then Indonesian authorities have to consider several worrying scenarios involving their return.
While some of them according to the release were from Indonesia's largest pro-IS coalition, Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), some were from a little known group called al-Hawariyun whose leader, Abu Nusaibah, was arrested in November 2016 for attempting to cause violence during the mass street protests against Jakarta’s then governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is more popularly known as Ahok.
The Philippines, according to the report has not formally been given the status of “wilayah”, or province, but the command structure in Marawi refers to itself as the “East Asia Wilayah.”
The report also said that Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian militant in Syria, has been silent on the situation in Marawi. His silence the report said, may mean that he is incapacitated; discredited for some reason; or in transit to another location.
Bahrun Naim through social media has repeatedly attempted to incite attacks in Indonesia. His use of encrypted-messaging service Telegram was one reason given by the government for blocking the messaging application earlier this month, the report said.
In the past, he has also posted bomb-making instructions on his blog and over multiple social media accounts.
The situation in Marawi has also helped to unite two feuding streams of the pro-IS movement in Indonesia, according to the report – inspired “lone wolf” attacks and has caused would-be terrorists to raise questions about why they cannot manage to do anything as spectacular.
According to the release, despite the calls for more regional counter-terrorism cooperation given the siege in Marawi, IPAC notes are there are certain political and institutional obstacles, including Philippine-Malaysian distrust which inhibits information-sharing.
IPAC recommends a better integrated watch-list of terrorist suspects, which could be put in place across the region.
It also suggests in the report a series of short courses for Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, building on real case studies of cross-border extremism, in small classes where useful discussions could take place.
One concrete outcome for this to aim for would be an up-to-date and more detailed mapping of transnational extremist networks, with particular attention to the role of women, it said in the report.
According to the report, urgent attention needs to be given to Marawi’s evacuees, and to the city’s rebuilding efforts by the Philippine government, to ensure that local resentments do not make the area an even more fertile ground for extremist recruitment.