Fighting in the Philippines intensifies concern in Southeast Asia over Islamic militancy
A file image of an Indonesian policeman standing guard in Jakarta on Jan. 22. As the so called Islamic State loses ground in the Middle East, governments are concerned that the terror group will lash out further overseas. (Photo by Bay Ismoyo/AFP)
The Philippines imposed martial law in Mindanao province on May 24 to fight the Maute Islamist group who have pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (IS).
The move came a day after IS, in a statement via its Amaq News agency, claimed responsibility for a deadly bomb attack at a pop concert in the British city of Manchester where 22 people, including children, were killed and dozens injured in what is Britain's deadliest terror attack in 12 years.
The Manchester terror bombing and the Philippines situation put the spotlight again on the growing threat of the Islamic State in Europe, South Asia and Southeast Asia.
A Catholic priest was feared kidnapped and Christian churches set on fire in the restive Philippine region of Mindanao as President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law across the entire Muslim majority region last night.
Duterte declared martial law after a group linked with the so-called Islamic State attacked a major city. The president placed all of Mindanao's 27 provinces and 33 cities, roughly a third of the country, under martial law for a period of 60 days.
The martial law announcement came after dozens of fighters from the Maute terror group entered Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city of about 200,000 people, earlier on May 23.
The group, which has vowed allegiance to the Islamic State and has been clashing with security forces in recent months, took over a hospital, a Catholic cathedral, and a Christian school.
However, Joseph Franco, a research fellow at the Center of Excellence for National Security, described the fighting in Marawi as a "propaganda move" of the Maute group.
"This is a group trying to get the attention of [the so-called Islamic State] in the Middle East," said Franco.
The security expert said even the Islamic State knows that "these guys [the Mautes] do not have the capability."
"They do not control parts of the country so it really [does] not fit into the IS model," said Franco.
In Indonesia, terrorism expert Sidney Jones of the Institute of Policy Analysis and Conflict said that even though the Maute terror group has a considerable influence in the Philippines it is not big in Indonesia. However, Jones was concerned Islamic State could still carry out attacks there.
According to Jones, ten days before Maute stepped up their campaign in Mindanao, there was a call by Indonesian IS leaders — allegedly close to Bahrun Naim, a former terror convict who fled Indonesia to join IS — to attack the Philippine Embassy in Jakarta.
But it never eventuated.
"It's not impossible that there will be attacks here [in Jakarta] but the capacity of this group is low here," she said.
Indonesian Islamic State supporter Dodi Suridi gestures and smiles after his trial to hear the judges' verdict for committing an act of terror over his links to the gun and suicide assault in the Indonesian capital, which killed four attackers and four civilians and was claimed by Islamic State, in Jakarta, on Oct. 20, 2016. (Photo by Wawan Kurniawan/AFP)
Jones also criticized the military approach by Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, saying it will not solve anything. "The military approach will not solve the [Islamic State] problem in the Philippines or any other countries," she said.
With regards to Islamic State in Indonesia, Jones said "Everything seems quiet but the element of surprise is typical of terrorism, it is unpredictable."
Solahudin, a researcher at the Study Center on Terrorism and Social Conflict at the University of Indonesia, said that from 2000 to 2015 more than 260 terrorist acts occurred in Indonesia and more than 1,000 terrorists were arrested.
Indonesian anti-terror squad Densus 88 reported that 550-600 Indonesians have joined IS, of which 100 have returned home and another 100 have died during fighting Syrian troops since March 2015. Densus 88 arrested 82 terrorists in 2015, 170 in 2016 and dozens more this year, many of whom were linked to IS.
In Malaysia, Special Branch police were worried that people who have been fighting in Syria, estimated to number 150, will recruit followers when they return because they are seen as heroes by disaffected Muslim youth.
So far, however, there have been no major attacks in Malaysia although in July 2016 there was an amateurish attempt at violence when a grenade was thrown into a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur but minimal damage was caused to property and no one was injured.
This is the first of a two-part series looking at the so-called Islamic State's threat across South and Southeast Asian countries.
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