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Marawi is neither global jihad reaching into the region nor an expanded local conflict — it results from a potent mix of local grievances and global extremist ideology, Marty Harris writes.
To some, it is the most significant terrorist event in Southeast Asia since the Bali bombings of 2002, while others ask whether the Marawi crisis has destroyed the decades-long peace process in Mindanao.
One thing is for sure: Marawi is a game changer for Southeast Asia. Militants professing allegiance to the Daesh brand of global jihad have seized and held a major urban centre for more than two months.
As its so-called ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria continues to shrink, Daesh / Islamic State is seeking to exploit opportunities to maintain relevance. Its extremist propaganda has targeted the southern Philippines — with its history of conflict, poor governance and an aggrieved Muslim population — as a new focal point to continue the jihad.
In June 2016 the group’s official media released a video showing an Indonesian, a Malaysian and a Filipino urging compatriots who could not reach Syria to go to the Philippines instead. In August 2017, two videos — one featuring Australian-accented Mounir Raad (also known as Abu Adam al-Australi) — called for supporters to join the fight in the Philippines. Daesh central had earlier called for an ‘East Asia wilayat’ or province of the ‘caliphate’, with leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi endorsing local Islamist militant Ipsilon Hapilon as its future leader.
Yet caution should be exercised in simply assigning a global jihadist narrative to recent developments in the southern Philippines.
At play is a more complex – and pragmatic – interconnection between local grievances, failing outlets for those grievances, and the unifying narrative, financial resources and technical support provided by Daesh.
The traditional Mindanao Muslim rebel groups — the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) — have long been in peace discussions or agreements with Manila, and are now seen by some younger Mindanao Muslims as part of the establishment, and not delivering on the aspirations of the Moro people.
Viewing the current conflict only through the lens of global jihad risks undermining the local factors influencing continued instability in the southern Philippines. Doing so would likely imperil reconstruction and reconciliation.
Equally, failing to acknowledge the influence of Daesh and interpreting Marawi as simply the latest development in a known local issue risks underestimating the potential terrorist threat. There are established financial and personnel links between Syria/Iraq and the individuals involved in the Marawi siege, and it would be unwise to discount the impact of the Daesh narrative.
The ‘success’ of Daesh-aligned militants in Marawi will have a major impact on jihadism in Southeast Asia. There are long-running ideological and personnel connections between Muslim extremists in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, and others will seek to learn from the events in Marawi.
This, then, is a threat to all regional countries, including Australia.
Australia’s response, in turn, needs to be calibrated: informed by regional sensibilities, attuned to the needs of both the central government in Manila and the people of the southern Philippines.
Based on observations from an August roundtable, the Defence and Strategic Studies Centre and National Security College at The Australian National University have laid out some possible policy responses for Australia.
Firstly, Australia should seek to refocus and increase military education and training collaboration with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, with a focus on urban operations, civil-military relations and transition to peace.
Second, there may be opportunities to expand regional counter-terrorism cooperation, seeking to prevent the spread of emboldened Islamist terrorism beyond the southern Philippines and to limit the damage there.
Finally, as the Policy Options Paper from the roundtable highlights, Australia should focus its efforts in areas where it has distinct capabilities — such as on illicit financial transfers and the security of the maritime domain.
These options seem somewhat limited. This is because in the larger context in the southern Philippines — poor governance, ungoverned spaces, low socioeconomic indicators, frustration with the MNLF/MILF and a stagnating process to create the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region — there is probably little Australia can do beyond targeted aid spending.
Yet with targeted, sensitive and welcomed initiatives, Australia can use its distinct capabilities to assist Mindanao, the Philippines and the region as a whole in combating Daesh-inspired extremism.
This article was first published at Policy Forum and is based a new Policy Options Paper from the ANU National Security College, Marawi and after: how Australia can help. You can read the full paper here.