(File pix) A helicopter flies through smoke billowing from houses after aerial bombings by Philippine Airforce planes on Islamist militant positions in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on Saturday. The Maute group’s strategy is similar to the Islamic State’s strategy in Mosul and Raqqa. AFP Photo

SOUTHEAST Asia remains the last frontier of religious extremist groups which want to turn it into a “caliphate” and base for the region.

The threat has escalated to an all-time high. There is a collaboration between international terrorist groups that have re-emerged, such as al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah.

The Marawi attack, which was led by the Islamic State of Lanao, or more commonly known as the Islamic State, and backed by the Maute group, has claimed the southern Philippine city as a stronghold.

The Maute group has joined forces with other local groups, such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Abu Sayyaf and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which command more than 200 foot soldiers.

The discovery of foreign fighters during the recent offensive reveals that there are Malaysians, Indonesians, Singaporeans, Thais and Middle Eastern people involved. It is probable that Chinese Uyghurs are also involved.

Such a threat was not the first in the region as Malaysia also experienced an incursion in Sabah by the Sulu in 2013.

Sources say fighters as young as 15 years old, who carry membership cards that depict Egyptian terrorist groups, have been recruited in the Sulu region.

Philippine security forces tracked Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon’s movements to Marawi city from the Basilan region.

Intelligence reports say the discovery of Maute’s operations was the result of Hapilon being spotted in Marawi.

The presence of Hapilon and other suspected terrorist leaders in the city called for an urgent and crucial strategic information management plan to be tabled to address the potential threat.

This, as well as the warrant attained by the Philippine authorities for Hapilon, sparked a sudden and unprecedented attack by the Maute group on May 22.

The network that comprises these groups was a startling discovery for the Philippine authorities as many of these local groups have different political, religious and transnational agendas, with one fighting for autonomy in the south.

The Philippine government must assess the threat and understand what led these groups to combine forces in Marawi.

To address the threat, President Rodrigo Duterte and top military advisers worked with the United States.

US elite forces based in the Western Mindanao Command in Zamboanga have been operating since 2007 and have been
collaborating with Philippine forces to combat terrorism in the south.

US forces have provided technical coverage in Marawi prior to bomb runs on Maute group targets and to prevent collateral damage.

Foreign forces are not allowed to assist in ground operations unless sanctioned by the Philippine government.

The Maute group is well entrenched and funded. Its modus operandi is guided by foreign Islamic State fighters and the current strategy is similar to that in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria.

Tunnels have been found in the group’s operational sites that indicate the modus operandi of IS in Iraq and Syria.

Ammo caches have been in place in time for Ramadan attacks similar to the Ipil siege by the Abu Sayyaf in the 1990s.

The latest offensive doesn’t look like it will end soon as the Maute Group is not the only threat.

Marawi has a 96 per cent Muslim population. This shows that the population of Marawi benefits from Maute’s “Robin Hood” style of sharing their drug loot and illegal businesses with residents of the city.

The threat in Marawi should not lead to complacency for the rest of Asean as this threat has already been lurking in every member country.

Southeast Asia and Asean will see a new form of threat from the collaboration of terrorist groups in the region.

ANDRIN RAJ is the Southeast Asia regional director for the International Association for Counterterrorism and Security Professionals Centre for Security Studies and a national security and counterterrorism expert.

andrin.raj@iacspsea.com

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