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Has Islamic State shifted priorities to South-East Asia?

Image Credit: Philippines Information Agency (WIkipedia: Creative Commons)

In the past months Abu Sayyaf (an Islamist terrorist group fighting for its own state in the Southern Philippines) and a criminal group commonly referred to as ‘Maute’, launched an attempt to seize a relatively small city on the island of Mindanao. This attempt resulted in the deaths of 19 civilians and there are fears many more have died. One faction of Abu Sayyaf, led by Isnilon Totoni Hapilon, was recently declared a part of Islamic State in 2016. This recent attempt at seizing a city, even a small one, could be an indicator of Islamic States new agenda in the Southern Philippines. Abu Sayyaf is made up of several hundred members and has links to a myriad of other groups in the region and outside of it, including Jemaah Islamiyah, Al Qaeda, Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Biff) and Ansar Khalifa Philippines. Maute is similar, with close ties to Abu Sayyaf and other groups.

This recent attempt has proven to be a clear indicator of the power wielded by these groups and their new agenda. One that encompasses building new alliances with other Islamist and criminal groups in the hope that together they can secure the Mindanao province. The Maute group was created by the brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute. It was previously, and still is, a criminal gang that turned to armed Islamist insurrection relatively recently. This new strategy will certainly prove difficult to defeat as each group can bring with it a combination of resources and manpower the others potentially lack. And give each group a common goal and common enemy they lacked previously.

The President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has since declared martial law in the province and flooded the area with military personnel, soldiers and gunships in the hope of defeating these groups once and for all. There are many who believe the recent attacks and the growth of some of these groups can be, at least partly, blamed on the Presidents hard-line policies and his disregard of the Bangsamoro peace process. Although, with IS’s influence in the region expanding, an event like this and the ones most likely on their way would probably have occurred regardless.

The attack itself, according to some, has been attributed to an attempt by the government to seize Hapilon. And this was the groups, and its ally’s response. Although, the choice of attack and brutality shown prove there is a larger, more tactically important strategy in place. It is difficult to believe these groups possess the necessary resources and organizational structure to achieve their goals, but this was a similar belief held by many, including experts, before IS’s rise in Syria and Iraq.

Islamic State is on its last legs in Syria and Iraq. It may take months or even years for the group to be properly defeated. This attack in Mindanao could be its attempt at ensuring its physical defeat in Syria and Iraq does not mean its ideological defeat. The hostage taking, execution of civilians and brutal campaigns used are all tactics encouraged by IS. This attack is a clear indicator of the capacity these groups possess to wreak havoc and destruction and potentially a sign of IS’s increasing influence in the region.

Jake Kay is currently undertaking a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations at Curtin University.

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