Separatist movements have been brewing for years on the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines. However, it’s only with the growing influence of Daesh and its trademark barbarism in the region that these movements have become a foreign policy priority of the Australian government.
Daesh has provided several of these groups, most notably Maute and Abu Sayaaf, with the opportunity to form an alliance based on radical Islamist ideology. Both have affiliated with the terrorist organisation. This local alliance is compounded by the expertise of foreign fighters who have come to Mindanao, believing it to be the next battleground in Daesh’s attempt to establish a caliphate.
Sparked by the hunt for Isnilon Hapilon, the Abu Sayaaf leader who was named by Daesh as their emir in southeast Asia, tensions in the area reached a head on 23 May 2017. Maute group forces seized areas of Marawi City under the Daesh flag in retaliation to strikes undertaken by the Philippine military that targeted the Daesh-affiliated alliance. To date, efforts to fully retake Marawi City have been unsuccessful, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of martial law. The death toll has exceeded 500, more than 380 of which are believed to be extremists.
Geographically and strategically, Australia faces an imminent threat. In March, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop expressed concern about the potential for a Daesh caliphate to emerge in Mindanao. While this currently remains unlikely, the ability for the Daesh ideology to unite disparate groups of insurgents, as well as the strength of these groups in holding out against the Philippine military for weeks, is cause for concern. Without doubt, violent and radical Islamic extremism has never been closer to our doorstep.
Australia focuses only on domestic counter-terrorism at its own peril. It would be a mistake to assume Duterte alone can or will solve the Marawi siege. As any remaining focus of the US ‘pivot’ to Asia appears to rest with China and North Korea, Australia’s role is ever more important.
As Daesh forces lose ground in the Middle East, the focus will likely shift to Asia. The region has more Muslims than the Arab world, many of whom are marginalised and poverty-stricken, and thus vulnerable to extremist ideologies. The patchily governed Marawi City may well become Asia’s Raqqa, as extremists make the most of the Philippines’ permeable maritime borders and the distrust of Duterte’s military rule. Marawi offers an attractive base from which to train insurgents and plan attacks on Mindanao, Manila and even Asian cities further afield. Furthermore, Marawi is already home to foreign fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia and even Chechnya. A Daesh epicentre so close to Australia may lure Australian foreign fighters who can now be indoctrinated much closer to home.
Defence Minister Marise Payne claims that Australia is ‘ready to assist’ the Philippines. To this end, Bishop has announced humanitarian assistance for those displaced by the conflict, as well as generous aid packages for both education and the peace process in the region. Surveillance aircraft patrols have also been announced. However, Australia’s actions have failed to stymie the burgeoning risk posed by Daesh. While the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have agreed to begin joint naval patrols and share counter-terrorism intelligence, this has yet to end the conflict. Australia, with its wide range of resources, is in a position to be a stronger regional leader in this regard. Australian diplomatic efforts could also better unite the states most at risk of extremist influence in the region.
Greater focus must also be given to helping Duterte address the root causes of the appeal of radical Islam, namely, high levels of poverty in the region, poor educational opportunities and ineffective governance. Duterte’s strong-arming and military crackdown will do little to solve these problems and potentially do more to exacerbate them. Taking a holistic approach to ending the uprising in Marawi is the key to dismantling extremist power structures and delinking militants from across the world. If Duterte were to prove that he is ready to cooperate in Mindanao, whether through fulfilling promises made during the peace process with the more moderate Moro Islamic Liberation Front or simply increasing joint actions in the region, perhaps the Philippines could stem the rise of Daesh. Australia, having an important stake in the outcome of the Marawi siege, will need to actively encourage this and show it’s committed to counteracting the appeal of radical extremism.
If this fails, Australia faces the risk that other oppressed separatist Muslim movements, such as the Rohingya in Rakhine and the insurgents in the Malay Pattani region of Thailand, will increasingly be attracted to Daesh’s cause, and become radicalised by the influence of hardliners in Mindanao. This could not be closer to home, nor further removed from Australia’s interests.
Emma Squires is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.