Although Daesh's influence in the southern Philippine city is on wane, the group still poses a significant security threat to all of Southeast Asia
Marawi, a city in the southern Philippines, is no longer bustling with life – ground attacks and aerial strikes have reduced parts of the urban centre to a ghost town. Inside, there is no media access; areas either remain besieged by terrorists or under the control of government forces as they continue to clear and retake neighbourhoods.
Outside Marawi, the rest of the island known as Mindanao has been placed under martial law for over two months, since the offensive to flush-out Daesh fighters began on May 23.
A city with over 200,000 inhabitants, Marawi is largely landlocked but one of its borders is ringed by a massive body of water called Lake Lanao. It made global headlines when Philippine combat forces entered residential streets backed by low flying combat helicopters, prompting a mass exodus of the local population. A powerful local militant organisation, Abu Sayyaf, whose leader Isnilon Hapilon was designated as the "Emir" of Daesh in Southeast Asia, had taken control of the city.
The Mindanao islands have been restive for the last 27 years. The Philippine military has been grappling with Abu Sayyaf and his fighters since the 1990s, when the group was formed with seed money from Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, long before it pledged allegiance to Daesh in 2014.
The current siege of Marawi City is unprecedented in its duration. Filipino home grown extremists – the Abu Sayyaf group and Maute clan – have grown into a significant threat to Southeast Asia's regional security. The groups are no longer limiting themselves to the usual business in the region of kidnappings-for-ransom.
After assuming office on June 30, 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, known for his iron-fisted approach towards criminals, ordered the military to neutralise both Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group. Such attempts by previous governments have failed. One year on, President Duterte's crackdown has also produced few results. Barely days before completing his first year in office, he was faced with the unforeseen challenge of Marawi falling to Daesh-linked militancy and Mindanao island having to be put under martial law.
Maritime security in the Southeast Asia region presents a unique security challenge. Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago, consists of more than 17,000 islands while the Philippines is made up of over 7000 islands. The cluster of islands and lax border security provide the opportunity for terrorists and criminals to move freely.
Restraining the extremists evidently requires regional coordination given the topography of the Sulu Sea, which stretches between eastern Malaysia and the southern Philippines. The Sulu archipelago has been a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf group for decades. The sea route and porous entry points provide an open door to militants.
A report dated May 25, presented to Congress by President Duterte on his decision to declare martial law in Mindanao, said: "The groups' occupation of Marawi City fulfils a strategic objective because of its terrain and the easy access it provides to other parts of Mindanao. Lawless armed groups have historically used provinces adjoining Marawi City as escape routes, supply lines, and backdoor passages."
On the frotlines in the Philippines
Daesh's footprint was palpably visible in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Mindanao islands, in November 2014, when the group announced it was expanding beyond the borders of Iraq, Iran, Syria and the Middle East and looking to Africa, the Caucasus and Asia. There have been ominous signs that the extremist group was moving into the southern Philippines for the last two and a half years.
Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore based counter-terrorism expert and Head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, says previous governments were too late to react to the extremist advance.
"Had the Philippines acknowledged the emergence of IS [Daesh] as far back as the second half of 2014 and the active operation of Daesh centric groups throughout 2015, 2016, and acted upon its own intelligence since April 2017, the IS capture of Marawi could have been prevented," Gunaratna told TRT World.
Gunaratna says that to fight Daesh, governments need innovative leaders and not old-fashioned bureaucrats. "Governments can afford to wait and watch Al Qaeda centric groups but when it comes to IS, governments should respond immediately and decisively," he said.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was quick to take action against the radical militants, however. He placed Mindanao under martial law, which was followed by a full throttle ground and aerial assault to reestablish full control of the island. In his report to the Senate, Duterte said the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups have shown their "clear intention to establish an Islamic State" in Mindanao. He also said that these extremist groups have been looking for Christians with an intention to execute them.
The president's moves were swift but the evaluation of Daesh's strength in Marawi was arguably mistaken. So far, the government has put death toll at 630, of which 471 are Daesh terrorists. The number of extremists fighting in Marawi city is more than expected.
Experts believe that the Maute, Abu Sayyaf and several other splinter groups have come together, largely taking commands from battled-hardened Daesh fighters who have fought in Iraq and Syria and originally hail from Southeast Asian countries.
According to Duterte's report to Congress, the Philippines' intelligence network had estimated 263 militants active in the Maute group by 2016. "The group chiefly operates in the province of Lanao del Sur, but has extensive networks and linkages with foreign and local armed groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, Muhajidin Indonesia Timur and the ASG [Abu Sayyaf group]," the report stated.
But the military operation has turned into a relentless struggle. Duterte was left guessing and surprised. "We knew that they were ... all of them were there," Duterte said. "But what I really didn't know ... the large number of firearms... the supply doesn't end."
Daesh in Southeast Asia
Daesh is no longer a Middle Eastern phenomenon. The group opened its battlefront in Southeast Asia with a series of explosions in the Indonesian capital Jakarta that it claimed in January 2016. Soon afterwards, it launched many sporadic attacks in Malaysia and the Philippines.
The Marawi siege has regional and global implications. The fall of Marawi to Daesh has made the entire Asian continent vulnerable to extremist forces.
Even if the government succeeds in clearing Marawi of Daesh in near future, says Gunaratna, the ideological impact of the militant group is likely to stay there longer.
"The post-Marawi IS network includes a cross section of Southeast Asian Muslims. Governments will need to respond comprehensively to deal with both operatives and supporters from the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore," he says.
Head of the Indonesian military, General Gatot Nurmantyo, underscored concerns over the rise of Daesh in his country. "After observation," he said, "We see that in almost every province ... there are already IS cells, but they are sleeper cells… These sleeper cells can easily join up with other radical cells."
A month after the siege of Marawi began, President Duterte called Daesh "the new scourge" that will "haunt us" in the long term.
The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have committed to a cohesive approach to thwart the terrorists. Counter-terrorism experts believe that Daesh's online army of trolls and recruiters can only be tackled by establishing a strong regional data centre.
"IS compensates battlefield loses by investing in the virtual space, Southeast Asian Governments need to regulate cyberspace and develop appropriate legislation," says Gunaratna. "In parallel with strengthening counter terrorism cooperation into collaboration, governments will need to work with its community partners to build in counter ideology as a part of its strategy to rehabilitate those radicalised and militarised into supporting and fighting."
Alarmed Southeast Asian nations agreed on June 22 this year to enhance cooperation, pool intelligence and launch joint naval patrols in the Sulu archipelago.
But the threat of Daesh looms large. It has already established a path from Marawi across numerous islands to Indonesia, leaving the entire region highly vulnerable.