WASHINGTON — Jun 19, 2017, 3:31 AM ET

Islamic State poses a growing threat to Southeast Asia

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Southeast Asia's jihadis who fought by the hundreds for the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria now have a different battle closer to home in the southern Philippines. It's a scenario raising significant alarm in Washington.

The recent assault by IS-aligned fighters on the Philippine city of Marawi has left more than 300 people dead, exposing the shortcomings of local security forces and the extremist group's spreading reach in a region where counterterrorism gains are coming undone.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress last week that a long-running U.S. military operation to help Philippine forces contain extremist fighters was canceled prematurely three years ago. Small numbers of U.S. special forces remain in an "advise and assist" role, and the U.S. is providing aerial surveillance to help the Philippines retake Marawi, an inland city of more than 200,000 people.

But lawmakers, including from President Donald Trump's Republican Party, want a bigger U.S. role, short of boots on the ground. They fear the area is becoming a new hub for Islamist fighters from Southeast Asia and beyond.

"I don't know that ISIS are directing operations there but they are certainly trying to get fighters into that region," said Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, using another acronym for the group. "We need to address the situation. It should not get out of control."

U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials note that IS has publicly accepted pledges from various groups in the Philippines. In a June 2016 video, it called on followers in Southeast Asia to go to the Philippines if they cannot reach Syria.

About 40 foreigners, mostly from neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia, have been among 500 involved in fighting in Marawi, the Philippine military says. Reports indicate at least one Saudi, a Chechen and a Yemeni were killed. In all, more than 200 militants have died in the standoff, now in its fourth week.

Video obtained by The Associated Press from the Philippine military indicates an alliance of local Muslim fighters, aligned with IS, is coordinating complex attacks. They include the Islamic State's purported leader in Southeast Asia: Isnilon Hapilon, a Filipino on Washington's list of most-wanted terrorists, with a $5 million bounty on his head.

U.S. officials are assessing whether any of the estimated 1,000 Southeast Asians who traveled to Iraq and Syria in recent years are fighting in Catholic-majority Philippines. They fear ungoverned areas in the mostly Muslim region around Marawi could make the area a terror hub, as in the 1990s.

Then, the Philippines was a base of operations for al-Qaida leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Yousef, who plotted in 1994-95 to blow up airliners over the Pacific. The plot was foiled. But the same men were instrumental in the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Other nations share the fear. Singapore recently warned of IS exerting a radicalizing influence "well beyond" what al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah ever mustered. Jemaah Islamiyah carried out major terror attacks around the region in the 2000s. IS already has been linked to attacks in Indonesia and Malaysia, and foiled plots in Singapore, this past year.

This month, Mattis told the region's defense chiefs that "together we must act now to prevent this threat from growing." In Congress this past week, he stressed intelligence sharing and nations like Singapore sharing the burden, rather than deploying U.S. troops.

More than 500 U.S. special forces were based in the Mindanao region from 2002 to 2014, advising and training Filipino forces against the Abu Sayyaf, a group notorious for bombings and kidnappings. When it ended, Philippine and U.S. officials voiced concern the U.S. withdrawal "could lead to a resurgence of a renewed terrorist threat," the RAND Corp. later reported. Months before the withdrawal, Abu Sayyaf pledged support to IS.

Supporting the Philippines isn't straightforward in Washington. President Rodrigo Duterte is accused of overlooking and even condoning indiscriminate killings by his forces in a war on drugs. Thousands have died. But that campaign has involved mainly police and anti-narcotic forces, not the military leading the anti-IS fight.

Still, the Philippine government is partly to blame for Marawi's violence, said Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia expert at the National War College. He said the root cause was the government's failure to fulfill a 2014 peace agreement with the nation's largest Muslim insurgency, which fueled recruitment for IS-inspired groups.

Ernst, who chairs a Senate panel on emerging threats, wants the U.S. military to restart a higher-profile, "named operation" helping the Philippines counter IS. The Pentagon retains between 50 and 100 special forces in the region. At the request of the Philippine military, it has deployed a P3 Orion plane to surveil Marawi. It gave more than 600 assault firearms to Filipino counterterrorism forces last week.

Duterte has retreated from threats to expel U.S. forces from the Philippines as he seeks better ties with China. He said recently he hadn't sought more U.S. help, but was thankful for what he was getting.

"They're there to save lives," Duterte said.

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Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Washington and Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.

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  • Bronx

    This one has mostly gone under the radar in US news reporting, but it is one of the most important stories of the year.
    Had ISIS and related forces taken over any other city of 200,000 persons, anywhere else, it would have been front page news and garnered wide spread attention.

    I suspect that most people here in the US have little idea of the strategic importance of The Philippines to us, and of
    the generally friendly nature and good relations between our people and countries; the blip over how they handle their
    war on drugs being an exaggerated problem between us.

    I would think most people here do not know that their Capital City, Manila, is a very modern and very Western Place.
    As any big city it has its horrid problems and poverty, but it also has areas that are very modern centers of tourism and
    business. This is no second rate city.

    We need to focus on what is important here. 1) Our strategic needs. We can't allow China or Islamic insurgents or
    communist insurgents to upset our strategic defenses for ourselves and for S. Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.
    2) We have to somehow deal with China's aggression and insure freedom in the South China Sea, aka Western Philippines Sea.

    3) Islamic radical violence is endemic around the world and the Philippine government needs what ever aid we can give it.
    We embargoed shipment of 26,000 rifles because we were offended by their approach to their drug problem Thing is,
    their drug problem is really in large measure Chinese chemical warfare against them. We need to keep some of these things in perspective. Meanwhile, I personally know of a person who was rehabilitated by their approach. (I'm an American of European descent with interests there.) Yes, some people died without trial, a few thousand, but a million turned themselves in for treatment and leniency.

    As DAESH goes down in Syria and Iraq they are looking to relocate in SE Asia. It is in our interests to make
    certain they are unsuccessful at it.
    _______________________________________________________________________________________________
    Meanwhile, for Americans interested in tourism, Luzon, and especially the Northern most province Batanes, is a
    nice place to visit. Batanes is absolutely safe and beautiful.