Islamist extremists are yet to fulfil their dream of a caliphate in Southeast Asia but each day that passes in the bloody, weeks-long siege of a Philippine city is a warning of their growing strength.
The militants still occupying parts of Marawi in defiance of aerial bombardment and the national army have shown the havoc roving bands of armed extremists can wreak in a sprawling and patchily governed region.
That all this has happened under President Rodrigo Duterte — a leader known as “Duterte Harry” who sells himself as tough on national security — underlines the gravity of the militancy that has spread through the badlands and lawless seas around Southeast Asia’s archipelagic states — and the southern Philippines in particular.
“What we are seeing is a large-scale mobilisation to recruit fighters from the region,” said Sidney Jones, a Southeast Asia terrorism expert and director of the Indonesia-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. “It’s the area where non-state actors control territory, arms are quite readily available and there are so many insurgencies — or factions of insurgencies — that many people are trained in combat.”
The Philippine army’s inability to recapture Marawi after a conflict that has claimed hundreds of lives reveals how the attention of Isis-aligned extremists is shifting to Asia as the group loses ground in the Middle East.
Asia, furthermore, is home to more Muslims than the Arab world. Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s most populous nation with more than 250m inhabitants, has a larger number of Muslims than any other country.
The struggle for Marawi — which began with a failed May 23 security force raid — has unfolded alongside other claims of a growing terror problem in the region.
Indonesia’s military chief warned this week that there were secret sleeper cells in almost every province of the 5,000km-long archipelago. Even the tightly controlled city state of Singapore revealed this week that it had arrested its first suspected female citizen militant.
The Marawi crisis is all the more striking because it has unfolded after his government received warnings of rising terrorist activity around his Mindanao homeland.
Julie Bishop, Australia’s foreign minister, warned publicly in March of concerns that Isis could try to establish a caliphate in the south Philippines. General Carlito Galvez Jr, a senior Philippine army commander in Mindanao, the vast island on which Marawi is located, told the Financial Times in October that the threat from Isis-aligned groups there was “really very imminent”.
Philippine authorities have admitted that as early as April 18 militant fighters were sent to Marawi and two other cities in the surrounding region to carry out bomb attacks, car hijackings and killings of security personnel.
Intelligence reports on May 18 revealed a plan for rebel groups to occupy Marawi and “raise the Isis flag”, according to a government affidavit in a Supreme Court case over Mr Duterte’s May 23 decision to impose martial law across the southern third of the Philippines. The government has denied it failed to act on the signs of the brewing crisis, which caused Mr Duterte to cut short a high-profile trip to Russia.
The increasing Isis focus on Southeast Asia was underscored last year when the group named Isnilon Hapilon — the target of the May 23 security force raid in Marawi — as an emir in the region.
Authorities say Mr Hapilon’s Abu Sayyaf group has teamed up in Marawi with the local Maute organisation and dozens of foreign fighters, in a sign of the alliances being formed between extremists in the region. These pacts have the further potential to attract frustrated members of other armed groups involved in the decades-long Islamist insurgencies in the south Philippines, observers warn.
“The problems in Mindanao are rooted in history, in culture and will take generations to solve,” said Boo Chanco, an analyst and a columnist at the Philippine Star newspaper.
The region’s countries have so far made stuttering efforts to squeeze groups including Abu Sayyaf and their sources of income, notably ship hijacking.
A joint military operation launched by the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia in April to combat piracy and Islamist militancy in the area around the Sulu Sea has been slow to get going. Delfin Lorenzana, Philippine defence secretary, has said the plan is being implemented on a “limited scale”, without the full number of ships yet.
The extremists appear to have taken heavy losses in Marawi — more than 300, according to the Philippine military. But the size of those numbers — and the length of the militants’ continued resistance — also shows how they have become a force to be reckoned with in the region.
Additional reporting by Grace Ramos in Manila