PHILIPPINES President Rodrigo Duterte’s focus on the controversial war on drugs left the country exposed to the rising influence of Islamic State (IS) militants in the semi-autonomous southern provinces, says a security expert.
Duterte’s administration, it appears, had focused on the anti-drug campaign claiming the lives of thousands of Filipinos that rendered the government unprepared for a militant threat festering in the restive south for years.
An analyst and professor at the National War College in Washington, who specialises in Southeast Asian security issues, Zachary M. Abuza, was quoted by the New York Times, as saying the government has largely been in denial about the growth of IS and its affiliated groups.
“Duterte has been preoccupied with his campaign of gutting the rule of law by using police and other security forces for the extrajudicial killing of drug pushers,” he said.
Fighting in Marawi City between the Maute militants and Philippine troops has been raging on for nearly three weeks now.
The clashes began on May 23 when Philippine forces staged a raid to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a wanted leader of IS-linked Maute and the Abu Sayyaf terror network, following tip-offs on his hideout.
Authorities had listed down 200 men wanted for helping the gunmen involved in the clash with government security forces, which had led to the deaths of nearly 200 people.
A Philippines military spokesman on Saturday confirmed the United States was assisting local troops, but only to provide technical support.
The assistance comes after months of strain between the two long-time allies that was stoked by Duterte’s hostility towards Washington and his pledges to throw US troops out of the country.
Washington deployed special forces soldiers to Mindanao in 2002 to train and advise Philippine units fighting Abu Sayyaf militants in a programme that once involved 1,200 Americans.
It was discontinued in 2015, but a small presence remained for logistics and technical support.
The US and the Philippines have been allies for decades. Their relationship provided Washington with a strategic foothold in Asia and offered Manila a shield against China’s assertiveness in the region.
But Duterte has openly scorned the alliance, seeing it as an obstacle to a rapprochement with China, and has repeatedly lambasted Washington for treating his country as a lackey.
Amid the strained relationships, Duterte is now expected to open up to the US to help quell the ever-growing influence of IS.
The NYT report states the Muslim Moro people in Mindanao has had a long history of discontentment in the region due to widespread poverty and large areas of lawlessness – loopholes for IS to infiltrate.
In 2015, efforts to bring peace in the region by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno S. Aquino III had faltered and progress had yet to be made under the new administration.
“It was not the spread of IS in Iraq and Syria that fuelled IS cells in the Philippines, but the collapse of the peace process.”
Even if the armed conflict ends in Marawi soon, based in the military’s prediction, there were still concerns more IS recruits from across the region would pour into Mindanao.
“If Duterte doesn’t deal with that, then this whole problem is going to fester for a very long time,” Abuza said.
He said the “ungoverned” Mindanao was considered a regional security threat and not merely a national one.
Additional reporting by Reuters