THE PHILIPPINES, Indonesia and Malaysia have agreed to jointly fight the threats of the Islamic State, with Manila willing to open its borders to Indonesian and Malaysian defence forces to prevent the Islamist militants from taking deeper root in the three neighbouring countries.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte revealed the development this week as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) claimed that the country is the jihadists’ new theatre in Southeast Asia.
“I have already talked with President [Joko] Widodo and [Malaysian Prime Minister] Najib Razak. We agreed that we will talk. We are just waiting for the right time,” Duterte said.
According to Duterte, Islamic State militants are “being cornered in Syria” and are looking for new frontiers. Since they already have access to other countries, they will suddenly surface just like they did in Marawi, he added.
Fierce clashes erupted in Marawi in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on May 23 after the IS-linked Maute Group tried to foil the arrest of Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who was designated as emir of Southeast Asia by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The clashes, which prompted Duterte to place the entire Mindanao under martial law, continued to displace some 360,000 people as fighting still rages in Marawi even on its Day 107 on Wednesday.
Duterte said the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, which share porous borders, are considering the creation of a joint task force to prevent the spread of IS in their territories.
“I [am willing to] open my borders to the Malaysian and Indonesian authorities. They’ll [likely] be given access,” he said. The outspoken president from Mindanao said initial discussions for the agreement to create the task force were already underway.
Military officials in Malaysia and Indonesia have admitted the presence of the jihadists known in their countries as Daesh militants. Duterte said that IS supporters continue their recruitment activities in Mindanao, particularly in Muslim-dominated areas.
In Marawi, Lieutenant-General Carlito Galvez, Jr., commander of the AFP’s Western Mindanao Command, said the Maute Group laid siege on Marawi to establish a “wilayah” or territory in the Philippines so they can become a legitimate IS affiliate.
“They want to show IS that they have a territory, which is one of the qualifications to become a full-time IS,” he told reporters recently.
He said Dr Mahmud bin Ahmad – a Malaysian professor of Islamic law and a senior Islamic militant in Southeast Asia – and other foreign militants are fighting alongside the Maute Group to establish a territory in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
The ongoing clashes in Marawi between government forces and the Maute Group have left over 800 people dead, mostly from the side of the terrorists, according to the military.
Galvez said they were expecting a more intense and bloody fighting with the dwindling forces of the Maute Group, which is still holding several hostages – including a Catholic priest – in a final push to liberate Marawi.
The fighting has been contained in a small pocket as Galvez claimed the Maute Group has engaged some women and children likely related to the militants to resist the military offensives.
Duterte’s push for the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia to establish the joint task force would bolster the Trilateral Maritime Patrol (TMP) launched by the three countries in June.
Indonesia’s Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, his Malaysian counterpart Hishammuddin Hussein and Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana attended the inauguration of the Trilateral Maritime Patrol (TMP) on June 19 at the Tarakan Naval Base in Indonesia.
“The main objective of this initiative is to ensure that militant threats such as the IS do not use the Sulu Sea to gain entry into our countries, more so following the Marawi city incident,” Hishammuddin said at the launching.
The joint operation was initiated by the three countries in the face of security challenges associated with each country’s border waters, said the Indonesian military (TNI) in a statement.
The joint patrol is a step taken by the three countries “in the spirit and centrality of Asean, in maintaining stability in the region in the face of non-traditional threats such as piracy, kidnapping, terrorism and other transnational crimes in regional waters,” it said.
The collaboration includes information sharing and improved communications between them.
Besides in Tarakan, Maritime Command Centres (MCC) were also established in the state of Sabah in Malaysia and Bongao, Tawi-tawi province in the Philippines to coordinate the three nation’s hot pursuit operations.
Under the TMP, the three countries also agreed to conduct joint air and sea patrols.
Based on their agreement, air patrols will be done on a rotational basis, while ships on patrol are required to be on a constant state of readiness to react to emergencies in the Sulu Sea.