Marawi conflict may spawn other attacks in Asia: Report

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte inspects firearms together with Eduardo Ano, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Marawi city, southern Philippines on July 20, 2017.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte inspects firearms together with Eduardo Ano, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Marawi city, southern Philippines on July 20, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

The terrorist network battling Philippine forces in Marawi may be preparing Muslim militants to carry out similar attacks in Asia, said a report released yesterday.

The network, run by a young Indonesian fighter in Syria and a former university lecturer, recruited fighters and carried out an audacious bid by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to seize the city on Mindanao Island.

"The risks won't end when the military declares victory (in Marawi)," director Sidney Jones of the Jakarta- based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (Ipac) told Reuters.

In its report, the institute warned that the Marawi conflict could lead to a "higher risk of violent attacks" in other Philippine cities, as well as in Indonesia and Malaysia.

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Dr Jones said: "Indonesia and Malaysia will face new threats in the form of returning fighters from Mindanao, and the Philippines will have a host of smaller dispersed cells with the capacity for both violence and indoctrination."

The duo heading the Marawi network had also apparently urged militants to attack targets in Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, South Korea, Japan and China, noted Ipac. The duo were said to have sent out the message on the Russian-developed social media app Telegram.

"It is our duty to stand up against them and to bring syariah in place of laws that these territories have. Their leaders are all anti-Muslim symbols," read the message.

Hundreds of gunmen from two Muslim militant groups with ties to ISIS stormed Marawi on May 23. They seized large parts of the city, forced the evacuation of its population of over 200,000, and fought an army brigade to a stalemate for a ninth week. Nearly 100 members of the security forces have died, and half of Marawi now lies in ruins.

DANGER TO REGION

The risks won't end when the military declares victory (in Marawi).

DR SIDNEY JONES, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.

At least 420 militants have been killed, but Marawi "has lifted the prestige of Philippine fighters in the eyes of ISIS central" and "inspired young extremists from around the region to want to join", said Ipac.

In a key finding, Ipac traced the chain of command from ISIS to Marawi. "The Marawi operations received direct funding from ISIS central and reveal a chain of command that runs from Syria through the Philippines to Indonesia and beyond," it said.

It said the Marawi attack was funded by Bahrumsyah, an Indonesian who now heads an ISIS military unit in Syria known as Katibah Nusantra, and Mahmud Ahmad, who used to teach Islamic studies at Universiti Malaya.

Mahmud received at least US$55,000 (S$75,000) from January to March this year - apparently sent by Bahrumsyah from the Middle East to Indonesia, and later wired to the Philippines via US financial services firm Western Union.

Bahrumsyah had another courier send an unspecified amount from Indonesia. Philippine security officials said ISIS might have channelled up to US$600,000 to Mahmud.

The duo also recruited militants from four terrorist groups in Indonesia to help their Filipino counterparts mount the attack.

In its report, Ipac also warned that the Marawi conflict is leading to "greater cooperation among South- east Asian extremists and new leadership for pro-ISIS cells in Indonesia and Malaysia from among returning fighters from Marawi".

For instance, Mahmud has managed to unite two feuding pro-ISIS networks in Indonesia.

The Marawi siege has led to soul- searching among militants in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation, "about why they cannot manage to do anything as spectacular", said Ipac.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2017, with the headline 'Marawi conflict may spawn other attacks in Asia: Report'. Print Edition | Subscribe