Why It Matters

Marawi issue a cause for worry

For more than a week now, some 100 Muslim militants have managed to hold off government forces many times their size in Marawi City, in the southern Philippines.

They seized large parts of the city, regarded as the heartland of the Islamic faith in the war-torn southern island group of Mindanao, on May 23 after security forces tried to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, the designated South-east Asia leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Despite squaring off with an entire army brigade, the Maute group - named after brothers Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute, both educated in Islamic schools in the Middle East - is still holding on. As of yesterday, it remained in control of 10 per cent of Marawi, and security officials were less confident that they could secure all of the city by today.

Whatever the eventual outcome of the stand-off, the episode should worry everyone in South-east Asia. General Eduardo Ano, the Philippine military chief, said the attack on Marawi was part of a bigger plot "to show the world that there is an ISIS branch here which can inflict the kind of violence that has been seen in Syria and Iraq".

By most accounts, the militants seem to be achieving that goal. If anything, their ambitions appear to run even deeper. For one, they seem to be using the battle for Marawi as a magnet to attract other Muslim radicals. It seems that they would like to set up Mindanao as a refuge for militants from South-east Asia and beyond, from where they can launch attacks across the region, train fighters seeking to go to the Middle East or provide shelter for those making their way from Syria and Iraq.

What is even more worrying is there are groups of insurgents in the southern Philippines far bigger and with deeper connections than the Maute. They need to be stopped before things get out of hand.

SEE WORLD: Rebels resisting troops with stolen weapons in Marawi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2017, with the headline 'Marawi issue a cause for worry'. Print Edition | Subscribe