Water pump is new weapon against ISIS in Mindanao village

A water pump being installed on April 13 as soldiers secure the area in Padas. The pump is part of an American counterinsurgency strategy of winning over local populations and stopping the spread of ISIS. PHOTO: NYTIMES
A water pump being installed on April 13 as soldiers secure the area in Padas. The pump is part of an American counterinsurgency strategy of winning over local populations and stopping the spread of ISIS. PHOTO: NYTIMES

PADAS (Philippines) • While neither a guided bomb nor armoured vehicle, a grey water pump sticking out from the bushes along a remote dirt road is intended to be just as clear a sign of US efforts to stop the spread of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) militant group.

It has taken two months, a US Special Operations civil affairs team, three non-profit organisations and an entire platoon from the Philippine army to bring the pump to Padas, a village of about 3,000 people in the Mindanao chain of islands in the country's south.

If all goes to plan, water from the pump will help impoverished farmers establish trust in the government and, in turn, seek to undermine the militants' influence.

"Whatever the international community gives us, we'll accept," said Mr Macaraya Ampuan, an influential leader in the village. "But the first thing to address is security. Eliminate ISIS so our livelihoods can be stable."

The contest between the Philippine government and shadowy insurgents in a small village in the Pacific Ocean echoes the US' long wars and counter-insurgency campaigns against Islamist extremists since the terrorist attacks of 2001. But the Padas project is also linked to the defeat of ISIS and the Pentagon's race to stop its resurgence.

The US military's focus on Padas was fuelled by concerns of a possible regrouping by insurgents after the months-long siege and bloody battle for the nearby city of Marawi in 2017. What remained of the ISIS affiliate then fled to the south and to other islands, and they started to rebuild and recruit in villages like Padas. A November report to Congress put the number of ISIS fighters in the Philippines at about 500.

The US military has deployed about 250 troops to the southern Philippines. They are part of a counterterrorism campaign that has existed in some capacity since 2002 but was officially restarted by the Pentagon in 2017 under the name Operation Pacific Eagle.

The mission is rarely promoted because of sporadic political tensions between Washington and Manila. President Rodrigo Duterte has previously threatened to eject US forces from the country.

At the tip of that effort is the US$58,000 (S$78,900) water pump in Padas.

The project was started by Captain Angela Smith, leader of the four-person civil affairs team, after residents told her of their over-2km trek to get water.

The machine, and the solar panels that power it, were donated by two non-profit organisations: the US-Philippines Society and Spirit of America.

"One water pump, one classroom that we help build, those things make a difference," Mr Sung Yong Kim, the US envoy to the Philippines, said in a recent interview. "So we want to do as much as that as possible."

The State Department and the US Agency for International Development have funded nearly US$60 million for reconstruction efforts around Marawi.

Capt Smith's team, whose soldiers wear civilian clothes and are often escorted by a Marine Special Operations unit based in Marawi, is the military's latest embrace of a trademark American counterinsurgency strategy of winning over local populations.

In the lake region between Marawi and Padas, "internally displaced persons and their communities are vulnerable to violent extremist recruiting and influence", Capt Smith said in an e-mail. "Our goal is to work with our Philippine partners to facilitate assistance in areas of greatest need."

Last month, Philippine troops supported by Marine commandos killed Abu Dar, the nom de guerre of the third and last surviving ISIS leader who was responsible for carrying out the battle in Marawi, said villagers and American officials.

The thick jungles, porous borders and little government presence in the Philippines' southern islands have bolstered a range of extremist groups with money, weapons and militants arriving by sea from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Mr Ampuan, the village leader who once commanded the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Padas, is afraid there are ISIS fighters who have been recruited from his community but have yet to surrender or be killed. "ISIS offers money and guns to the young people. Young people are not aware of the reality when they join," he said.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is a separatist militia that signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014. While Muslims in the southern Philippines gained more autonomy last year under a new law, Mr Ampuan said government officials in Manila still have not given the people of Padas the authority to stop ISIS from infiltrating the village.

Trying to mediate from the middle are the American civil affairs soldiers and employees of Impl. Project, a US-based non-profit group working in tandem in Padas to install the water pump and help form a local council to manage it.

For the water pump to work, the Philippine military must provide enough security to protect the people who, in turn, need to learn how to keep it running.

"The water pump becomes the vehicle for them to learn how to govern themselves again," said Mr Justin Richmond, founder of Impl. and a former Army Special Operations soldier.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2019, with the headline Water pump is new weapon against ISIS in Mindanao village. Subscribe