MANILA - Mindanao may not be a caliphate (territory) of the Islamic State (IS), but the area around Marawi is becoming a preferred jihad destination in Asia, an analyst said Thursday.
"I think it's become a hub of activity for the region and I think it's a game changer," Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said in an interview with ANC's Early Edition.
She explained, people used to fear that extremism was going to come from Syria and Iraq and returning fighters from Middle Eastern countries, but the current situation says otherwise.
"The real problem is people being recruited from the region who never set foot in the Middle East now see Mindanao, particularly the area around Marawi, as the preferred jihad destination," she said.
Clashes in the southern Islamic city of Marawi started on May 23 after government troops were met with resistance from Islamist rebels from groups such as the Maute and Abu Sayyaf, while attempting to arrest senior Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, purportedly the Islamic State’s emir in Southeast Asia.
The violence prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law over the entire Mindanao on the same day.
Jones said there was a failure to recognize the pattern the Mautes had established, recalling that it was the same group that claimed responsibility for the bombing of a night market in Davao City in September last year.
"If you go back to the Davao bombing in 2016, that wasn't just a small band of bandits--that was an extremely well-organized operation that involved different members of the pro-ISIS coalition," she said, citing terror cells in Cotabato and some other Balik Islam members.
"It was as though the coalition was escalating its efforts in preparation for something bigger. I think maybe we all failed to see the pattern that was emerging," she said.
'PHILIPPINES IS WEAKEST LINK'
Jones, in her New York Times article, said the ongoing Marawi siege indicates that the Islamic State is now also a Southeast Asian problem, and that "the Philippine government may be the region’s weak link in addressing it."
Jones explained that the Philippines had been dealing with insurgent groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and the New People's Army (NPA) that "it wasn't immediately apparent that it had a very new kind of on its hands."
"The efforts to address an extremist problem as opposed to an insurgency problem wasn't as well-prepared maybe as it could have been," she said.
Authorities have also admitted that foreign fighters are involved in the battle in Marawi, and while Jones believes there is no accurate estimate of how many fighters are actually there and that "the overwhelming majority of the fighters are from the Philippines," there are certainly foreign fighters "who are now enthused about coming to join the battle."
"If you look at the photos on social media, of happy fighters going around in trucks and Islamic flags planted on the street, what you're doing is you're inspiring people to see Mindanao as the place that they want to go now," she said.
"We have already seen people stopped from leaving Indonesia. We don't know how many people have gotten through, but it's worth noting that the last group of Indonesians who made it through went on regularly scheduled airlines; they did not try to sneak in by boats," she added.
The Philippines, said Jones, needs to put together a research base to be able to fight radicalization currently spreading in Mindanao because unlike its Southeast Asian neighbors like Malaysia and Singapore, the Philippines does not have an understanding of the extremist network.
"A good research base," she said, can provide a deeper understanding of the terrorists' motivation for joining the extremist movement.
"This means if you want to understand how and why people have gotten radicalized in the first place--and there isn't one path to radicalization--it's really critical that you've got good analysis and interfused with every single person who has been arrested for involvement in this activity be put together into some database to understand from actual experience why people decided to join such organizations," she said.