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Under the black flag

Even as its caliphate dwindles away in Iraq and Syria, ISIS appears equipped for a long struggle in the Philippines and possibly elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

In September 2012, the Philippine police discovered a black flag in the Abu Sayyaf camp of Khair Mundos. By May 2017, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) appeared to be gaining a foothold in the southern Philippines.

It is now July and the Battle for Mosul in Iraq might have ended and the ISIS "caliphate" in the Middle East is close to elimination, but the terrorist group is still holding on for dear life in Marawi. Its menacing presence, coupled with the escalation of the existing insurgency, have forced President Rodrigo Duterte to impose martial law on Mindanao Island since May 23.

The decision marked the first use of martial law in the Philippines since former president Ferdinand Marcos instituted it nationwide in 1972, and it does not look like it will be lifted anytime soon. International experts continue to warn that more ISIS fighters could leave the Middle East and regroup in Mindanao, which is home to a large Muslim population.

"The events in Marawi have been misinterpreted in the initial few days as it was a much more structured and organised event than people realised," said Phill Hynes, head of political risk and analysis at Intelligent Security Solutions or ISS Risk.

He points to the storming of a school in Pigcawayan town in North Cotabato province on Mindanao by 300 armed men on June 21 and links it to the siege of Marawi.

The majority of the gunmen were members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), one of the active insurgent groups on the island. The event prompted the US, still the Philippines' steadfast ally despite occasional bluster from President Duterte, to send Special Forces to join Philippine troops to help manage the escalating situation.

"The authorisation or the clearance for [the Pigcawayan] operation did come from Syria," Mr Hynes said during a briefing at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand last month.

Apart from gaining a stronghold in Marawi, ISIS fighters "have embedded themselves across Asia over the last four years", he said. Recent terror attacks, stretching from Afghanistan to Indonesia and culminating in the still raging Battle of Marawi, illustrate the severity of the situation that he describes.

In early 2016 in Jakarta, eight people were killed and 23 injured in a terrorist attack at a busy police traffic post. ISIS claimed responsibility.

Soon afterward, Bangladesh experienced the worst terrorist attack in its history as five gunmen stormed a bakery in an affluent neighbourhood of Dhaka. The militants took 20 people hostage and after a firefight with local security officials, 29 people were killed. The Bangladesh government disputes the claim, but ISIS again claimed responsibility, releasing a photo of the jihadists in front of their black flag.

In Malaysia, authorities have foiled nine ISIS terrorist plots since 2014, while Singapore has foiled a number of ISIS attempts including an August 2016 plot to attack the Marina Bay Sands resort with rockets from the Indonesian island of Batam.

Mr Hynes said the attacks in the Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh should be a wakeup call to Asean governments as they are evidence of the clear objectives ISIS has for the region. The ISIS "aspirations of a virtual caliphate across the region", he says, are supported by a complex regionalisation of the ISIS threat.

WHY MARAWI?

While allied forces were gaining ground in Mosul, the situation on Mindanao started spinning out of control in May, to the point where the military had to be called in. President Duterte decided on martial law after 500 Islamist radicals stormed key parts of the city on May 23. The incident has displaced around 80% of Marawi's 200,000 population, while the beheading of a police chief was the last straw for Mr Duterte. But why did ISIS pick Mindanao and the city as its new stronghold?

Mindanao historically was part of the Sultanate of Maguindanao, where separatists have been waging armed rebellions since the 1970s. Marawi, along with Lamitan, are the only two sizable cities within the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which consists of five predominantly Muslim provinces.

The ARMM, which now has a legal government separate from Manila, was Marcos's idea to deal with the Moro National Liberation Front, a separatist group that reached a peace agreement with the government in 1996. The Muslim independence movement dated back to 1968 and marked the beginning of the instability on the isolated island that remains far from the control of the capital.

Marawi is a Muslim majority city where it is possible to find sympathisers for radical causes. It also is one of the few places with proper infrastructure. The area the militants occupy, which covers 10% of the city, has a large system of tunnels and basements capable of withstanding bombs.

The militants also have outside support, with intelligence sources saying that about 40 of the 500 militants who overran Marawi came from overseas. Officials reported on July that the 11 foreign militants killed in the city included two Malaysians, two Saudis and two Indonesians, and one each from Yemen, Chechnya and India.

Both the island and the city are perfect places for international terrorists to exploit and dig in for a long stay. Local and foreign terrorists are holed up in mosques and are still holding an undetermined number of hostages. As many as 1,500 civilians are estimated to be trapped or held hostage in the city.

More than 470 people, including 366 terrorists, 85 soldiers and police, and 39 civilians have been reported killed since the siege began in May. At least six hostages were confirmed killed by the Maute Group for refusing to take up arms against government forces.

"That's what the gunmen inside are doing. They are forcing their hostages to take up arms against our troops," Lt Col Christopher Tampus, commander of the Philippines' 1st Infantry Battalion, told reporters on July 10. He said the military learned about the executions from three hostages who escaped from their captors on June 29.

The crisis has led House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez to call for a "push for an extension" of martial law until 2022 or the end of Mr Duterte's term, citing the threat of terrorism and insurgency on the island.

Mr Duterte himself has said he has no plans to lift martial law before his second State of the Nation address on July 24, and may even extend it nationwide.

According to CNN Philippines, at least 80 terrorists are still occupying vantage points within strategic buildings in downtown Marawi last week, while authorities had yet to clear around 800 buildings. Negotiations to avoid further bloodshed seem to be far off.

For a president who prides himself on his take-no-prisoners approach -- his war on drugs has claimed an estimated 1,400 lives -- Mr Duterte is aghast at the prospect of Mindanao becoming an ISIS enclave. He too hails from the island and built his formidable reputation in Davao.

Countries in the region, meanwhile, are also backing the Philippines to prevent Southeast Asia from becoming the next stronghold for the terror group also known as Daesh as it loses ground in the Middle East.

President Duterte has conceded that he had not expected the battle for Marawi to be as serious as it has turned out, adding that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has himself "specifically ordered terroristic activities here in the Philippines".

Mr Hynes believes there are many insurgent groups in Mindanao that are taking orders from ISIS in the Middle East. They include Abu Sayyaf, the Maute Group, and now the BIFF along with other smaller groups whose ideology has shifted toward that of ISIS in the past couple of years. They are also coordinating with each other.

"Given the circumstances in Marawi, [the Pigcawayan school attack] would indicate that this was a diversionary tactic to deflect military resources away from Marawi to put them in pursuit of BIFF and basically split the Armed Forces of the Philippines' capability on the ground," he said. "This would then allow the fighters to escape from Marawi itself or potentially regroup."

Recent developments suggest that the militants have decided to regroup and strengthen their stronghold instead of escaping.

"These organisations have come together and combined the command and control of their resources and logistics and they have aligned themselves with ISIS ideology," he said.

"Taking key objectives across the city such as bridges, roads and buildings requires human resources and has to be planed in advance, while the fact that they have dug themselves in so deeply means their supply chain has been pretty consistent."

REGIONAL STRATEGY

Under the complex ISIS command, different countries serve different purposes to aid the jihadist cause in Southeast Asia.

Afghanistan, where 90 people were killed and 400 injured in Kabul alone in one week, "serves as a combat theatre, there is no doubt about that", explained Mr Hynes. Bangladesh "acts as a bridgehead between Central, South and Southeast Asia". It is this bridgehead that is helping ISIS start to root itself in Southeast Asia, "a systematic spread of their ideology".

In Asean, Malaysia is the financial hub for the expanding terrorist network, providing the necessary funds and banking apparatus. "The concentration of Islamic banking in Malaysia is a critical factor to the financing of their operations," he said. The Philippines is the operational and training hub. "If people needed proof, the past five weeks have been the proof."

That leaves Indonesia, the largest Islamic country in the world by population, as the "ideological hub and incubator for the region", said Mr Hynes. The overcrowded prison system and the way that ISIS ideology resonates with marginalised people "have virtually created a breeding ground for jihadists".

With the shrinking of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has turned east to fulfill its twisted ambitions. Its vast network of regional hubs "is more sophisticated and thought out than it is given credit for", he said.

Though the nine-month long battle for Mosul is over -- at least $1 billion will be required to repair the shattered city -- it has become clear that ISIS itself is far from finished. Events in the Philippines suggest that without a stepped-up effort to combat terror, Marawi could fall the same way that Mosul did.

May 23: The Maute group together with Abu Sayyaf gather around 500 armed men to storm Marawi City on Mindanao island. President Rodrigo Duterte declares martial law on Mindanao.

June 21: Around 300 armed men, mostly from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) storm a school and take five hostages at Pigcawayan town in North Cotabato province on Mindanao. The police chief of Pigcawayan says the attack could have been a diversionary tactic to ease pressure on the militants in Marawi.

July 8: The Philippine military says that more than 350 of the terrorists had been killed since hostilities began in late May. Nevertheless, reports reveal that at least 80 armed men have been seen at vantage points all around Marawi while the security of as many as 800 buildings remained unclear. There are still a large undetermined number of hostages being held in the city.

July 24: President Duterte is scheduled to deliver his State of the Nation address, at which time he says he will ask Congress to either lift martial law or extend it nationwide. He says it is up to the military and police to assess the situation in Marawi before he makes his decision.

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