After starting coordinated air and sea patrols in recent years, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines will launch joint ground exercises in August, in a counter-terrorism initiative that could see a regional force deployed in the southern Philippines one day, Indonesian officials said Wednesday.
The Indomalphi 2019 exercise will take place on Tarakan island in Indonesia’s North Kalimantan province and include trainings on shooting techniques and close-range combat, Indonesian military spokesman Maj. Gen. Sisriadi told BenarNews.
“Each country is expected to deploy a company of troops and five observers,” Sisraidi said Wednesday, referring to a military unit that typically consists of 80 to 150 soldiers and is usually commanded by a major or a captain.
“The exercise is aimed at improving joint operation capabilities in the land border areas, as part of efforts to anticipate transboundary crime and to create a deterrent effect to terrorism activities in border areas,” he said.
Delegations from the three Southeast Asian nations were attending a two-day meeting in Bali, starting Wednesday, to discuss a formal agreement on the trilateral land exercise, he said.
Ryamizard Ryacudu, Indonesia’s defense minister, said the monthlong exercise could potentially lead to the deployment of joint forces in the southern Philippines, which is still grappling with Islamic State-linked militants in remote areas of the Mindanao region.
“We are going to deal with [a] third-generation of terrorists, those who fought in the Middle East but have returned,” Ryamizard said in a news conference Wednesday. “Most of them are in Indonesia and the Philippines, and they are just traversing through Malaysia.”
He said the exercise would familiarize soldiers with field terrain.
“We need to establish grounds first with the officials and lawmakers,” he said. “We can’t just do that.”
The deployment of foreign troops in the southern Philippines would first require support from Filipino lawmakers and officials.
The 1987 Philippine Constitution specifies that “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting State.”
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian officials declined to answer questions from BenarNews. Meanwhile, defense officials in Manila were not immediately available for comment because the Philippines was observing its Independence Day, a national holiday, on Wednesday.
Earlier this month, Ryamizard met with his Malaysian and Filipino counterparts on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual regional security meeting in Singapore, during which “they agreed to form a land [force] to combat terrorism,” Brig. Gen. Totok Sugiharto, the Indonesian Defense Ministry’s spokesman, told BenarNews.
“This is an escalated cooperation from the previous coordinated patrols to combat terrorism in the Philippines’ Sulu Sea,” Totok said, adding that during the exercise, the three nations would also be exchanging intelligence information about militants.
A regional military force would require “political decisions” from leaders of the three nations, a high-ranking defense ministry official told BenarNws, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The process would not be simple,” he said. “That is why we call the maritime and air patrols coordinated patrols, instead of joint patrols, and we focus on securing the borders between the three countries.”
Looking to add joint ground patrols
The three nations began trilateral patrols in June 2017 after pro-IS militants launched a siege in the southern Philippine city of Marawi. Five months of fighting ended in October 2017 and killed at least 1,200 people, mostly militants, including the acknowledged Philippine IS leader, Isnilon Hapilon.
During his speech at this year's Shangri-La Dialogue on June 2, Ryamizard said Indonesia has proposed to conduct a coordinated patrol, which he conveyed in the same forum in 2015.
He indicated in the 2018 dialogue that the three neighboring countries were looking to add joint ground patrols to existing trilateral air and sea patrols targeting pro-IS militants in the region.
Indonesia also initiated the Our Eyes intelligence sharing platform, which ASEAN countries agreed in Singapore last year.
“The maritime, air and land military cooperation to anticipate ISIS fighters returnees from the Middle East are the implementation of the ‘Our Eyes’ initiative. Currently the trilateral cooperation is entering the phase for a joint [ground] exercise, which will be held in Tarakan, North Kalimantan after the troops held their own exercises in their respective countries,” Ryamizard said in his speech in Singapore, using another acronym for IS.
The Marawi fighting emboldened other Southeast Asian terror cells aligned with the Syria- and Iraq-based IS, according to analysts.
Among the 31,500 foreign fighters who had joined IS in Syria, about 800 came from Asia, including 400 from Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country, Ryamizard said on June 2, 2018, citing intelligence data from his government.
The three Southeast Asian nations were taking the security preparations just months after the United States and its allies announced the territorial defeat of the so-called Islamic State, which once controlled wide swaths of Iraq and Syria.
With the fall of the IS “caliphate” in Syria, officials of the Syrian Democratic Forces estimate that more than 12,000 foreign women and children are being held in camps in Syria alone, and about 1,000 foreign fighters are being held in the country’s prisons.
Many governments fear that welcoming back their battle-hardened citizens who fought for IS could pose a security threat.
During the battle of Marawi, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire southern region of Mindanao under martial law, in a bid to solve the biggest security crisis to hit the country in recent memory. But analysts have warned that former IS fighters could still penetrate the porous borders of the southern Philippines through Malaysia and across the Sulu Sea.
Duterte had publicly admitted that security forces may have underestimated the militants’ firepower, but relented to his defense officials who had asked for crucial intelligence help from the United States, the country's oldest military ally that he had earlier lambasted as he moved for closer ties instead with China and Russia.
A trilateral agreement on a possible regional military force carries a “psychological dimension” that could block “any trans-boundary security disturbance,” Mufti Makarim, an Indonesian military and security observer, told BenarNews.
“This agreement doesn’t mean that each country’s force can enter another country,” he said, “but it is more like they can coordinate when they conduct border patrols in their respective territories, so each country is aware that their neighbors are taking the same measures and are doing what is necessary to secure the borders.”