Australia Boosts Backing for Philippine Counter-Terror Fight

Felipe Villamor, Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
2017.10.24
Manila and Marawi, Philippines
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171024-PH-AU-Payne-1000 Philippines Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana (left) and his Australian counterpart, Marisa Payne, issue a statement during a joint news conference at Clark Field in Pampanga province, north of Manila, Oct. 24, 2017.
AFP

Australia on Tuesday announced a raft of new measures to back the Philippines in its counter-terrorism efforts, just a day after Manila declared the end of a five-month operation to defeat pro-Islamic State (IS) militants in southern Marawi city.

Despite their defeat in Marawi, IS militants remained a threat across Australasia and Southeast Asia, said Australian Defense Minister Marisa Payne, who was attending a regional conference of her peers in the Philippines.

“The spread of Daesh is a threat to regional security, including the security of Australia. We recognize that no single country can address the threat of terrorism on its own,” Payne said, using another name for IS.

“We are acutely aware that these efforts to defeat the terrorists have come at a great cost to the people of Marawi and the Armed Forces of Philippines,” she said.

More than 1,000 militants, soldiers and civilians died in five months of fighting in Marawi.

To defeat the terrorism infrastructure in the region, Payne said Manila and Canberra agreed on a “new range of measures” that would boost cooperation and ensure that the Philippine military would be able to defeat future IS attacks.

“The Australian Defense Force will provide mobile training teams that will begin providing urban warfare counter-terrorism training in the Philippines in the coming days,” Payne said, adding that Australian commandos would make sure that their Filipino counterparts would become proficient at countering the “brutal tactics” employed by extremists.

She said Australian troops had been in operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, where they gained the skills needed to combat IS militants, and which they hoped to share with their Filipino allies.

Part of the training would include boosting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance skills, as well as strengthening information-sharing arrangements. Both forces would also work together in maritime security patrols.

Australia deployed almost 1,000 soldiers in the U.S.-led coalition that attacked IS targets in Iraq and Syria, including 300 soldiers in an advise-and-assist role in Iraq, according to Australian newspapers.

The Sydney Morning Herald said up to 80 Australian soldiers would work on Philippine bases “to provide training they have learnt from many years fighting Islamist groups in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.”

Rehabilitating Marawi

Over the long term, Payne said Australia would also be involved in rehabilitation efforts in Marawi, a city of 200,000 that was reduced to rubble after Isnilon Hapilon, a local Abu Sayyaf militant and the regional head of the IS, launched a siege there in late May.

Backed by a local band of fighters led by the Maute brothers, and several foreign fighters, including one of Malaysia’s top militants, Mahmud Ahmad, the extremists surprised the military with their firepower that lasted for five months.

Hapilon and Mahmud were both killed last week, and the armed forces announced an end to the Marawi siege on Monday.

But the rehabilitation phase could be daunting. Officials who had earlier assessed the damage in Marawi, the only Muslim city in this predominantly Catholic nation, said it could take the city a decade to recover fully.

To ensure that a similar siege does not happen again, Australian navy and marine troops have been asked to step up their combat training missions in the southern Philippines. Australian AP-3C Orion spy planes, which had been providing intelligence support since the start of the fighting, could well carry on with their task of monitoring militant movements.

“We will also increase intelligence cooperation including expert advice on countering Daesh-inspired social media narratives,” Payne said, emphasizing that all countries in the region must learn from the Marawi experience.

Payne’s Philippine counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, who had announced the end of the siege, said that the anti-terror fight in Marawi could not have been won without Australia’s help.

“From the start, Australia has been providing invaluable support to the AFP’s [Philippine military’s] operations against the Maute group, particularly on increasing operational and situational awareness in the conflict area, like providing us surveillance planes to help our troops on the ground,” Lorenzana said.

“Truly, the fight against global terror cannot be addressed by one country alone, and we are very much appreciative of Australia’s support for our counter-terrorism program,” he said.

‘I have not seen my home in five months’

In Marawi on Tuesday, Philippine flags fluttered in the wind as troops kept scouring the rubble for unexploded ordnance. There were no more bursts of gunfire, but security remained tight even though troops had been pulled back.

The area remians under martial law.

Trucks carrying relief items were dispatched to Marawi from the nearby city of Iligan, some 49 km (30 miles) away. Survivors expressed mixed feelings about the official end to the war, saying the victory came at a very steep price.

“We want to leave this place and go back to Marawi. I have not seen my home in five months,” said Ibrahim Iriot, 53, who fled the fighting in May along with her husband and six children.

“But I was told all the homes in our neighborhood were destroyed,” she said. “What do we do now?”

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