After Marawi, Islamic State Still Threatens Region: Philippine Presidential Spokesman

Felipe Villamor
171107-PH-marawi-620.jpg Harry Roque, then a lawyer representing slain reporters, talks to a fellow attorney before the start of a trial, June 15, 2011.

The Philippines wrested Marawi city from Islamic State-linked militants after a hard-fought, five-month battle, but IS remains a threat that can be contained only through greater cross-border cooperation, the new presidential spokesman told BenarNews on Tuesday.

The Philippines initially played down the threat posed by the extremist group in the southern city and in a battle with government forces that left more than 1,000 people dead, according to Harry Roque, a human rights lawyer who recently became spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte.

“We were surprised,” that the fight to reclaim Marawi lasted as long as it did, Roque said in an interview.

“I think the president has said that he was surprised that they were able to engage troops in firefights for as long as they did and that they had as much ammunition stockpiled as they did,” he told BenarNews.

Pushing the last militants out from Marawi came with the realization that Southeast Asian countries, which include mostly Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia, needed to increase regional cooperation in face of the threat, Roque said. He warned that extremists were likely to strike in places with lax security.

Although the government declared the battle over on Oct. 23, saying that the main leaders on the IS side had been killed, dozens of enemy holdouts have engaged the military in skirmishes in recent days.

“We are finally in control of Marawi. However, the menace of modern-day terrorism will persist,” Roque said. “There has been a liberation of Marawi in the sense that we have retaken control, so, in that sense, we’ve won.”

But the menace of IS will persist not just in the region, but worldwide, he added.

“I do not know if it is accurate to say that it is spreading, but it’s still here in the Philippines, in Europe and in Asia. It’s all over,” Roque said, stressing that “stronger cooperation” among Southeast Asian governments was needed to counter the threat.

He said the battle also underscored how the United States was still an indispensable ally to the Philippines in the fight against terrorism.

“President Duterte looks forward to closer ties with the United States,” Roque said. “He has acknowledged the assistance of the U.S. government in the war in Marawi, even as he hasn’t changed his position that he has pivoted to Asia.”

Duterte was forced to accept military intelligence help from the United States – its long-time ally – when the battle began in late May.

He earlier threatened to expel American troops who regularly undertake training visits to the south after Washington had criticized his administration’s bloody war on illegal drugs.

Duterte has not criticized the U.S. lately and has sought to rekindle ties with Washington after President Donald Trump took office in January, Roque observed. Both presidents are expected to meet in Manila this month when the Philippines hosts Southeast Asian and other leaders for a summit.

Emphasis on rebuilding Marawi

The battle started in late May, when Abu Sayyaf Group militant leader Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged leader of IS in Southeast Asia, led hundreds of his men in attacking Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city of 200,000 people.

He was aided by brothers Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute, who deployed their own fighters to reinforce Hapilon. Several fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East also joined the battle, which was advertised in pro-IS social media sites as a fight for a new caliphate in the region.

After first playing down the threat, Duterte acknowledged the government had underestimated the militant threat in Marawi, the biggest security challenge to confront any Philippine government in recent history.

Since declaring the battle over, the government is looking to reconstruct Marawi into a modern city, a long-term endeavor that could take years.

“The emphasis now is on the rebuilding of homes, so they can go back and resume normal lives,” Roque said. “The president has promised to rebuild Marawi to make it one of the most prosperous cities not just in Mindanao, as the whole country.”


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