Updated at 12:09 p.m. ET on 2020-08-13
Efforts to combat militancy in the Philippines seem to have made no substantial dent against Islamic State-linked groups since the United States launched a multi-million-dollar program in 2017 to back Manila’s counter-extremist activities, the Pentagon said in a new report.
The regional branch of Islamic State and associated militant groups in the southern Mindanao region remain about the same in size and in strength, the report said. And in recent months, the Philippine IS affiliate tried to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic while the Philippine military was helping the government respond to the outbreak, according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Inspector General.
“[T]here has been little change in the capabilities, size, financing, and operations of ISIS-EA,” said Sean W. O’Donnell, the department’s acting inspector general, in the quarterly report to Congress on the U.S. military aid program to Manila, known as Operation Pacific Eagle – Philippines (OPE-P). He was referring to the East Asia chapter of IS and used a different acronym for the terror group.
“The group continues to carry out sporadic, mostly small-scale attacks,” he said.
In September 2017, the Pentagon launched the program to help the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) defeat pro-IS fighters who were battling government forces after the militants had seized the southern Philippine city of Marawi.
The U.S. deployed military advisers and drones that helped the Philippines retake the city, kill the top leaders of the militant siege and flush out their forces a month later. But IS-linked fighters and groups have lingered in the southern Philippines and carried out attacks, including a suicide bombing that killed 23 people at a church in southern Sulu province in January 2019.
“In general, efforts to reduce extremism in the Philippines do not appear to have made a substantial difference since the launch of OPE-P. ISIS-EA and the other violent extremist groups in the Philippines that either coordinate with or share members with ISIS, have remained about the same size and strength for the last few years,” O’Donnell said in the report released on Aug. 7 covering the second quarter of 2020.
“These groups continue to operate in the southern Philippines where separatist groups and extremist groups have existed for decades. [W]e have seen little progress in improving the economic, social, and political conditions in that part of the country.”
However, the report gave no information to explain why counter-extremist efforts had not made a substantial difference since the operation was launched nearly three years ago. Meanwhile on Wednesday, Philippine defense and military officials did not immediately respond to requests from BenarNews for comment.
The 56-page document is the 11th quarterly report issued to Congress by the Defense Department’s lead inspector general on Operation Pacific Eagle – Philippines.
Under the program, the U.S. government has poured tens of millions of dollars in aid each year into supporting Philippine efforts to destroy IS and other violent extremist organizations that operate across Mindanao. The money, among other things, has paid for aerial reconnaissance and drone operations that assist the Philippine military in its efforts to hunt down IS militants, according to information gleaned from the report.
For the current fiscal year, the Pentagon has budgeted $72.3 million for the operation, according to the report. Costs for running the program in 2019 were estimated to total $108.2 million, according to an earlier quarterly report.
Although the Philippine IS branch remains “organizationally fractured” and “largely isolated from the support of international terrorist networks,” it and various IS-aligned groups, including Abu Sayyaf, operate independently from each other, the latest quarterly report said.
An estimated 300 to 500 extremists who belong to the groups and profess their allegiance to IS remain, the report said.
The strength of these Islamic militant forces has not changed from previous quarters, the report said, citing information from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Included among these fighters were “fewer than 40” foreigners, mostly citizens of neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, Philippine government forces announced that they had captured five suspected Abu Sayyaf fighters linked with IS during a raid in Sulu province, but a bomb-maker they were hunting for, Mundi Sawadjaan, had escaped. He is related to Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the overall IS leader in the Philippines.
Militants and COVID-19
During the second quarter, pro-IS militants in the Philippines also “sought to capitalize on the Philippine government’s deployment of military assets to assist with the response to [COVID-19],” the defense department’s acting inspector general said.
As an example, the report cited how IS affiliates posted messages on social media calling for attacks on individuals who were obeying the government’s COVID-19 movement restrictions.
The militants also threatened to carry out attacks if mosques were not allowed to reopen during the pandemic, the report said.
“The Defense Intelligence Agency also assessed that it was possible that ISIS-EA was attempting to take advantage of the AFP’s shift of counterterrorism resources to enforce COVID-19 restrictions,” the report said.
Because of a new surge in cases, the Philippines leads all East Asian countries in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. As of Wednesday, the country was closing in on 144,000 cases. Earlier this month, because of the new wave of infections, the Philippine government returned Metro Manila and other provinces on Luzon Island to a coronavirus lockdown.
“COVID-19 restrictions during the [second] quarter affected the type and amount of support that U.S. military advisers were able to provide to their Philippine partners,” the Pentagon said in its report.
Such restrictions, “coupled with force rotations, negatively impacted the amount of U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support provided to the AFP this quarter,” it said.
CLARIFICATION: This report was updated to note that the report from the Pentagon did not explain why counter-extremist efforts have had relatively little impact in the years since Operation Pacific Eagle - Philippines was launched.