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Analyst: Pro-IS Militants in Southern Philippines to Gain from US Pullout

Jeoffrey Maitem
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Philippine security forces prepare to clear the site of a bomb blast in Indanan, a town in southern Sulu province, June 28, 2019.
Philippine security forces prepare to clear the site of a bomb blast in Indanan, a town in southern Sulu province, June 28, 2019.

The Philippines stands to lose surveillance capability against peace “spoilers” linked to pro-Islamic State (IS) extremists in the south once a bilateral military pact with the United States expires in August, a U.S.-based security analyst said Tuesday.

President Rodrigo Duterte last month refused to reverse his position on ending the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with Washington, in what was widely seen as a political protest after the U.S. State Department revoked an American visa for his former police chief.

“If they pull out along with the U.S. defense contractors down there, it means the Armed Forces of the Philippines is blinded,” Greg Poling, a director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank, told foreign correspondents in Manila in an online news conference, referring to the volatile southern Philippines.

Duterte took the unilateral decision to terminate the VFA amid a resurgent threat in the Philippines from IS, which was largely defeated three years ago when its fighters were ousted by military force from the southern city of Marawi with American intelligence help.

“They will lose a lot of their intelligence collection and surveillance capability,” Poling said of Philippines soldiers.

That situation would be “very good news for spoilers who, all of the sudden, will find it much easier to evade because the military is blind,” he said.

Poling was talking about the Abu Sayyaf Group and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which were among groups that backed the Marawi siege, a five-month battle in 2017 that killed around 1,200 people, most of them militants linked to IS.

BIFF is a splinter group of the former separatist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has signed a peace deal with Manila and now controls a Muslim autonomous region in the south. BIFF did not officially join the siege in Marawi, but some of its members launched deadly diversionary attacks elsewhere in the Philippine south to divert military attention from that city, authorities said.

“The biggest driver of stability in Mindanao is going to be the consolidation of Bangsamoro and how much they implement the framework agreement,” Poling said, referring to the autonomous region governed by MILF for the past year.

Manila’s termination of VFA came after Duterte became angered by Washington’s decision to revoke a visa for his former national police chief, Ronald dela Rosa, who is now a senator.

The pact had allowed for large-scale joint military exercises between the two longtime allies after the U.S. vacated two of its largest overseas military installations – the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base, both located northwest of Manila – in the 1990s.

Poling noted that Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had recently talked about the success of a military raid in the south in 2015 that was launched with U.S. intelligence help and led to the killing of Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir (also known as Marwan).

While 44 elite police commandos were killed during the raid after a miscommunication with MILF forces, military officials still considered it a win as security forces took out one of Southeast Asia’s most-wanted terrorists.

“Those kind of operation will be impossible,” in the future without the VFA, Poling said. “The two biggest winners of the termination of VFA is China and Abu Sayyaf.”

Manila meanwhile is locked in a maritime territorial dispute with Beijing, which claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims to the sea region.

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