Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia Agree to Boost Fight to Thwart Terrorism

Felipe Villamor
170622-trilateral-620.jpg Philippine foreign affairs secretary Alan Peter Cayetano (center) gives a statement during a trilateral meeting about security in Manila with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi (left) and Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, June 22, 2017.

Facing a deadly Islamic State-inspired siege in the southern city of Marawi, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed on Thursday to closely coordinate in stopping the cross-border flows of weapons and fighters.

Hosted by Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano and attended by his Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts, the meeting focused on solidifying a concerted action against regional militants.

The meeting took place amid the backdrop of month-long firefights between the Philippine military and the IS-backed Abu Sayyaf and Maute group.

Authorities said the Filipino militants, led by Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, were backed by Indonesian, Malaysian, Singaporean and Middle Eastern fighters, raising fears the Islamic State has set its sights into establishing a regional base in the restive southern Philippines, which for decades has been the scene of a brutal Muslim insurgency.

Cayetano and his Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts Retno Marsudi and Anifah Aman, respectively, agreed to boost cooperation "in addressing the common threats of terrorism and violent extremism confronting the region," according to joint statement issued after the talks.

Their respective military and police are to work more closely on intelligence and information sharing in thwarting "potential, imminent and real threats," it said.

They also agreed to stem the flow of terrorist financing, combat the spread of propaganda, as well as address the underlying conditions that fuel extremism including poverty, illegal drugs, crime and social injustice.

Suppressing propaganda, financing

The ministers said they would also work together in suppressing terrorist propaganda through cyberspace, as well as prevent the flow of firearms and humans across porous borders.

A special provision about special military and law-enforcement training was also agreed on, while extremist narrative is to be countered through community engagement where local religious leaders are expected to play a role.

Cayetano said the aim was to boost trilateral cooperation to stop "extremists from establishing operational bases in the Southeast Asian region.”

On Thursday, the security command in the eastern part of Sabah in Malaysia placed Hapilon and Abdullah Maute, leader of IS Lanao group, as among 18 most-wanted criminals who might enter the region from Marawi.

Officials of the Eastern Sabah Security Command said they have been alerted that the duo could flee Marawi and potentially use Sabah either as a transit point or a hiding place.

“Since the offensive in Marawi city, we are worried they will enter our country under the guise of being illegal immigrants or fishermen,” command chief Wan Abdul Bari Wan Abdul Khalid said.

Jakarta commitment

President Rodrigo Duterte had placed the entire southern region of Mindanao under martial law, in a bid to solve the biggest crisis to hit his nearly year-old administration.

He had publicly admitted that security forces may have underestimated the rebel firepower.

The president had also relented to his defense secretary who had asked for crucial intelligence help from the United States, the country's oldest military ally that Duterte earlier lambasted as he moved for closer ties instead with China and Russia.

On Wednesday night, Indonesian leader Joko Widodo called Duterte to discuss the Marawi crisis, and both agreed that there was a "need to step up cooperation to address threats posed by terrorism and violent extremism," presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said on Thursday.

He said the trilateral meeting's importance was also discussed, with Widodo affirming his country's "commitment to support the Philippines in countering terrorism, including restoring peace and stability in the Southern Philippines."

"The president also welcomed the Indonesian president’s expression of commitment and emphasized the Philippine government’s full resolve to work closer together with Indonesia and like-minded states to address these issues," Abella said.

He said the fighting has killed 276 militants, 67 soldiers and policemen and 26 civilians. About two dozen civilians have also died of illnesses in evacuation centers, officials have said.

More than 1,600 civilians trapped in the fighting have also been rescued, but officials said an undetermined number of others were still believed trapped in the war zone, unable to flee and going hungry.

Over before Eid al-Fitr?

Troops have also reported an "increasing willful and intentional arson activities of the rebels in various areas of the city," Abella said, without elaborating.

The military said the gunmen have been cornered in a small section of the city, which has a land area of about 87.5 sq km (55 sq m). They said the militants have put up strong resistance using snipers, bomb and rocket-propelled grenades from "vantage points" that remain in their control.

"Add to this the use of combustible materials and other incendiary devices," Abella said, adding that the militants were also holding civilians and using them as shields as they hide in buildings and mosques.

The government has said it aims to finish the fighting early next week, before the Eid al-Fitr celebrations marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Colin Forsythe in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia contributed to this report.


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