Philippines Says Drawdown of US Troops Helped IS Infiltrate South

Richel V. Umel and Felipe Villamor
2017.09.26
Manila and Marawi, Philippines
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170926-PH-marawi-620.jpg Thick black smoke engulfs the main battle area in the southern Philippine city of Marawi after an airstrike that killed at least 12 Islamic State-inspired militants, Sept. 26, 2017.
Richel V. Umel/BenarNews

A significant drawdown of U.S. troops in troubled areas of the southern Philippines early this decade may have helped the Islamic State (IS) infiltrate local Muslim extremist groups, the nation’s defense chief said Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana made the assessment as he pushed for a stronger partnership with the United States, noting that at the height of joint efforts to combat terrorism from 2002 to 2010, hundreds of American soldiers were on the ground on a rotating basis in the country’s south as part of Washington’s global terrorism fight.

The Americans later pulled back to just dozens of advisers after assisting Filipino troops fight local Abu Sayyaf militants, the IS forerunner in the south, who were involved in kidnappings of foreigners for ransom.

“Because of that drawdown, maybe we were blindsided and that this is the time the other threat groups came in that are already ISIS-inspired people,” Lorenzana told reporters, referring to another acronym of the Islamic State.

He said about 100 American forces remain at the military base in Zamboanga city, 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) south of Manila. Prior to the drawdown, about 600 U.S. troops were deployed at any given time in the southern Mindanao region.

“We were unfortunate because we could not see what would happen,” he said, apparently referring to the siege of Marawi, which has been reduced to rubble after extremists took control of the city on May 23.

The push for a stronger military ties with Washington came as Lorenzana announced the two allies had just completed the exercise Tempest Wind, intended to boost the ability of security forces to “rapidly plan, coordinate and conduct counter-terrorism operations.”

The exercise included a hijacking scenario in which commandos negotiated with hijackers for almost 72 hours before storming a commercial jet. Lorenzana said the scenario was designed to improve coordination and synchronization.

“The activity also served as a perfect opportunity to assess the need for the new security environment in the Pacific region, especially now that terrorism has come into our lands, now more than ever, all countries must come together to unite against terrorism and violent extremism,” Lorenzana said.

“The global war on terror cannot succeed if we cannot explore avenues for cooperation and mutual exchanges.”

Sung Kim, the U.S. ambassador to Manila, said more than 12,000 American and Filipino civilian personnel and members of the military took part in the exercise, which he said “presented an unprecedented opportunity for comprehensive training.”

The drill comes as the Philippine military, assisted by U.S. and Australian intelligence, said it was moving to end the Marawi siege that erupted after security forces attempted to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf commander and the acknowledged IS chief in the region.

Col. Romeo Brawner, local military commander in Marawi, said the rebel fighters’ controlled area was “getting smaller by the day.”

On Monday, military officials said 12 militants were killed and 13 soldiers were wounded in Marawi. No other details were immediately available.

Officials said 707 militants, 151 government forces and 47 civilians have been killed in four months of gun battles that included aerial bombardment and house-by-house combat.

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