ISIS Is Pushing America and the Philippines Back Together

A joint group of police and military forces guard while conducting a house to house search as part of clearing operations in different sections of Marawi city, Philippines June 7, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

Asia’s already-volatile geopolitics just got a new plot twist.

Sharing an enemy has a magical way of forcing estranged allies back into each other’s embrace. In many ways, this is exactly what is happening to bilateral relations between the Philippines and the United States, as both nations grapple with the prospect of an Islamic State caliphate in Southeast Asia.

Throughout his first year in office, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte rarely missed a chance to lash out at Washington and promote his distinct “Asia for Asians” approach to foreign relations.

Yet, shortly after back-to-back high-profile visits to Beijing and Moscow, which were part of his broader pursuit of an “independent” foreign policy, the tough-talking Philippine leader confronted a full-scale siege of Marawi, the country’s largest Muslim-majority city, by hundreds of ISIS-affiliated fighters, led by the notorious Maute group.

To the horror of the Philippine government, foreign fighters, coming from as far away as the Arabian Peninsula and the Caucasus, were reportedly involved in the Marawi attack. It is the first major attempt by the Islamic State’s regional affiliates to carve out actual territory and exert control over a large population anywhere in Southeast Asia. In response, the Duterte administration described the situation as a full-scale invasion and rebellion, declaring martial law across the entirety of Mindanao.

No stranger to threatening rhetoric, Duterte warned that he would be stern and “harsh” like former Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country with an iron fist throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. The president also made it clear that he wouldn’t shy away from extending martial law across the whole country in order to “protect the people” against the threat of terrorism.

The tough-talking Philippine leader successfully ran on the promise of not only ridding his country of illegal drugs and criminality, but also bringing peace and development to the troubled southern island. In fact, he presented himself as the authoritative voice of the Moro (Muslim Filipinos). “I am running for president and I will fix Mindanao,” exclaimed Duterte during his fiery campaign rhetoric over a year ago. “Me, if I become president, if Allah gives his blessing, before I die since I am old, I will leave to you all a Mindanao that is governed in peace.”

Yet, a month into the battle for Marawi, the Philippine government has struggled to fully liberate the city from a hybrid legion of local and international jihadists. Inexperienced in urban warfare, the Philippine military has had to practically level large portions of Marawi to save it from the Islamic State. In recent days, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), another Mindanao-based ISIS affiliate group, launched a daring assault in North Cotabato, attacking a primary school and taking hostages in several neighborhoods.

The latest spate of violence across the area is increasingly seen as part of a larger effort by extremists to establish an ISIS (province) in Southeast Asia.

Recognizing the depth of the crisis, the Philippine government has sought external assistance. As Philippine press secretary Martin Andanar told me in late May, the government is battling the “scourge and ideology of IS,” which is threatening the whole region. Weeks into the Marawi operations, the Philippine military sought American assistance, with the Pentagon providing real-time intelligence and deploying Special Forces to provide training and technical assistance for more effective counterterror operations.