Marawi, the “East Asia Wilayah” and Indonesia

Terrorism National security Philippines Southeast Asia

The May 2017 takeover of the southern Philippine city of Marawi by an alliance of pro-ISIS militants will have ramifications for the region long after the Philippines military retakes the city. These could include a higher risk of violent attacks in other Philippine cities and in Indonesia and Malaysia; greater cooperation among Southeast Asian extremists; and new leadership for Indonesian and Malaysian pro-ISIS cells from among returning fighters from Marawi.

The Marawi operations received direct funding from ISIS central and reveal a chain of command that runs from Syria through the Philippines to Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia. ISIS central seems to have been represented by Khatibah Nusantara, the fighting unit led by the Indonesian named Bahrumsyah and his associate, Abu Walid. Khatibah Nusantara in turn sent funding through Dr Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian who sits in the inner circle of the Marawi command structure. Dr Mahmud controlled recruitment as well as financing and has been the contact person for any foreigner wanting to join the pro-ISIS coalition in the Philippines. Tactical decisions on the ground are being made by the Philippine ISIS commanders themselves, but the Syria-based Southeast Asians could have a say in setting strategy for region when the siege is over.

The Marawi battle has lasted for two months as of this writing and defied all expectations of when it would end. It has lifted the prestige of the Philippine fighters in the eyes of ISIS central, although it has not yet earned them the coveted status of wilayah or province of Islamic State. It has inspired young extremists from around the region to want to join. In Indonesia it has helped unite two feuding streams of the pro-ISIS movement, inspired “lone wolf” attacks and caused soul-searching among would-be terrorists about why they cannot manage to do anything as spectacular. All of this suggests an increased incentive for jihad operations, though the capacity of pro-ISIS cells for organizing and implementing attacks outside the Philippines remains low. That could change with a few fighters coming back from either Marawi or the Middle East.

While governments around the region and particularly the “front-line” states of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines recognise the need for greater regional cooperation, there remain formidable obstacles to working together. These include the deep-seated political distrust between the Philippines and Malaysia that impedes information sharing; concern from Indonesia and Malaysia police about mixed loyalties of local counterparts in Mindanao, especially given clan and family links; and institutional disjunctures that give the lead in counter-terrorism to the police in Indonesia and Malaysia but to the military in the Philippines. The unreliability of official Philippine statements on Marawi, whether on numbers of fighters, identities of those killed, or extent of military control, has not inspired confidence.

Donors need to give urgent attention to Marawi’s evacuees and to the city’s rebuilding to ensure that resentment over its destruction does not make it even more fertile ground for extremist recruitment. Sustained attention to the peace process and better governance remain crucial. But it is also useful to think of a few quick technical fixes that could help with immediate issues that the Marawi battle has thrown up. One is an up-to-date, integrated watch-list of extremists across the region – as of July 2017, for example, neither the Maute brothers, Dr Mahmud nor Bahrumsyah were on Interpol’s “Red Alert” list of wanted terrorists. Another is for a series of short courses for senior police investigators from the region aimed at producing a detailed map of cross-regional extremist links and better knowledge of the groups in each others’ countries. A third is a program to understand and prevent campus-based recruitment and funding.

In this report, IPAC examines how support for ISIS and an “East Asia Wilayah” came about, how the Marawi siege has affected the two main networks of pro-ISIS supporters in Indonesia, and what might happen next. It is based on research in Mindanao in February and April 2017, interviews with individuals close to several men arrested in Indonesia in 2017 for links to Mindanao, and analysis of Telegram chats.

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