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US showcases Marawi victory

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The battle for Marawi was considered the longest urban warfare in the country’s history.

The Philippines was cited as a showcase for the success of the global war against terror in the US State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism (CRT) due to the swift victory of state forces against Islamic State (IS)-inspired groups which laid siege on Marawi City for five months last year.

In the East Asia and Pacific region, the report said the threat posed by transnational terrorism was particularly prominent “when IS-affiliated domestic groups in the southern Philippines occupied parts of Marawi City for five months before finally succumbing to Philippine counterterrorism forces.”

Philippine troops escort rescued civilians at a village on the outskirts of Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on May 31, 2017. Philippine troops have killed 89 Islamist militants during more than a week of urban battles but a final showdown is expected to be fierce as the gunmen protect their leaders and hold hostages, authorities said on May 31. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE

It said several countries, including Australia, Japan and the United States, “provided counterterrorism and reconstruction assistance to the Philippines as its government began to develop a plan to rebuild the city.”

Political settlements to insurgencies remained elusive in the country.

It said Southeast Asian governments “remained concerned about foreign terrorist fighters returning from Iraq or Syria and using their operational skills, connections and experience to launch domestic attacks.”

Improved capabilities

The report said the Philippines has improved its counter-terrorism capabilities “in the face of an evolving and increasingly robust terrorist threat.”

It noted that the Philippine government consistently acknowledged the dangers from IS-affiliated terrorist groups and welcomed assistance from the United States and a range of international partners.

The report said from May to November last year, terrorist organizations pledging support to IS “including a faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group, the Maute Group and others” occupied and held Marawi City.

“When the siege began, President Duterte declared martial law over the entire Mindanao region, approximately one-third of the country’s territory,” it said.

The battle was considered the longest urban warfare in the country’s history.

The clashes were triggered by a police mission to serve an arrest warrant on Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon who was then in Marawi City supposedly to meet with Maute Group leaders.

Hapilon’s forces opened fire on the combined Army and police teams and called for reinforcements from the Maute Group, which is believed to be responsible for the 2016 Davao City bombing.

The report said Congress granted an extension of martial law until the end of 2018 and by November, government forces cleared the city and eliminated much of the terror leaders “but suffered many casualties during the siege.”

Philippine marines adjust the barrel of their 50mm machine gun atop their V-300 light wheeled armoured vehicle with padded carboard after engaging Islamist militants in Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao on June 2, 2017. Militants have destroyed two tanks and damaged two others in a battle with Philippine security forces over a southern city that has claimed nearly 200 lives, the military said on June 2. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE

Elusive solutions

The report said political settlements to insurgencies remained elusive in the country, “thereby driving recruitment and fueling terrorist activities among certain groups.”

At the time of the writing of the US report, it said the “Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), intended to implement the previous administration’s 2014 peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), was awaiting action in Congress at the end of last year.”

Last July, President approved the BBL which was renamed the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).

“Delays in passing the law have provided recruitment propaganda for former MILF fighters and commanders who formed more extreme breakaway groups, including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Ansar al-Khalifa and the Maute Group,” the report added.

The report also noted gains in the campaign against communist guerillas.

“On 5 December, President Duterte signed a presidential proclamation to formally designate the CPP-NPA (Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army) a terrorist group, but the courts must still rule on the designation,” the report said.

Philippine soldiers walk past destroyed buldings in Bangolo district, after President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi City “liberated”, in Marawi on October 17, 2017. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on October 17 symbolically declared a southern city “liberated from terrorists’ influence” but the military said the five-month battle against militants loyal to the Islamic State group was not yet over. / AFP PHOTO / Ted ALJIBE

KFR cases fall

“Beyond Marawi, Philippine media observed that kidnapping-for-ransom cases declined from previous years,” it said.

“Armed attacks against civilians and security forces continued, however. The press reported that on 22 June, security forces rescued at least 60 civilians held hostage after a BIFF attack in North Cotabato. Suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf Group attacked a village in Basilan on 21 August, killing at least nine civilians and wounding a dozen more,” the report added.

The 3 December attack on a police station in Misamis Oriental by approximately 100 CPP-NPA members exemplified the group’s frequent strikes at military, police and local government official targets, it said.

“Key counterterrorism law enforcement actions included the National Bureau of Investigation’s October 2017 arrest of a woman suspected of using the Internet to spread terrorist propaganda and recruit foreign terrorist fighters to the Philippines,” the report said.

The Department of Justice was also acknowledged for charging the Maute clan matriarch, the former Marawi mayor and nine other individuals with rebellion in June.

“Additionally, the Philippines effectively exercised its capabilities to protect the 2017 Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit and related events from terrorist attacks,” it added.

The 23 percent drop in worldwide terrorist attacks in 2017 was attributed mainly to fewer attacks in Iraq.

Iran top terror sponsor

The report said Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism while highlighting another drop in terrorist attacks worldwide.

Philippine soldiers walk past destroyed buldings in Bangolo district, after President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi “liberated”, in Marawi on October 17, 2017. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on October 17 symbolically declared a southern city “liberated from terrorists’ influence” but the military said the five-month battle against militants loyal to the Islamic State group was not yet over. / AFP PHOTO / Ted ALJIBE

The annual survey of global terrorism accused Iran of intensifying numerous conflicts and trying to undermine governments throughout the Middle East and beyond. Iran’s “terrorist affiliates and proxies,” the report said, “demonstrated a near-global terrorist reach.”

The number of worldwide terrorist attacks dropped by 23 percent last year compared with 2016, according to the report, a change largely due to gains against the IS group in Iraq. The number also had declined in 2016 over the previous year.

The report comes as the Trump administration is toughening its stance against Iran.

President Donald Trump withdrew from the landmark nuclear accord with Iran earlier this year and has begun to dismantle sanctions relief granted under the 2015 deal.

This photo taken on July 12, 2017 shows a Philippine soldier taking cover as they advance to the frontline where they are battling militants in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao. The fighting began on May 23 when hundreds of militants rampaged through Marawi, the most important Muslim city in the mainly Catholic Philippines, waving the black flags of the Islamic State (IS) group. / AFP PHOTO / RICHEL UMEL

Attacks down 23%

The 23 percent drop in worldwide terrorist attacks in 2017 was attributed mainly to fewer attacks in Iraq, where territory once held by the Islamic State group was retaken by government forces. Deaths due to terrorist attacks also decreased by 27 percent last year.

The report said IS alone carried out 23 percent fewer terrorist attacks and caused 53 percent fewer total deaths, compared with 2016.

Despite the drop in attacks, the report described the terrorist landscape as “more complex” and said the terrorist threat to the US and allies around the world had “evolved.”

As IS lost territory, the group became “dispersed and clandestine, turning to the Internet to inspire attacks by distant followers,” which has made the group “less susceptible to conventional military action,” the report said.

The report stated that IS and groups that pledged allegiance to IS carried out attacks in more than 20 countries worldwide in 2017.

Evacuated residents are helped by military troopers disembark from a military vehicle shortly after arriving at a processing center near a hospital in Marawi, on southern island of Mindanao on June 21, 2017.
Hundreds of gunmen attacked troops in a southern Philippine village in a hit-and-run assault that may have been intended to help Islamist militants engaged in a nearby urban war, authorities said. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE

IS disperses

The near-defeat of the IS in Iraq and Syria has forced a dispersal of the group that has made the global threat of terror attacks much more complex, the report added.

Islamic State, al-Qaeda and related jihadists have decentralized and are adopting new technologies like simple chemical weapons and small drone systems to be able to pose a threat far from their traditional operating zones, according to the department’s report on terrorism in 2017.

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