Expert: Prospects for improved Asean security in 2018 grim

Zachary-Abuza-militant-isis-1PETALING JAYA: A Southeast Asian security expert believes the region’s security against terrorism will not improve much next year with the resurgence of al-Qaeda and the ungoverned southern Philippine territory providing space for militant activities.

Zachary Abuza, in a recent commentary on online news site Benar News, said the situation across the region was eerily calm at the end of 2017.

He said to be fair, the devolving situation had led to new levels of inter-state cooperation, but “prospects for improved security in 2018 are grim”.

“While the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore keep taking the threat of IS (Islamic State) seriously, the ungoverned space in the southern Philippines will continue to create space for militants to train, regroup and execute attacks.

“On top of that, there is the resurgence of al-Qaeda, which is poised to take advantage of the Islamic State’s setbacks,” the professor of the Washington-based National War College said.

According to the expert, the security situation in the Philippines’ Mindanao was likely to continue devolving.

“Already President Duterte has shifted the focus of the military to the communist New People’s Army, despite evidence that the survivors of Marawi are regrouping, while other pro-IS groups continue to stage attacks.

“Duterte is already trying to lower the MILF’s (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) expectations about passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the implementing legislation for the 2014 peace agreement,” Abuza explained.

“He recently questioned the BBL’s constitutionality, which will only empower legislators who are against the autonomy agreement. As such, the MILF will only continue to splinter.”

The MILF was an insurgent group but has improved ties with the government.

However, some of its members were reported to have joined IS-pledged groups following dissatisfaction over the slow BBL progress.

Marawi was the scene of a fierce five-month battle between the government and local pro-IS groups, which were reportedly helped by foreign fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia, Yemen, Chechnya, the Gulf states and more.

The Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups attacked Marawi on May 23 to create an IS caliphate in the region, with more than 1,100 people, mostly militants, killed in the clashes.

Their top leaders, Isnilon Hapilon, who was IS emir-designate for the region, and Abdullah Maute, co-founder of the Maute group, were killed towards the end of the Philippines’ worst urban war.

Following their deaths, at least 10 militants, including Malaysians, could have succeeded Isnilon despite the absence of an official announcement of a new emir by IS central, which had lost its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

The Philippine military’s latest statement on the hotly-debated issue indicated two militants are currently eyeing the top regional IS position, but declined to name them.

“Only IS can name the leader in Southeast Asia and I don’t think that IS is in any position to do so now,” Abuza told FMT.

“It took them a year and a half to name Isnilon Hapilon, and that’s when things were going swimmingly for IS.

“I think people get too worked up over the leaders and sub-leaders of such small groups.

“Unless the leader is transformative, that is, he can reorient the group’s strategies and tactics, get new recruits and funding stratums, or just oozes with charisma, I really don’t think it matters much.”

An analyst had earlier told FMT the two mentioned by the Philippine military could be the well-networked Malaysian son-in-law of Isnilon, Amin Baco, and Furuji Indama, a notorious Abu Sayyaf faction leader said to be responsible for many beheadings.

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