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Internet, prolonged Marawi crisis fuelling ISIS recruitment

Philippine forces continue to battle Islamist militants in Marawi City. AP/Bullit Marquez, File

MANILA, Philippines — The 123-days-long Marawi City crisis is helping in the recruitment of Islamist fighters, according to an expert on Muslim Mindanao, as the militants are being seen as "Robin Hood" figures and not terrorists.

Amina Rasul-Bernardo, who is the president of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy and who grew up in Jolo, said that the recruitment efforts of the so-called Islamic State (also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS) are constant as these are happening on the internet.

 She added that the media had also contributed to this by making the Maute fighters celebrities.

"That is a fantastic allure to frustrated young people not just in Mindanao but in other areas," Bernardo said in a media conference on the sidelines of the Conference on Peace and the Prevention of Violent Extremism in Southeast Asia.

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon meanwhile said that this allure of the militants would be diminished by their failure to establish a province of the so-called Islamic State in Southeast Asia.

"They will not be able to establish their province in Marawi. We can assure you of that," Esperon declared as he noted that the main battle area in Marawi has been "tremendously" reduced.

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He said that the fighting between the military and Islamist rebels is now confined to a small area near Lake Lanao.

The waters of this lake are being protected by security forces, preventing the militants from getting additional supplies and reinforcement, the national security adviser said.

Fighters returning from Middle East could pose problems

He said that the militants could claim victory because they were able to last this long, but this only happened because the government was careful to prevent the destruction of schools and religious sites and to avoid harming civilian hostages still in rebel hands.

Ong Keng Yong, a former secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said that returning local fighters from the Middle East could pose a significant challenge to the security of the region.

The so-called IS is now on the backpedal in the Middle East as continuing military operations against them have led to the recapture of the areas in Iraq and Syria they previously held.

Around 1,000 fighters from Southeast Asia are estimated to have taken part in the fighting in the Middle East, according to Yong, and these are from Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore.

However, Esperon said that based on their information, there was only one Filipino who fought in Syria.

Yong said that that these returning fighters had recruited family members and had started to organize to achieve their aim of establishing an IS province in Southeast Asia.

The former ASEAN secretary general said that their studies on the fighters' actions and movements had shown that they had already started publishing materials in the Malay language to reach a wider audience.

"The returning fighters will threaten Southeast Asian security when they return to their countries," said Yong, the executive deputy chairman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

'No time to relax'

Countries in the region have started to exchange databases on security and conduct joint patrols in waters they share, according to Esperon, citing the agreement among the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia on maritime security.

Esperon said that counter-terror operations would not end once the government had solved the crisis in Marawi, saying that Manila would still need to address local terror groups such as the Abu Sayyaf, The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Maute Group.

He said that the main concerns of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte in Mindanao were the peace process with secessionist and communist groups, the fight against terrorism and illegal drugs, development of the region and reforms in governance.

"There is no time to relax even if Marawi is over. There is a lot more to do," he said.

Yong said that the fight of Marawi City is crucial as a victory there would enable the militants to declare a province right in the middle of Southeast Asia.

A long conflict on the other hand would lead to more polarization and pockets of radicalization, he said.

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