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IS threat in Southeast Asia alarms Washington

WASHINGTON – Southeast Asia’s jihadists who fought by the hundreds for the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria now have a different battle closer to home in Mindanao. It’s a scenario raising significant alarm in Washington.

The recent assault by IS-aligned fighters in Marawi City has left more than 300 people dead, exposing the shortcomings of local security forces and the extremist group’s spreading reach in a region where counterterrorism gains are coming undone.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress last week a long-running US military operation to help Philippine forces contain extremist fighters was canceled prematurely three years ago. Small numbers of US special forces remain in an “advise and assist” role, and the US is providing aerial surveillance to help the Philippines retake Marawi, an inland city of more than 200,000 people.

But lawmakers, including from President Donald Trump’s Republican Party, want a bigger US role, short of boots on the ground. They fear the area is becoming a new hub for Islamist fighters from Southeast Asia and beyond.

“I don’t know that ISIS are directing operations there but they are certainly trying to get fighters into that region,” said Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, using another acronym for the group. “We need to address the situation. It should not get out of control.”

US intelligence and counterterrorism officials note that IS has publicly accepted pledges from various groups in the Philippines. In a June 2016 video, it called on followers in Southeast Asia to go to the Philippines if they cannot reach Syria.

About 40 foreigners, mostly from neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia, have been among 500 involved in fighting in Marawi, the Armed Forces says. Reports indicate at least one Saudi, a Chechen, and a Yemeni killed. In all, more than 200 militants have died in the standoff, now in its fourth week.

Video obtained by The Associated Press from the Philippine military indicates an alliance of local Muslim fighters, aligned with IS, are coordinating complex attacks. They include the Islamic State’s purported leader in Southeast Asia: Isnilon Hapilon, a Filipino on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists, with a $5-million bounty on his head.

US officials are assessing whether or not any of the estimated 1,000 Southeast Asians who traveled to Iraq and Syria in recent years are fighting in Catholic-majority Philippines. They fear ungoverned areas in the mostly Muslim region around Marawi could make the area a terror hub as in the 1990s. (AP)

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