A new program focused on thwarting efforts by Muslim extremists to recruit and mobilize followers in the southern Philippines was discussed by U.S. and Philippine officials this week.
According to U.S. Assistant Secretary Denise Natali of the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict & Stabilization Operations on Tuesday, June 4, the three-year program involves helping local officials identify issues that foster extremism and find ways to address them.
Filipino troops were aided by American and Australian surveillance aircraft to quell the disastrous 2017 siege by hundreds of mostly local militants in southern Marawi City, where the commercial and residential center remains in ruins and off-limits to the public. Philippine officials say surviving militants have maintained their efforts to recruit new followers and plot new attacks despite the militants’ defeat.
More than 1,100 militants were killed while hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced in the five-month siege in the mosque-studded city, renewing fears that the Islamic State group was stepping up collaboration with local jihadists to establish a foothold in the region.
“We are focusing on how to prevent further and future incidences of violent extremism and radicalization from occurring so that we don’t have another Marawi ever again,” said Natali at a news conference.
She added that both the U.S. State Department and the Philippine government are finalizing the program details to help provincial governments and non-government groups design and enforce effective projects to counter extremism.
Highlighting the importance of basing such projects on facts and evidence instead of assumptions, Natali cited a five-month survey commissioned by the U.S. last year in four southern Muslim provinces showing which issues were helping spark extremism and radicalization the most.
The survey revealed that while some people may support local jihadists, there was significantly lower support for foreign militant groups like the Islamic State group and the Al Qaeda militant network.
According to Natali, religious intolerance, dire economic conditions and exposure to violence spark extremism more than religion.
“It’s not about religion; it is about living conditions. There is an economic component to this,” she said.
She added that there was strong public support for the government’s effort to combat extremism, as shown in the survey.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., the Philippines has been one of Washington’s strongest Asian allies in the fight against terrorism.
President Rodrigo Duterte, for his part, has said that he wanted U.S. counterterrorism forces out of the southern Philippines while he fixed the country’s relations with China after assuming the presidency in 2016.
However, the Philippine military has maintained robust U.S. relations. More than 100 U.S. military counterterrorism advisers and personnel remain in the southern Mindanao region to help Filipino forces battling extremists on a string of impoverished islands. (Ritchel Mendiola/AJPress)