Maute Terror in Marawi, a maritime security concern - Blueboard by Dr. Alma Maria O Salvador

August 08, 2017

The Maute-Abu Sayyaf (ASG)- led terrorism  that besieges Marawi city, in the province of Lanao del Sur in Mindanao is connected to the issue of maritime border security that concerns one of the most important  waterways in the country: the Sulu Sulawesi Seas. Homeland and maritimeborder security determines who or what is allowed or denied access to the state’s territory. It creates a mechanism that involves a confluence of military and civilian actors who uphold the territorial integrity of the national state through customs, immigration, quarantine, surveillance, interdiction and deterrence of illegal flows.
 
Research into the Sulu Sulawesi Seas by Angel Rabasa, establishes the region  as an important maritime domain that borders the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. As much as this area contains important sea lanes for shipping, trading and energy transport, it is also a largely anarchic region.   Maritime borders here are largely un-patrolled. The archipelago (Sulu, Tawi-Tawi ,Basilan, Jolo)  that divides the Sulu and Sulawesi  sectors  are sites of decades old impoverishment,  extremism and rebellion in the Philippines.  Indonesia like the Philippines has battled against terrorist sleeper cells specifically in  the Northern and Central Sulawesi. Shared problems of insurgency and terrorism coupled with geographical and ethno-cultural linkages in this region have facilitated age old illegal cross-border trading of goods, arms, drugs and crimes such as armed robbery, piracy and terrorism.
 
In the nineties,  the Moro National Liberation Front (MILF) rebels and  ASGhave penetrated this maritime space, their activities conflating  terrorism with criminality.  
Jihadist Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) haveused this maritime and border spaces to forge relations in recruitment and training with the MILF prior to 9/11 and with the ASG, post 9/11. Justin Hastings author of “Geography, Globalization, and Terrorism: The Plots of Jemaah Islamiyah, specifically describes how geography  and maritime border security issues  in the Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippine rear areas facilitated JI’s movement, creating and traversing one of several illegal routes  from Nunukan, East Kalimantan to Tawao, Sabah and to Sandakan, Malaysia and finally to Zamboanga, eventually transplanting the seeds of the JI- MILF-ASG transnational link. Today, this link forms part of the Maute group’s identity.
 
The Philippine military has identified the ASG as a threat group since the 20th century. Its mainly internal security focus, however has inhibited it from recognizing the ASG as more than a domestic actor but a transnational actor with associated foreign connections and capabilities that could seriously threaten the territorial and maritime security of the Sulu Sulawesi region and Mindanao. The military’s security plan of 2011 recognized the porousness of the Philippine southern borders, the ASG’s involvement in the  kidnap for ransom of  21 individuals from Sidapan Resort Island in Malaysia  in 2000 and the presence in the Philippines  of about  50 foreign terrorist groupswith affiliations with Al Qaeda and access to terrorist knowledge of improvised  explosive devises.  Indeed, while the military has highlighted the ASG’s capabilities, it has not done so from a security lens that would have framed it as a major threat that should recast its intended and impending shift to territorial defense.  
 
The Duterte government should be mindful that the Maute group crisis is not only an internal security operation, but mainly an issue of the weak state and  years of exclusionary policies against the Moros. These are hard core issues that are beyond the scope of military intervention. Given the roots of crime and terrorism in the Sulu Sulawesi seas also transforms this into a maritime security concern. 
 
Under the pretext of the military’s internal security thrust, Presidents Macapagal Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III have enforced  policies that addressed the nexus of terrorism and maritime security.  This policy framing has led to various initiatives such as the establishment of the Coast Watch South (CWS) in 2006, a maritime domain awareness facility in eastern  and Western Mindanao with monitoring, surveillance and interdiction capabilities targeted against  ASG pirate-terrorists, among other threats.  It served as  one of the points of contact of the US maritime initiative in the Philippines and southeast Asia immediately after 9/11. Aquino III’s expansion of the CWSas the National Coast Watch System (NCWS) has provided the Philippines with a theoretical advantage. Anchored on “comprehensive border protection program” and naval  and air force modernization, it has  widened  the scope of border protection from the southern backdoor to the westernseaboard  of the country specifically the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
 
However the NCWS is only as good as the available modern naval and coast guard forces. In addition, the securitization of the WPS that Aquino pursued in 2011 became detrimental to the Armed Forces in terms of its impact on the military’s capability to address simultaneously active security threats:transnational security threats and a traditional military threat taking place in the southern and western maritime domains.
 
In balancing anti-terrorism and external defense, the Duterte government is focusing on managing its relations with China, “tread(ing) with prudence” and “calibrat(ing) its diplomatic moves”  as the National Security Policy, 2017-22 provides.   The Duterte government has moved torevisit theevolving internal security threat from the ASG as the latter  makes a come back after atrocious beheadings and kidnappings in 2015 and 2016.  This renewal of internal/ transnational  thrusts re-opens  possibilities forcooperative and coordinated approaches to border security. It builds on the earlier trilateral  and bilateral efforts to secure the area that security analysts have referred to as the “ungoverned” backdoor of the Philippines.
 
Alma Maria O Salvador is assistant professor of Political Science of the Ateneo de Manila University.