By Richel V. Umel
The Philippines launched a new anti-terrorism pact with the United States while it was helping defeat Islamic State-linked militants who had taken over the southern city of Marawi, the government announced Monday.
The joint endeavor, Operation Pacific Eagle, was launched in September 2017, or a month before militants were defeated in Marawi and President Rodrigo Duterte declared fighting over.
The operation became public knowledge after the Wall Street Journal reported last week about improving ties between both nations.
Dozens of Americans remain in the south serving as advisers to Filipino forces, a significant drop from the hundreds who were rotating here nearly 20 years ago when the southern Philippines was considered a petri dish for Islamic militancy.
The targets then were the Abu Sayyaf Group, a kidnap-for-ransom gang responsible for the worst attacks in the Philippines, including bombings, kidnappings and beheadings of foreign hostages.
The group later splintered into smaller factions, including one led by Isnilon Hapilon who would go on to be recognized by the Islamic State (IS) as its leader here. When Hapilon’s faction, aided by foreign militants, laid siege to the southern city of Marawi last year, Americans were among the first to offer help to government troops through intelligence gathering and surveillance.
The five-month battle left more than 1,200 militants, soldiers and civilians dead. Gunmen were defeated in late October after government troops killed Hapilon and other insurgent leaders.
No need to announce
Duterte spokesman Harry Roque said the government did not see a need to announce the new operation. The deal came months after diplomatic relations soured when the Philippine leader threatened to kick out American forces after former President Barrack Obama’s administration expressed concerns about his war on drugs.
Duterte also announced he was seeking an “independent foreign policy” away from Washington – a military ally since 1951 – and toward cooperation with Russia and China, which he had argued were closer geographically.
“We asked help from anyone, from all countries of the world, because the threat of terrorism is not just in the Philippines, it’s a worldwide concern,” Roque said. “So if countries want to give whatever assistance they could and they want to, it’s welcome.”
He said terrorism was a concern shared by other international organizations as well, and stressed that such an arrangement need not be announced.
“I do not know why we have to announce a call for assistance for an anti-terrorism initiative,” he said. “That’s not top secret.”
He said the fact that he was acknowledging any country can provide anti-terrorism assistance should be a welcome development.
“And if assistance would be given, we would gladly accept this assistance,” he said.
Asked whether Duterte’s apparent turnaround signaled that his government would no longer seek military allies elsewhere, Roque said: “Well, you know, an independent foreign policy recognizes there are threats which are common to the entire humanity and the threat of global terrorism is one of them.”
Previously, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said a significant drawdown of American troops helped IS infiltrate local Muslim extremist groups.
At the time, he said about 100 U.S. troops were in the Philippines, mostly for non-combat roles in the southern city of Zamboanga, from where they deployed to Marawi last year. Before that, about 600 American soldiers were deployed to the southern region at any given time.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.