By Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
Troops from Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines will hold joint land-based exercises as part of an effort to curb the spread of militancy in the region, Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said Friday.
The exercises will take place in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo island, he said.
“I’m planning it. Implementation will be after Ramadan,” Ryamizard told reporters after a ceremony at the Defense Ministry in Jakarta, but without giving further details.
According to Ryamizard, Malaysia and the Philippines had agreed to this, but defense officials from those countries could not be reached immediately to confirm this information.
Last week, during a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore, the minister indicated that the three neighboring countries were looking to add joint ground patrols to existing trilateral air and sea patrols targeting pro-Islamic State (IS) militants in the region.
“In the future, two months from now, we will step up and elevate this cooperation through the land forces joint operation,” Ryamizard told the Singapore meeting.
“The aim of this joint operation is to locate ISIS in the southern Philippines and stop it from spreading,” the Indonesian defense minister said, using another acronym for IS.
During a bilateral meeting in Singapore with Malaysian counterpart Mohamad Sabu, Ryamizard said the training exercise “at a company level” would focus on “anti-guerrilla warfare, urban warfare and how to tackle snipers.”
A company is a military unit that usually consists of 80 to 150 soldiers and often commanded by a major or a captain.
Ryamizard told Mohamad that the militants in southern Philippines were skilled marksmen and it was necessary for the three countries to equip their forces with better rifles.
The three nations began trilateral patrols in June last year after pro-IS militants launched a siege in the southern Philippine city of Marawi. Five months of vicious fighting ended in October and killed at least 1,200 people, mostly militants, including the acknowledged Philippine IS leader Isnilon Hapilon.
The Marawi fighting emboldened other Southeast Asian terror cells aligned with the Syria- and Iraq-based IS, according to analysts.
Among the 31,500 foreign fighters who had joined IS in Syria, about 800 came from Asia, including 400 from Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country, Ryamizard said on June 2, citing intelligence data from his government.
In Singapore, Ryamizard talked about the joint plans to curb the spread of IS in and around the southern Philippines as his own country grappled with a string of terror attack in recent weeks, including bombings that targeted three churches and killed 51 people, including 13 civilians, seven police and 31 suspects.
Indonesia, a nation of 262 million people, faces a resurgence of extremist attacks as security analysts warned that dozens of its citizens would return home after fighting for IS in the Middle East.
“Maritime patrols have been already implemented, the air patrols too, even though mostly through drones, but it is the same. But not the land patrols yet, even though the combined land forces exercise is very important,” Ryamizard said.
Malaysia’s Sabah state is a short boat ride from islands in the Philippines’ Mindanao region, where pro-IS Muslim guerrillas and other armed Muslim groups operate. The waters between the two countries are extremely porous and analysts said the three nations shared coastal borders that have long been used for smuggling routes.
To involve elite forces
Indonesia’s Defense Ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Totok Sugiharto, told BenarNews that the exercise would involve the three forces from the Indonesian National Army (TNI).
“This is also a continuation of the collaboration of the intelligence sharing strategy ‘Our Eyes’ which was launched earlier,” he said, referring to sub-regional cooperation with Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand launched earlier this year in Bali, Indonesia.
Khairul Fahmi, a military observer from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told BenarNews the joint ground patrol exercises are needed as the three neighbors face militant groups with similar characteristics.
“There is a need to increase and standardize ability to paralyze these groups,” he said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly reported that Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia were launching trilateral land-based patrols and these would take place in Mindanao island in the southern Philippines.