By Jeoffrey Maitem and Richel V. Umel
The Philippines has strengthened anti-terror and defense ties with the U.S. and Australia in an effort to beat back the influence of extremist group Islamic State in the south, five months after IS-linked fighters were chased out of Marawi city.
On Tuesday, the Philippine and Australian navies began a 15-day joint naval exercise in southern Filipino waters, where militants with ties to IS are notorious for hijacking foreign and local cargo vessels, officials said. Meanwhile the United States, another longtime military ally, handed Manila a state-of-the-art drone worth 687 million pesos (U.S. $13.2 million).
In southern Zamboanga city, two Armidale-class Australian patrol boats arrived to take part in the exercises, which are designed to give the Filipino navy additional capability against militants.
Through the drills, Philippine sailors will learn from their Royal Australian Navy counterparts about ways of “thwarting terror attacks in key areas of Mindanao and neighboring Asian countries,” said Rear Adm. Rene Medina, commander of naval forces in western Mindanao.
“I am certain that both our navies share a common concern in ensuring safer seas for our seafarers and the local community as well,” he said, adding there had been “zero kidnapping at sea” for more than year in the south.
The last incident was the abduction of German yachtsman Jurgen Kantner in November 2016. He was beheaded months later by his captors, believed to be a faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the country’s most violent extremist group, which has been blamed for kidnappings and bombings.
One of ASG’s leaders, Isnilon Hapilon, later emerged as the acknowledged head of the IS in the country and led a takeover of the southern city of Marawi by force.
He was killed last October, along with several followers, at the end of the five-month siege. More than 1,200 people were killed in Marawi, a majority of them suspected militants.
During the drawn-out battle, the U.S. and Australian militaries provided vital intelligence help, flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that pinpointed enemy locations for airstrikes by Philippine forces.
On Tuesday, the U.S. turned over a Scan Eagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to the Philippine military.
“Given its superb technical specifications, this equipment will certainly be vital to the capability readiness of the Philippine Air Force especially in the conduct of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations in support of a variety of missions such as territorial defense, security and stability,” Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in showing the military’s latest acquisition to the press.
“With a number of security issues confronting our country, there is a need to upgrade our nation’s armed forces and to establish a more credible defense,” he said, adding that the new drone was one way of deterring “those who want to wage war against our country.”
The new acquisition of military hardware came two months after the Philippines confirmed that it had launched a new anti-terror pact with the U.S. while Washington was helping break the Marawi siege.
Operation Pacific Eagle, as it is known, began a month before the militants were defeated in Marawi, but only became public knowledge early this year.
Dozens of U.S. troops rotate in and out of the Mindanao region, the country’s southern third, serving as advisers to local forces, but the American personnel are barred from taking part in actual combat.
This is a significant drop from the hundreds who were deployed to the south, which was considered the Southeast Asian theater of the U.S.-led war on terror nearly two decades earlier.
The new arrangement came after diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Philippines soured after President Rodrigo Duterte took offense to the outgoing administration of then-American leader Barrack Obama, which had expressed concern about his administration’s brutal drug war.
Duterte later warmed up to Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, who had praised his leadership, despite criticism from other western countries and the United Nations.
Washington recently included the Maute group in its list of foreign terrorist organizations affiliated with IS, a move welcomed by the Philippine government.