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What is clear is that the battle over Marawi is already a propaganda victory for ISIS. The terror group has called on its supporters to travel to the Philippines to reinforce the ranks. It’s also clear to counter-terrorism analysts in the Philippines like Rommel Banlaoi that ISIS leaders in Syria helped plan the operation.
“This is a group that had direct communications with Syria, receiving direct instructions from Syria for an operation directly ordered and financed from Syria,” she said.
The real danger is that ISIS will use Marawi this as a springboard into Southeast Asia.
As it loses ground in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is promising a pivot to Asia, opening up new battlegrounds.
And it isn’t just targeting the Philippines. Neighboring Indonesia, where Islamists killed scores of foreigners in a bombing in the tourist resort of Bali in 2005, has the world’s largest Muslim population.
Malaysia, another neighbor, has battled Islamists in recent years.
Southeast Asia has more Muslims than the entire Middle East and with its high levels of poverty and youth unemployment, it is a perfect breeding ground for an extremist ideology that pins the blame on central governments, Western influence and lax morals.
“The battle for Marawi is almost over, but the broader war on terror has entered a new phase,” said analyst Richard Heydarian. “The ISIS message is ‘we’re not just confined to one geographic area — we have tentacles all over the world.’ This is not the end of ISIS; this is just a new chapter.”
But the Philippine army is fighting an enemy which has taken civilian hostages so it is treading warily.
The U.S. is offering more help.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met President Rodrigo Duterte and although the record of the Philippines leader appalls many in the U.S., they share a common enemy in ISIS. So Duterte will receive more American planes and drones.
Marawi is an embarrassment for Duterte, who boasted the takeover would be defeated within days. Nearly 80 days on it is still wreathed in smoke, pockmarked by bullets, strewn with rotting corpses and a vision of a new ISIS hell, thousands of miles from the Middle East.