TARAKAN, Indonesia—What is brewing in Marawi has sent a chilling message to Asean.
The growing influence of the Islamic State (IS) group coupled with a string of kidnappings by insurgent Islamist groups has forced three nations in the Asean bloc to unite and act.
Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines on Monday deployed warships to patrol the waters plagued by this threat, signaling the start of unprecedented joint patrols by the countries that share borders with one another in the area.
Warships, speedboats and helicopters maneuvered in a coordinated manner in a military drill to salvage a hijacked container vessel. This exercise marked the beginning of joint patrols that kicked off at an Indonesian naval base in the North Kalimantan capital of Tarakan.
Defense ministries and army chiefs from the three countries attended the ceremony. Singapore and Brunei Darussalam, which do not share the border, also sent observers and may take part in future sea patrols.
The patrols are aimed at turning back regional insurgencies that have escalated around the Sulu Sea, located on the border between Malaysia and the Philippines, says Indonesian Military (TNI) chief Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo.
In the past few years, many ships passing through the Sulu Sea, including several Indonesian ships, have been hijacked by the Abu Sayyaf militant group, an Islamist outfit based in the southern Philippines. The group has demanded money in return for the safety of the detained crews.
There is a sense of urgency in the joint patrols following the alarming collapse of security in the southern Philippines after IS-linked fighters, including some from Indonesia and Malaysia, overran the city of Marawi.
In a bid to fend off the fallout from Marawi and halt the spread of IS in the region, Indonesia inaugurated a maritime command center at the Tarakan naval base, which is close to hot spots in the Sulu Sea and the southern Philippines.
The command center will link up with similar facilities in Tawau in Malaysia’s Sabah state and Bongao in the Philippines. The centers will share intelligence on the movement of terrorist groups and pirates.
Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said what happened in Marawi should serve as a reminder that Asean must unite in clamping down on IS supporters to prevent them from setting up a base in the region.
“Before they even build their Asian base, we will destroy them,” Ryamizard said.
Malaysian Defense Minister Hishamuddin Tun Hussein said he expected other Southeast Asian countries to participate in more joint patrols in the future to ensure security and safe travel throughout the region.
“Instability in one Asean country will affect all the others,” Hishamuddin said.
Indonesia suspects that foreign fighters involved in the siege of Marawi may have slipped away during the battle with Philippine military forces. It is possible the fighters mingled with evacuees in order to escape.
“We need to watch out for the 500 to 600 terrorists there. We understand 257 of them have been killed, while the rest are blending in with the refugees,” Gatot said.
Asked about the possibility of the militants slipping into Indonesia, Gatot believed they had yet to arrive. He said the TNI would intensify patrols in the border areas with the Philippines to prevent them from entering Indonesia.
“Terrorism has become transnational. The groups are connected. Therefore, efforts in counterterrorism should be held in a coordinated way. If not, we will not succeed,” Gatot said. He added that the three countries had not decided when the coordinated patrols might end.
The National Police have reported that 38 Indonesians, including one woman, are thought to have been involved in the Marawi conflict.
Four were killed and 12 others have been deported by the Philippine government. Meanwhile, 22 others are reportedly still in Marawi.
Indonesia has intensified patrols in the waters from North Sulawesi to North Kalimantan, especially around the outermost islands, which are prone to act as entry points for terrorists and insurgents from the Philippines./rga