The month-long battle for the city of Marawi in Mindanao between Philippine soldiers and militants who had sworn allegiance to IS leader, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi is a wake-up call.
The vicious street fighting in Marawi which left hundreds of government soldiers, militants and civilians dead showed Daesh's rising influence in Southeast Asia, despite the terrorist group’s recent battlefield losses and crumbling of its "Caliphate" in Iraq and Syria.
Lulled by IS's imminent defeats in the Middle East, many governments in Southeast Asia, according to a terrorism expert, could have underestimated the growing danger presented by the terror group in the region.
“The IS are far more advanced in Southeast Asia than previously recognised,” said Hong Kong-based ISS Risk, political risk and analysis head Phill Hynes during a panel discussion titled "Could Southeast Asia be Islamic State's New Frontline", at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand recently.
The battle in Marawi has shown IS' locally-affiliated militant groups, Maute and Abu Sayyaf’s ability to plan and execute a large terror operation like overrunning and occupying the seaside city of 200,000 residents in the southern Philippines.
Its ability in withstanding more than a month of military onslaught by the better-equipped Philippine forces including daily airstrikes by the country’s air force, was further testament to IS’ growing military capability and its confidence.
The local militants entrenched in Marawi are said to be led by the region's most wanted terrorist Isnilon Hapilon, who carries a US$5 million bounty on his head.
The Marawi-episode according to Hynes, had also served as an “inspiration” to the terrorist group, which in turn could attract more external fighters to look eastward at the Southeast Asian region as its new battleground.
“The battle in Marawi is an inspiration for Daesh's (sic) followers, not necessarily an attempt to create a 'wilayah' (district) in South East Asia. It is to inspire everybody, inspire the follower and create a momentum," said the expert.
He said countries in the region needed to beef up their capability to deal with threats posed by IS and its supporters and not suffer the same fate as the Philippines.
The terrorism expert also expressed his shock on Manila’s intelligence failure to anticipate and predict the militants’ move on Marawi, which according to him, had further sealed the Philippines’ fate as the region’s weakest link in the fight against the IS.
Another panellist, Jakarta Post senior editor Endy Bayuni, said the violent ideology promoted by Daesh had failed to attract wide audience and supporters in the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia.
"Daesh (sic) is not popular in Indonesia," he said, estimating the number of Indonesians who prescribed to the violent ideology at around 500 and citing the country's moderate version of Islam as among the main reason for its rejection by the wider population.
He described several incidents involving IS supporters in Indonesia as “isolated” cases and did not paint the true picture of it as a moderate Islamic country.
Meanwhile, panellist Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat said Thailand remained free from any problems related to the IS.
“There is no solid evidence of Daesh’s (sic) influence in the country. Thailand is not in the picture,” according to her.
Even the militant groups in southern Thailand, she said, had rejected the ‘Salafist-Jihadist’ ideology which formed the core of IS' thinking and its violent behaviour.