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In The Philippines, Government Forces Battle ISIS-Linked Militants


Militants linked to the Islamic State invaded the Filipino city of Marawi more than a week ago. The militants are still there; many of the city's 200,000 residents are not. They've fled. As Michael Sullivan reports from Marawi, many people are wondering what it means for regional stability when a siege can go on for so long.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Amrullah Omar tried to wait it out, hoping the armed forces would make quick work of the militants. But now, the government employee and father of three is throwing in the towel. He's afraid.

AMRULLAH OMAR: One hundred one percent afraid, and we don't expect to return in our house with a - in good condition.

SULLIVAN: He says he's angry at both the militants...

OMAR: Because if this group didn't come here, this place is very peaceful.

SULLIVAN: And he's angry at the government, too.

OMAR: Because they're using airstrike. There's a lot of people downtown still staying in their home, but the Philippine government ordered airstrike.

SULLIVAN: He shakes his head in disgust, gets in his car and drives away. In Marawi City a week after the fighting started, there's still no power, still no water, more than 90 dead and not a lot of faith in the official explanation of how it all began.

SIDNEY JONES: I think we're in the midst of a very well-planned operation by the ISIS supporters in the Philippines. And this is after the Philippines government denied for the last two years that there was any ISIS presence.

SULLIVAN: Sidney Jones tracks militant groups in Southeast Asia and is director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta, Indonesia. She says the official narrative, that the army was trying to raid the hideout of a top militant leader, just doesn't add up.

JONES: A lot of the ISIS fighters are chatting back and forth that they not only secured some of the bridges and exits in and out of the city, but their first target was the prison which they torched and then released all the inmates. And then they went after the gun stores. And these were all planned out by the fighters beforehand.

SULLIVAN: Fighters drawn from several different militant groups on the southern island of Mindanao, groups who only recently banded together under the Islamic State flag, fighters who've gotten help and funding from abroad. Rohan Gunaratna heads Singapore's International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.

ROHAN GUNARATNA: About a dozen foreign fighters from India, from Indonesia, Malayasia, Yemen, a few fighters from Saudi Arabia - these people had been killed in Marawi, so we are seeing that the southern Philippines is emerging as an important venue for foreign terrorist fighters.

SULLIVAN: Fighters drawn by porous borders and recently by a growing inability to make it to Syria to join the Islamic State ranks there, which pretty much makes the southern Philippines the only game in town for IS recruits from Southeast Asia and the region.

ZACHARY ABUZA: And we'll see if they are able to capitalize on this.

SULLIVAN: Zachary Abuza specializes in Southeast Asian security issues at the National War College in Washington, D.C. - reached via Skype. He worries what might happen if some of the militants in Marawi manage to evade capture.

ABUZA: If they are able to break through a cordon, then they can go back, and they can wave the black flag. And I think that they will continue to attract people from the region to come and join the ranks. I think this could become a much bigger problem.

SULLIVAN: Marawi. not just for the Philippines but for much of Southeast Asia. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Malawi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.