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Philippines’ Duterte declares Marawi liberated but analysts urge caution

MARAWI — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday (Oct 17) declared the southern city of Marawi “liberated from terrorists” after a five-month battle against militants loyal to the Islamic State (IS) group but experts warned that the threat is far from over.

MARAWI — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday (Oct 17) declared the southern city of Marawi “liberated from terrorists” after a five-month battle against militants loyal to the Islamic State (IS) group but experts warned that the threat is far from over.

Analysts told TODAY the death of two senior IS leaders in the battle-scarred city will inspire a new generation of militants to follow in their footsteps and stage another siege through experiences gained from the months-long battle.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi liberated from the terrorists,” Mr Duterte said, speaking just after explosions and gunfire were heard in the city.

He made the declaration in a rain-soaked speech to troops in Marawi where they have been fighting the militants in clashes that have claimed more than 1,000 lives and displaced 400,000 people.

Mr Duterte’s announcement came just hours after the military said it was still hunting down 20 to 30 fighters in the battle zone, including Malaysian militant leader Mahmud Ahmad.

On Monday, the military claimed a major breakthrough when it announced the death of Isnilon Hapilon, the IS leader in South-east Asia. Also killed in a dawn offensive was Omarkhayam Maute, one of two brothers who headed the Maute group which had pledged allegiance to IS.

Military chief General Eduardo Ano told The Associated Press that Mr Duterte’s statement means the threat from the militants is substantially over.

“They’re leaderless and they have no more organisation,” he said. “(But) there are still skirmishes.”

Still, analysts cautioned the Philippines from celebrating too early, noting that IS loyalists and supporters will view the deaths of Hapilon and Maute as martyrdom.

Their deaths are also likely to inspire other militants and would-be militants to follow in their footsteps.

“We must understand that the deceased are not ordinary fighters. They are also the catalyst, motivator and charismatic influencer that shape the unity of fighters,” said Mr Muhammad Saiful Alam Shah Sudiman, an associate research fellow with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.

“It took years, especially for the case of Hapilon, before he reached his present rank. This will aspire junior fighters to raise the bar and to be someone of that calibre and die as a martyr.”

And with the experiences garnered from the months-long fight against Philippine military troops in Marawi, Mr Muhammad Saiful said this has equipped the fighters with the necessary skills to engage in urban warfare in the future.

“They have learnt much from all these months of fighting. To retreat and re-strategise is an option (for them). They are capable to stage another siege with an improvised tactics.”

Concurring, terrorism expert Jasminder Singh said the South-east Asian region is still facing a grave threat from IS as there are other jihadi groups in the Philippines that have pledged their allegiance to the terror group.

“Retaliatory attacks cannot be discounted because ISIS will still want to show its presence in the Philippines,” he said, in using the other name for IS.

“The deaths (of Hapilon and Maute) might also inspire younger followers to seek revenge,” added the senior analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

The deaths of the senior IS leaders may be a success to the Duterte administration, but it will not make the IS threat disappeared in the region, said Mr Romain Quivooij, an associate research fellow at RSISS.

Instead, South-east Asia is “likely to witness a new cycle of fragmentation within and between local insurgent groups and gangs,” he said.

The prospect of retaliatory attacks from sympathisers of the militants have prompted the Philippine military to raise the alert level in the country.

The directive included tightening border security to prevent militants from moving around the archipelago.

The United States, a longtime defence ally of the Philippines, vowed on Tuesday (Oct 17) to support the military’s final push in Marawi.

“The US Government will continue to work with the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the final phases of this operation, and looks forward to cooperating in assuring the stabilisation and rehabilitation of Marawi,” said US embassy press attache Molly Koscina. AGENCIES

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