Even if the likelihood of a 'caliphate' emerging on Australia's doorstep is low, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is right to focus attention on the southern Philippines.
The more likely danger is that pro-Islamic State (IS) extremists with deadly skills may use bases there to plan hits in Mindanao and Manila, or train operatives to carry out attacks elsewhere in the region. It is unlikely that hundreds of foreign fighters will flee there as Islamic State is pushed back, but even a dozen could cause serious damage.
Since late 2014, extremists from Indonesia and Malaysia and a few foreigners from further afield have been working with pro-IS groups based in Mindanao and Basilan, in the Sulu archipelago. Several of those groups formed an alliance in early 2016 with the blessing of IS central and swore loyalty to a Basilan-based leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Isnilon Hapilon, as amir. They had reportedly planned to announce the establishment of a Southeast Asian province (wilayat) of Islamic State, based on the island of Basilan, off the southwestern tip of Mindanao. It never happened, for reasons that are unclear, but Southeast Asian IS leaders in Syria have been urging their followers at home to join the jihad in the Philippines, and local leaders have been recruiting as well. The number of foreigners working with the alliance remains small (officials say less than ten), but they include highly educated men with good funding networks, including several from peninsular Malaysia. There are many reasons we should be concerned:
1. The alliance of pro-IS groups in the Philippines crosses clan and ethnic lines that traditionally have been a barrier to united action. It brings Isnilon Hapilon's ethnic Yakan from Basilan together with the Maute brothers' Maranao fighters from Lanao del Sur and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters' Magindanaon from central Mindanao. It can draw on the lethal skills of the ASG's Urban Terrorist Group, based around Zamboanga, and on converts to Islam from what used to be known as the Rajah Sulaiman Movement, most of whom come from Luzon and the Visayas. The alliance has already carried out several deadly attacks, including the September 2016 bombing of a night market in Davao, and it could easily extend its geographic reach to Manila.
2. The alliance seems to have had access to a steady stream of funding, apparently arranged in part through Dr Mahmud Ahmad (also known as Abu Handzalah), a Malaysian professor who joined Hapilon in September 2014. The income was such that Hapilon's fighters kept away from kidnap-for-ransom operations – the abduction and beheading of foreigners was the work of different ASG factions, not linked to IS. If that income stream gets cut off as military pressure intensifies and the Malaysian police identify more of Dr Mahmud's contacts, Hapilon and his men could revert to their former methods.
3. Malaysian and Indonesian supporters seem to be trying to replenish IS ranks. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stepped up operations against suspected IS camps in 2016-17, killing many fighters (and wounding Hapilon himself earlier this year). In January 2017, Malaysian police arrested three men and a woman in Sabah reportedly trying to recruit Bangladeshi workers and ethnic Rohingya on Dr Mahmud's instructions (there is no evidence that they succeeded). The last thing this region needs is stronger links with violent extremists in Bangladesh – yet these international connections are precisely what IS has spawned.
4. There is concern that the alliance could provide a safe haven to pro-IS fugitives from neighbouring countries or even the Middle East. In July 2014, Australian Musa Cerantonio was caught in the Philippines and deported. Indonesian terrorists have a history of fleeing to Mindanao, and several of the Bali bombers ended up there. A botched counter-terrorism operation against Malaysian fugitive Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan in January 2015 ended up torpedoing the peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The Singaporean Mohammad Ali bin Abdulrahman (also known as Muawiyah and Manobo) has been the target of airstrikes in recent weeks in a Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters-controlled area of Maguindanao province (he is frequently wrongly referred to as a Jemaah Islamiyah member but he never joined the organization). The fact is that borders among the island nations of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are extremely porous and there are many areas of Mindanao and Sulu outside the control of the central government.
5. The problem is being exported from Mindanao back to the region. Indonesian police just arrested a pro-IS group in Banten, whose leader had made several undetected trips to Mindanao to buy guns from Isnilon Hapilon's men for use in Indonesian operations. Terrorist travel is a two-way street.
All this is clearly underscores the risk. That said, there is unlikely to be a flood of returnees from Syria and Iraq streaming into Philippines. Unlike the 'Afghan alumni' (Southeast Asians who trained on the Pakistan-Afghan border in the late 1980s-early 90s), most IS fighters left with no intention of returning. Many went as part of family groups, complicating the logistics of returning even if they wanted to come back. Others married locally and may stay with their spouses. Australia does not need to worry about 600 (or 300 or even 100) ex-combatants joining the ranks of the alliance.
The biggest mistake the Australian government could make would be prioritising counter-terrorism over all else or assuming that Duterte's military operations will end the problem. Australia's assistance program in Mindanao should be continued and strengthened, increasing the capacity for governance and reducing the number of pockets where IS alliance members can operate freely. Continued support for the peace process, despite setbacks, is also essential, as is expanded support for Australian Federal Police officers to work together with Philippine counterparts. Indeed, Bishop could usefully champion training programs that would enable law enforcement officers from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to develop real expertise on each other's countries – and maybe on Bangladesh and Myanmar as well.