ISIS Leaders in Syria Funded Philippine Militants Before Marawi Takeover

A Filipino soldier lies on a mattress in a combat area as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group in Marawi city, Philippines, on July 1. Reuters/Jorge Silva

The leadership of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Syria funded militants in the Philippines to the tune of thousands of dollars before their lightning takeover of the southern city of Marawi in May, according to a new report.

Philippine militants with the Maute group and some from the Abu Sayyaf group swept into Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao, and two months later the battles are ongoing. The clashes have left hundreds of Islamist fighters dead and forced others to flee, but Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said this week that as many as 220 fighters remain in the city.

The battle for Marawi represents the most significant capture of Asian territory by an ISIS-linked group, and the most notable since ISIS seized the Libyan central coastal city of Sirte in mid-2015.

The report, published Thursday by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, details new evidence of extensive contact between a Malaysian militant, Dr. Mahmud Ahmad—one of the leaders of ISIS's East Asia wilayah, or province—and ISIS central command in Syria over the past year. The purpose of the meetings was to funnel money and fighters in a bid to grab territory from Philippine forces.

Ahmad sent ISIS money through Indonesia and used fighters from the outlawed Indonesian militant group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), which the U.S. has designated as an extremist organization. The funding came in payments of tens of thousands of U.S. dollars via Western Union transfers in what amounts to direct support from ISIS.

Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of the Abu Sayyaf militant group—the radical Islamist ally of the Maute group—is leading the battle for Marawi. The Abu Sayyaf group, known for taking hostages to raise funds to boost its aim of creating a de facto Islamic state in the southern Philippines, has pledged allegiance to ISIS and has beheaded several Western nationals, including two Canadian men and a German man, in the last year.

Despite the ISIS support, most of the militants' money likely came from local donations, and its recruiting was also mostly local, the report found. But the payments demonstrate how ISIS still had the ability to fund its affiliates around the world, even after severe losses in Iraq and Syria.

The report says the funding that allowed for such an emboldened seizure of one of the country's cities could lead to a greater problem with extremism in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, where ISIS-inspired attacks or plots have taken place or been dismantled in recent years. The fear now for security services in Asia is that the various Asian militants waging the battle against Philippine forces in Marawi will return home with greater battlefield experience and expertise to wage jihad in their own countries.

"The risks won't end when the military declares victory," Sidney Jones, IPAC director, said in the report. "Indonesia and Malaysia will face new threats in the form of returning fighters from Mindanao, and the Philippines will have a host of smaller dispersed cells with the capacity for both violence and indoctrination."

The report calls for greater cooperation between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines in combating extremism, and says the Philippines should be leading the way in supporting Marawi residents who have been displaced. It also recommends reconstructing the city so that ill feeling among the population does not make the area "even more fertile ground for extremist recruitment."

The report based its findings on messages on the encrypted messaging platform Telegram, interviews with associates of militants in the Philippines and visits to Mindanao.