War on ISIS: U.S. Considers Airstrikes Against Militants in the Philippines

ISIS philippines
A Filipino soldier lies on a mattress in a house as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group in Marawi city, Philippines, on July 1. Two defense officials told NBC News the Pentagon is planning airstrikes to support the Philippine army. Jorge Silva/Reuters/File Photo

The U.S. is reportedly preparing to conduct airstrikes against fighters linked to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in the Philippines, but Filipino officials deny knowing or having discussed any such plans.

The Pentagon was about to launch an official military operation that may be named as early as Tuesday, two defense officials told NBC News on Monday. The operations would bolster support for the Philippine army, which has been battling Islamist fighters linked to the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf militants since the end of May in the city of Marawi, on Mindanao island, in the southern part of the country.

However, multiple Filipino officials said they have no knowledge of such an operation. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met on Monday, but presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella told local media that they did not discuss the subject, and a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense reiterated the matter had not been discussed.

Separately, the Philippine Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Eduardo Año said such U.S. involvement in the fight in Marawi city would have to follow a specific process.

"A covenant must be had between the commanders in chief of both nations before that option may be adopted," he said, quoted in local media. "Direct military actions may only be allowed during the actual invasion of the Philippines by another state actor," he added, referring to the Mutual Defense Treaty regulating military collaboration between the U.S. and the Philippines, a former American colony.

The U.S. military first publicly acknowledged its involvement in military operations in the Philippines in June, saying that U.S. troops had been deployed at the request of Duterte—who subsequently denied knowing about the request or the troops' presence.

The Americans have been assisting the Philippine military in the fight against Islamist militants since 2002, with the launch of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, which saw up to 600 U.S. military personnel in the country. While the operation officially concluded in 2015, a number of personnel remained in the Philippines to advise and assist the local forces. Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera said in June that the U.S. forces newly deployed in June would not be fighting but instead "providing technical support."

Speaking to the press on Monday, Tillerson said the U.S. military provided "information" and "surveillance capabilities." "We're providing them some training and some guidance in terms of how to deal with an enemy that fights in ways that is not like most people have ever had to deal with," he said.

Tillerson also referenced the transfer of "a couple of" drones and two Cessna C-208B Grand Caravan Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance aircraft that were delivered on July 27 to an air base in Pasay City.

The transfers, a statement from the Department of Defense said, were part of $33 million package to "provide equipment and training to improve Philippine counter-terrorism response capability."

The Philippine military has already conducted airstrikes against the militants, although at least one missed its target and ended up killing government troops instead.

As ISIS is driven out of its strongholds in Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, the ongoing siege in Marawi has become the new object of the group's propaganda and funding. A first video attempting to recruit fighters to go to the Philippines was released in June. The latest recruitment video specifically addressed Muslims in Australia, Australian media reported on Tuesday.

According to the Filipino military, nearly 700 people have died so far in the battle for Marawi city, now in its 12th week. Captain Jo-Ann Petinglay, Joint Task Force Marawi spokesperson, said at least 528 militants have been killed in the battle, as well as 122 government soldiers and 45 civilians, local media reported on Tuesday.