The Philippines has been grappling with Islamic State (ISIS)-affiliated militants who launched an offensive to control Marawi City on May 23, 2017. Despite a fierce counteroffensive spanning almost two months, which resulted in the death of about 500 militants, army officials, and civilians collectively, the Philippine army has still not completely retaken the city, located on the southern island of Mindanao.
Amidst this uproar, the Philippine government has been seeking military and arms support from various countries, including the United States and China. Beyond these large players, the Philippines has been taking assistance from other regional partners as well, including Malaysia and Indonesia. India has played a new but important role in these operations as well.
India had initially provided $500,000 to the Philippines to aid it in rehabilitating the inhabitants of Marawi, who were ravaged by the massive offensive. This is notable for two reasons. First, it is the first time India has ever supported another country financially against armed insurgents. Second, this the largest monetary contribution that the Philippines has received in the ongoing crisis. Beyond its donation, India has facilitated cybersecurity information exchange and training for Philippine officials involved in deradicalizing citizens.
India’s role in this siege comes in the wake of its increasing relations with the 10-member Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), of which the Philippines is a part, and its successful counterterrorism policies in its own backyard.
Indian Actions in Southeast Asia
India’s participation in countering the Marawi crisis marks yet another milestone in India’s Act East policy, an upgrade from the country’s previous Look East policy, which was announced in 1991. The Act East policy was initiated in 2014 after the ascension of Narendra Modi as part of his “extended neighborhood” strategy, which reenergized India’s engagement in the region. This was done to take advantage of the high economic growth experienced in the ASEAN nations collectively.
While there is much to be done before the Indian prime minister’s vision to increase the country’s influence in the region materializes, the past three years have highlighted growing relations between the nations involved. Under the Act East initiative, India made vigorous overtures to the ASEAN nations by tabling various financial, economic, defense, and trade agreements.
This included the signing of an air services agreement, a maritime expedition by Indian Navy ships to Asia, and a motor rally in order to demonstrate the air, maritime, and land connectivity between India and Southeast Asia. These agreements followed the ninth edition of the Delhi Dialogue, held earlier this year in July, which discussed connectivity, cybersecurity, and sociopolitical issues.
India’s ambitions in the region are aimed at achieving the status of a regional superpower by counterbalancing the overarching influence of China and its growing alliance with Pakistan, India’s rival. China’s territorial disputes with various nations in the South China Seas have helped India adopt the mantle of a concerned neighbor seeking peaceful means to end these squabbles.
It is against this backdrop that India is offering its assistance to the Philippines, which has been readily accepted due to India’s considerable success in keeping Islamist terrorism at bay within its own borders.
Indian Counterterrorism: Export-Worthy Operations
Despite the fact that India is one of the most violently affected nations in the world, with a Maoist insurgency in many states, separatist movements in Kashmir, and other insurgencies across the country, it has largely avoided the bane of Islamist terrorism. This is especially laudable due to the presence of various homegrown Islamist groups in the nation such as the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the Indian Mujahideen (IM); although involved in attacks, these groups have been largely inactive.
India has also managed to ward off the largest threats from globalized Islamist terrorist groups. The declaration of the formation of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) followed closely on the heels of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) in the June-September of 2014 period and renewed fears among security establishments in the country. However, despite a few propaganda videos and attempted attacks, India’s 150 million-plus Muslim population has largely resisted the appeal of global jihad.
India’s efficient counterterrorism and intelligence agencies have played a major role in mitigating the problems posed by these groups. For instance, Operation Chakravyuh, launched in late 2014, was a sting operation whereby Indian intelligence units posed as ISIS recruiters and apprehended many potential terrorists, leading to a dwindling numbers of citizens interested in joining the fight in Syria and Iraq. The decrease was steep according to the agencies, which reported a fall in interested members from 3,000 to about 150.
India also conducted various community based deradicalization programs across the country, harnessing the existing goodwill of the Muslim community to bring greater cooperation and increased prevention of terrorist activities.
These capabilities of the Indian security agencies are now being projected and transferred to the Philippines government. Such softer measures are quite essential to the island nation’s counterterrorism policies, which are mostly kinetic and military in nature.
Regional and Domestic Implications
Considering India’s formidable role as a bulwark against terrorism, it is expected that the country will raise its counterterrorism standards digitally and physically, thereby complementing the Philippines’ counterterrorism efforts. The relations between the two countries on this front will help the Philippine government effectively renew and modify its existing counterterrorism frameworks. This will augment Indian ambitions in the region, especially due to its extended counterterrorism cooperation with other nations fighting terrorism, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
Observers may note that India risks drawing the ire of extremist groups as a byproduct of these connections. The Islamic State has lost most of its territory in the Middle East and is expected to expand toward the east, including Southeast Asian nations and some South Asian nations (such as Afghanistan). However, India’s role in thwarting these ambitions in both regions may cause the group to intensify campaigns against India, much as its regional counterpart AQIS did in June 2017.
This may create a noticeable problem for India. Terrorist groups’ resentment for Indian counterterrorism operations along with the perceived rise in Hindu extremism sentiments in the country may provide fuel for ISIS propaganda against the country. Due to ISIS foregoing its responsibility to maintain and administrate territory in Iraq and Syria, a costly affair, the group will now have the freedom to use its finances elsewhere.
If India’s rise in counterterrorism cooperation against the region is highlighted strongly enough, the Islamic State will try to attack in retaliation. This could result in increased danger to Indian citizens and personnel abroad as well as a rise in recruitment activities. Fortunately, it is doubtful that the group may actually succeed, considering India’s track record so far. At the most, security agencies in the country will be kept busier.
Thus, Indian activities undertaken in countering extremism in the Philippines will be another feather in the hat for India’s ambitions in Southeast Asia. New Delhi has weighed the increased cooperation with the Philippines against the subsequent rise of threats from the Islamic State and has rightly chosen to enhance counterterrorism relations. A prolonged engagement with the intelligence and counterterrorism agencies of the Philippines will give India an unexpected but welcome boost to its foreign policy ventures.
Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a Research Analyst with the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has written on politics, conflict, and security pertaining to West Asia and India.