When you think of ISIS, what’s likely to come to mind is Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Perhaps you even think of Europe with the terrorist attacks that have become increasingly more common and the hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking protection.
What’s less likely to come to mind is the Christian-majority country of the Philippines. However, a small militant group in the city of Marawi that has pledged allegiance to ISIS is causing significant damage, and some experts fear it has the potential to lead a tide of extremism, and the spread of ISIS occupation in South Asia.
The Maute Group, an Islamist extremist group that has joined ISIS, has been controlling parts of the city of Marawi in the Philippines and fighting against the country’s army. The group has the goal of establishing an Islamic state in Lanao province of Mindanao island.
Conflict reached a peak last week, when the Philippine army launched a mission to find high-level terrorist Isnilon Hapilon, after a tip off that he could be in the city. Upon arriving in Marawi, the army was met by intense resistance from Maute fighters and Hapilon escaped.
Despite high death tolls among the terrorists, they have remained determined and maintained control over areas of the city. The group has taken disturbing actions such as freeing dozens of prisoners, many of which joined their forces, setting fire to buildings, recruiting and using children as propaganda, and taking hostages.
The fighting last week included the extremists tying up 9 Catholics at the city gates and killing them.
Sources say that children as young as 4 have been recruited to the group; vulnerable orphans have specifically been targeted. These children have been featured in videos made by the group as well as forced to fight.
Among the hostages taken by the group is Catholic priest Teresito Suganob. Fr. Suganob was shown in a propaganda video saying that he is being held with 200 others, including children and fellow Christians. There have been claims that hostages are being used as human shields.
Military General Eduardo Ano said that over 100 militants, government personnel, and civilians have lost their lives in the fighting.
Experts fear that with international focus currently set on controlling ISIS in the Middle East, Mindanao could become a strategic place for the Islamist extremist group to spread in South Asia.