Philippine troops accidentally killed 11 of their comrades as they battled Islamist militants, the latest in a series of incidents illustrating how the military is struggling to contain the threat of rebel groups.
Soldiers are fighting street by street in the southern city of Marawi with the Muslim-extremist Maute group, which raised the black Islamic State flag there more than a week ago after authorities attempted and failed to
arrest the leader of an allied faction
The friendly fire incident announced Thursday, in which an airstrike Wednesday used unguided ordnance after the military ran short of guided missiles, came as the government said eight of the militants killed in fighting there were citizens of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other foreign countries. That announcement bolstered fears that the complexion of the
Philippines' militant uprising was becoming increasingly international
, as Islamic State, also known as ISIS, loses territory in Iraq and Syria.
The threat is all the more severe given the longstanding
failure of the Philippine military
to eradicate the many extremist groups that recruit from the poor, marginalized Muslim communities in the jungles of the southern island of Mindanao. The region, which includes Marawi, has spawned and supported myriad insurgencies dating back to at least the 1970s. Successive governments have promised to bring peace to Mindanao, but none have.
Security experts fear that disparate extremists are coalescing in Mindanao under the Islamic State banner, establishing themselves in a country with a weak rule of law, thriving illegal arms trade and ready supply of brutal criminal factions.
"It's not just Mindanao per se that is threatened," said Kumar Ramakrishna, a security expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. The rest of Southeast Asia "could well be targeted for both recruitment and attacks against Western and allied interests."
The Philippine military has received training and advice from foreign powers such as the U.S. and Australia, but is ill-equipped to deal with such a complex threat, analysts say.
Wednesday's deadly mishap increases by about half the government's casualties in the battle for Marawi, now at least 31. The incident also undermines the military's reassurances to civilians, told for more than a week that they are safe from its "precision" airstrikes and mortar fire.
The aircraft in the case, officials said, was a propeller-driven Marchetti S-260, a training and light-attack plane also made for civilian use.
"While we mourn the loss of our valued men, we will attend to their bereaved families and provide comfort and solace to them during this trying time," the armed forces said in a statement.
Many of the extremist fighters involved in clashes with the military, meanwhile, live to fight on. Of the estimated 500 fighters officials say occupied Marawi more than a week ago, many are thought to have slipped away, past military checkpoints. It is not clear whether Isnilon Hapilon, the militant leader whose attempted arrest triggered the battle, has also escaped. Officials believe he may still be in Marawi.
The Philippines armed forces didn't reply to a request for comment on its capacity to defeat the militants. In a statement Thursday, the military said it "will take down every Maute-ISIS member that continue to desecrate the Islamic City and thwart the security forces from restoring peace and order in this part of Mindanao."
While the threat from extremist groups like the Maute is growing, no evidence exists that they and other groups pledging their allegiance to Islamic State have received direct instructions from Islamic State leaders in the Middle East. Experts say the link is instead aimed at attracting new followers.
Southeast Asia, home to about 40% of the world's Muslims, is at particular risk of further radicalization. That is especially true in places like Mindanao's Muslim areas, where entrenched poverty and poor education alienate citizens from the Philippines' Roman Catholic majority. The Philippines lacks any structured extremist rehabilitation program, shown to be effective in countries such as Indonesia and Singapore.
Fears are gathering that the militants in Mindanao will declare a caliphate if the government doesn't defeat them, a symbolic move that could attract them attention and followers even though they lack the numbers to permanently hold a meaningful area.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who was for two decades the mayor of Mindanao's largest city, Davao, raised hopes that he would build bridges to the region's older and more peace-inclined militant groups when he came to power last year. But he has made little progress. This week, he dismissed any negotiations with the extremists on Marawi, adding that he was determined to keep Islamic State out of the country.
The president "may have been overconfident in believing that his experience in dealing with communist rebels in Davao City over the years would translate into success at the national level," said Marc Singer, director of business intelligence at risk-assessment firm