ISIS is biding its time in the Philippines — and US special operators are fighting back with a $58,000 water pump

Analysis
In this June 9, 2017, photo, soldiers ride a military vehicle on the outskirts of Marawi city, southern Philippines. (Associated Press/Aaron Favila)

ISIS may have lost its physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but the group is poised for a resurgence in its enclave in the Philippines — and instead of eradicating the terror group once and for all before it facilitates another horrifying attack like the Easter bombings that rocked Sri Lanka, the U.S. military is focused on new plumbing.

At least, that's the takeaway from this fantastic Thomas Gibbons-Neff story in the New York Times on the latest mission for the contingent of U..S. special operations forces that have been assisting the Philippine Army with their campaign against ISIS insurgents over the last two years.


According to Gibbons-Neff, Marine Special Operations units have been working alongside an Army Special Operations Command's civil affairs team to facilitate the construction of a $58,000 water pump in the southern village of Padas, as part of the Pentagon's well-worn "hearts and minds" counterinsurgency playbook.

But ironically, Padas' own residents find the project, uh, ill-advised! From the New York Times (emphasis ours):

It has taken two months, an American Special Operations civil affairs team, three nonprofit organizations and an entire platoon from the Philippine Army to bring the pump to Padas, a village of about 3,000 people in the Mindanao chain of islands in the country's south. If all goes to plan, water from the pump will help impoverished farmers establish trust in the government, and, in turn, seek to undermine the militants' influence.

"Whatever the international community gives us, we'll accept," said Macaraya Ampuan, an influential leader in the village. "But first thing to address is security. Eliminate ISIS so our livelihoods can be stable."

Ampuan isn't wrong. While the ISIS enclaves in Iraq and Syria may have been reduced to dust, the terror organization is biding it time in villages across the Philippines ahead of an inevitable resurgence.

The Pentagon Inspector General's latest assessment of Operation Pacific Eagle – Philippines, published in February 2019 and covering the last three months of 2018, indicates that the terror group's Philippine offshoot has remained relatively resilient amid losses elsewhere. While the group has lacked unified leadership and consistent connections to the core ISIS organization since the 2017 siege of Marawi, its numbers have remained stable at between 300 and 350 members.

"Despite numerous killings and surrenders, there has been no observable trend in the estimates of force strength, which might suggest that the group is capable of at least sustainment-level recruitment," according to the DoD IG report, with U.S. Indo-Pacific Command indicating the group has "neither shown signs of rebuilding and expanding nor indications that it will be completely defeated in the near term."

The ISIS presence in the Philippines as of December 2018.(Department of Defense Inspector General)

But this year, ISIS has appeared increasingly emboldened in the Philippines. On New Year's Eve, ISIS detonated a bomb at a shopping mall in the southern part of the country, killing two bystanders; a month later, a pair of twin blasts at a Catholic cathedral left 23 dead in an attack that appeared to presage the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka months later.

"These groups have felt little impact from the loss of territory in Iraq and Syria, and need no direct communication from the Islamic State to understand its objectives, which the terrorist group broadcasts in regular audio messages," the New York Times noted of ISIS's far-flung franchises in the aftermath of the Sri Lanka attacks.

While the Philippine Army responded to the cathedral bombings with airstrikes and and influx of troops into rural havens for ISIS fighters in the country's south, U.S. Special Operation Command Pacific found that the Philippine military's current infrastructure "is insufficient to generate, process, and act upon intelligence gathered from manned and unmanned aerial systems" to effectively anticipate and thwart future attacks without U.S. help, per the DoD IG report.

At the moment, the United States has roughly 270 service members deployed to the country as part of OPE-P, including just 86 U.S. special operations forces, to assist the Philippine military with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations. But with ISIS staging bloody reprisals far from the borders of its former caliphate, whether the Pentagon's $58,000 water pipe will prove successful remains to be seen.

SEE ALSO: Trash-Talking Philippine President Threatens War With Canada If They Don't Take Out The Garbage

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