US special ops command identifies PH as focus of its anti-Al Qaeda, ISIS operations

July 3, 2017 - 2:41 PM
Soldiers stand guard beneath ISIS graffiti on a street in Marawi. (Reuters)

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines has been identified under “violent extremist organizations-focused operations” by the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) alongside countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Iraq where Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are found.

In a statement delivered before the US Senate Armed Services Committee last May 4, USSOCOM commander General Raymond Thomas mentioned the Philippines as among the areas that their unit supported in countering ISIS as part of their “interoperability” capability or their function to conduct joint operations.

“Similar relationships are routine throughout all areas of active hostility, such as with the 5th Fleet in the CENTCOM AOR (United States Central Command area of responsibility) and multiple service and IA (inter-agency) partners in the Philippines,” he said.

Aside from the Philippines, Thomas also mentioned that they had also assisted Libyan forces in re-taking Sirte, Libya while relying heavily on over 450 airstrikes conducted by their Joint Force partners.

He said countering the threat posed by violent extremist organizations was the highest priority in their unit. This involved disrupting the external attack capability and destroying the AQ and the ISIS as well as developing a long-term approach to defeat and to counter violent extremist organizations.

“Organizations such as ISIS and AQ are trans-regional threats that require the Joint Force to work with partners across the US government as well as coalition partners,” he said.

About the USSOCOM

The USSOCOM organizes, trains, and equips special actions forces to support US security interests around the world. They also operate and fight in other countries as an integrated joint, combined, and inter-agency force, especially in cases of terrorism.

Among the highlights of their activities are under Operation Gallant Phoenix, which is a US-led multinational intelligence operation aimed at disrupting trans-regional terrorist networks through information sharing.

In the past, foreign fighter flow into Iraq and Syria had been tracked under the said operation.

Concerns over US military invention raised

In his statement, Thomas said they have 19 foreign partners under the operation. And with the increased activity of violent extremism in the Philippines, concerns had been raised by the leftist group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) as to whether the Philippines would become part of the US-led counter-terrorism campaign, following the events in Marawi City.

“The Philippine government should disclose if it is part of Operation Gallant Phoenix…What is the extent of the Philippines involvement in this program as well as the extent of US meddling in our internal affairs?” said Bayan Secretary General Renato Reyes Jr.

Reyes also posed additional questions: “For example, was Gallant Phoenix used by the US to provide the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) with the intelligence on Isnilon Hapilon in Marawi, which triggerred the armed conflict last May 23? Was the AFP operation so timed that it would scuttle Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s Russia visit? With Gallant Phoenix, how much did the US already know of the operations of the Maute-Abu Sayyaf group in Marawi?”

Recent reports indicated the presence of the US Special Forces in Marawi City. However, the Philippine military clarified that they were not fighting alongside local troops but merely providing technical assistance.

Reyes said Duterte’s allowing the presence American soldiers in Marawi was a “direct contravention” of the chief executive’s past statements about the United States’ historical misdeeds.

He also claimed there were indications that the US wanted a bigger role in Mindanao, following the events in Marawi.

“The US had previously wanted to establish de facto bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA. They continue to maintain a small force of SOF operatives who ‘assist’ the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” Reyes said.

He also warned against US military intervention in the country, citing the roles the US played during the Abu Sayyaf threat in 2002 and the Mamasapano encounter in 2015.

“The US intervenes to advance its own economic and geopolitical interests in a region…When it suits US interests, these so-called terrorist groups are supported by the US to destabilize or bring down a regime such as the one in Syria,” Reyes said.

“As we have seen in Mindanao, US cannot protect us from the terrorist monster it created in the first place. The US however will continue using this monster as pretext for its military intervention in the country,” he added.