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Australia’s interests are strongest in our region, so why do we prioritise events in the Middle East, Europe and America? Former diplomat Bruce Haigh reports.

AUSTRALIA’S INTEREST in the politics and prosperity of South East Asia is stronger than that of the United States — however you might think that was not the case by the priority Australia gives to events in the Middle East, Europe and America.

Australia is inextricably linked to South East Asia through geography, trade, education and population. It is where the greatest expansion in our trade will take place. Close or linked time zones make business easier. Shorter air and shipping routes enhance contact and productivity.

Why, then, does Australia expend so much money, lives and time trying to crush the Taliban and ISIS in Iraq and Syria when we have a potentially bigger and more complex problem emerging on our door step?

For decades, the radical Muslim organisation, Abu Sayyaf, has fought the Philippine army and police in an attempt to establish a caliphate on the island of Mindanao. They have recently been joined by ISIS fighters forced out of the Middle East. Their route to Mindanao is through Malaysia and Indonesia by boat.

On 23 May, fighting broke out between the Philippine Army and Abu Sayyaf in the predominantly Muslim city of Marawi on Mindanao. Abu Sayyaf is led by Isnilon Hapilon, a man with a US$5 million bounty on his head. He has joined with the Maute group led by two brothers and both groups have been bolstered by ISIS fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Chechnya.

The fighting, which was predicted to be over in a week, looks set to drag on into a second month. This attests to the skill and experience of the ISIS fighters, who have deployed resources, including strategically placed snipers, on the basis of local knowledge provided by Abu Sayyaf. They occupy the business district of Marawi.

The Philippine Army has used armoured vehicles and conducted air strikes. The U.S. has deployed a small group of special forces personnel and are providing intelligence through Lockheed P-3 Orion surveillance. The President of the Philippines, Rodrego Duterte has denied knowledge of U.S. involvement.

Mawari had a population of 200,000 many have fled the fighting, some are being held hostage by the fundamentalists. Around 400 civilians, soldiers and radicals have been killed, with around twice that number wounded, including children and ABC journalist, Adam Harvey.

Abu Sayyaf was connected to the 2002 Bali bombing. Extremism and membership of extremist groups is growing in Indonesia and Malaysia, and the presence and influence of ISIS is expanding.

Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have reacted to the threat with joint naval and air patrols of the Sulu Sea, through which ISIS fighters pass. The patrols began in mid-June. Singapore has undertaken to share intelligence processed through the Changi Naval Base.

Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, is aware of these regional developments. In January, she warned of the possibility of ISIS fighters returning from the Middle East seeking to establish a caliphate on Mindanao. As it transpired her intelligence was good.

Until recently, Australia had not sought to act or get involved. On the contrary, reacting to U.S. pressure, on 29 May, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a further 30 Australian troops would be sent to Afghanistan to help counter and fight ISIS.

On 23 June, it was announced that Australia would undertake surveillance flights over the southern Philippines. Whilst useful this is not enough and doubles up on what the U.S. is already doing.

Australia’s border protection regime seeks to maintain a maritime cordon in the waters north of Australia and south of Indonesia. The aim is isolation. It ignores the reality of Australia’s extensive involvement and interaction in the region.

Many Australians live, work and have holidays in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines. Airports, CBD’s and holiday resorts, such as Bali, Penang, Palawan and Panglao, to name but a few, are increasingly vulnerable to well planned and organised ISIS attacks. Australian interests and Australians extend well beyond their shores; the mentality that feels secure behind a naval cordon is both limited and myopic.

The Australian elite, particularly the political elite, is paranoid about asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Internal displacements of people due to ISIS and associated radical activity are inevitable unless this activity can be addressed and contained. Internal displacement might well translate into cross water movement of asylum seekers, perhaps on a large scale and difficult to contain unless unacceptable brute force were to be used.

Aircraft surveillance is useful when hostile ground activity occurs. What would be far more useful is for foreign ISIS fighters to be prevented from joining local Islamist groups. For this, naval interdiction is the key. Australia should join with its regional counterparts in undertaking this essential activity.

ISIS is a threat to Australia with its growing involvement in the region; Australia should be engaged and active in containing and eliminating this threat.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat. He has served in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, run the Indonesia section and visits Mindanao. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceHaigh2.

Australian foreign policy should be just that, Australian — not American, Chinese or European. 

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten need to do a bit of lateral and original thinking.

They need to consider which part of the world they live in and the dynamics of what is unfolding on our doorstep. They should seek to embrace the region more fully. They should show and undertake leadership.

At the end of May, foreign IS fighters joined with local militants in besieging the southern Philippines city of Marawi on the island of Mindanao. Eyewitnesses said a number of the IS fighters had pale skin and long noses. A media report said they included men from Saudi Arabia, Chechen, Yemen, Malaysia and Indonesia. President Duterte has placed Mindanao under martial law.

The Philippines army and police continue to try to break the siege, in which IS fighters, soldiers and a number of civilians have so far been killed. The IS fighters have gratuitously and viciously murdered a number of Christian men; women and children have been killed in the fighting.   

The only way IS militants can get to the Philippines is by boat. I argued in an earlier article that Australia should be conducting joint patrols with regional navies to interdict these terrorists. Joint naval patrols should also seek to prevent local Abu Sayyaf rebels raising funds by on-water kidnappings.

IS militants and other radical Islamists are on the move between Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines; they are also moving arms and money.

The Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar have separatist Muslim movements. In the former, these are being taken over by radical extremists. However, it is their infiltration and possible control by IS that is of concern. Minimising their influence, if not eradicating them, should be a foreign policy objective of regional governments, including the Australian Government.

The separatist movements have a legitimate basis, much as the Tamils in Sri Lanka do — through religious belief, the absence of educational opportunities and poverty. Addressing the latter might take some of the appeal away for the strident proponents of separatism. Increasing militancy within these separatists’ movements will cause the displacement of people, the creation of refugees and will undermine economic activity — causing further poverty and lack of opportunity.

The Rohingya of Rakhine State in Myanmar are not radicalised, but with ongoing repression from the state, it is only a matter of time. In the southern Thailand provinces of Satun, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, a separatist insurgency has been waged for some time. Hardline Jihadis who are funded from overseas have marginalised the moderates. These Jihadis, like their counterparts in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are influenced by hardline Sunni Wahhabi teaching which emanates from Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis actively push Wahhabism through the funding of Mosques and Madrassas religious schools. Schools funded by the Saudis teach within a Wahabi framework. Paradoxically, the Saudis are funding radical Islam. Many of the IS proponents of direct action or terrorism appear mentally unstable, charged with the same motivation as mercenaries, soldiers of fortune and the French Foreign Legion. They are often social outcasts and misfits, seeking fortune and fame, and enjoy killing and cruelty as part of the package.

Around 500 IS fighters are from Indonesia and between 200-250 from Malaysia, which has a population of 31 million (eight times smaller than Indonesia with 263 million) perhaps indicating a greater radicalisation of Muslims in Malaysia than was previously thought. Radicalisation has been aided by the powerful Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) and the National Civics Bureau (BTN) which fall under the Prime Minister’s office.  

The United States is drifting, with a seriously troubled president at the helm, it cannot be relied on to address the regional issue of IS and the growing radicalisation of separatist movements. Whatever focus the U.S. has remains on China and North Korea. In any case, President Duterte will not have a bar of Donald Trump and wants no U.S. help in handling his local insurgency. Indonesia is co-operating with the CIA, FBI and AFP in uncovering radical activists, but clearly more needs to be done in light of the IS siege of Marawi, which included Indonesian terrorists.

Following an attack on a casino in Manilla, which has the hallmarks of a revenge-fuelled undertaking rather than a terror attack, President Duterte looks set to impose martial law over the whole of the Philippines. It was probably the excuse he was looking for.

Australia, through its sound diplomatic representation in the region, should begin a process of bringing together states most affected by the activities of separatist extremists, like Abu Sayyaf and returning IS fighters. It should take a lead, perhaps institutionalising an approach looking at not only containing violence, but also at the appeal of radical Islam. It might examine poverty and the paucity of educational opportunity as a motivator in separatist sentiment that has played a part in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. It might rethink its regional aid policy. Guns alone will not stop the emotional and intellectual adherence to a cause.

Australia might also give thought to the radicalisation its refugee “policies” may encourage among those affected by brutality on Manus Island and Nauru, and those left to rot in Indonesia. A little thought and compassion might save many lives.