Terrorism Is on the Rise in Southeast Asia

In this June 9 photo, soldiers prepare for deployment on the outskirts of Marawi city, southern Philippines. The Philippine military says 13 of its marines have been killed in fighting with Muslim militants. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
In this June 9 photo, soldiers prepare for deployment on the outskirts of Marawi city, southern Philippines. The Philippine military says 13 of its marines have been killed in fighting with Muslim militants. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. She retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard and served in Kuwait during the Iraq War.

It's no secret that Russia vies to stake claim in parts of Syria and prop up the murderous Bashar al-Assad regime.

The United States leading an allied coalition in the region not only ensures we defeat a terrorist enemy that wishes to do us harm, but also allows us to counter the expansion of a near-peer threat that seeks increased global reach.

The United States striking ISIS in its stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, has broader implications for the Middle East. Similarly, U.S. forces helping take back the ISIS-held town of Marawi in the southern Philippines has broader implications for Asia.

I welcomed news this weekend of American special operations forces providing support in the southern Philippines, where more than 200 people have been killed as the Philippine government seeks to take back Marawi. ISIS took control of the city three weeks ago, using innocent civilians as human shields and causing thousands to flee the area on the southern Island of Mindanao.

I have long called for the U.S. government's counter-ISIS strategy to take a more global approach and encompass Southeast Asia. After continued pressure and writing on why the U.S. cannot ignore ISIS' expansion in the region, I was pleased to receive a commitment from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to work with me to address the issue of ISIS' expansion into Southeast Asia.

ISIS has been telling its fighters since 2016 to go to Southeast Asia if they cannot make it to the Middle East, but radical Islamic extremism has a long history in the region.

Following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. special operations forces worked hand-in-hand with Philippine soldiers to root out the same al-Qaida-linked groups that have now pledged allegiance to ISIS. In total, 17 U.S. service members were killed serving under the operation, including Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Jack Martin, who was born in my home state of Iowa and killed by a roadside bomb in the southern Philippines.

A 2016 report praised the U.S. mission, which included upward of 600 U.S. troops at one time. Ranging from advising and assisting combat operations against terrorists who sought to strike the U.S. homeland, to helping construct schools, the Joint Special Operation Task Force showed great success.

Unfortunately, ISIS filled the void after U.S. operations were reduced in 2014. Since that time, both Russia and China have sought collaboration to conduct counterterrorism operations in the region, but either country would be simply unacceptable to replace the U.S. as a partner with the Philippines.

The Philippines is of strategic importance to the U.S., and the countries have a long history together. With the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, U.S. troops are now approved for placement throughout the Philippines as we seek to grow our Asia-Pacific footprint and counter a rising China. Our annual bilateral training exercises are a symbol of security in the region.

The news this weekend that U.S. and Philippine forces are once again working side-by-side in a fight against terrorism is hopefully a strong signal that previously troubled relations are back on track. This is a good thing, not only because of the strategic importance of having a strong relationship with the Philippines, but because it is also a matter of national security that we address terrorism there.

As ISIS continues to expand its operations in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and other Southeast Asia nations, it is clear this threat is not subsiding anytime soon. Al-Qaida used the Philippines as a safe harbor to plan the horrific attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and we cannot let ISIS do the same.

Thankfully, with Singapore, Japan, Malaysia and South Korea all joining the U.S. coalition to counter ISIS, we have partners to call upon.

As we continue to watch this administration shape its counter-ISIS strategy, it is my hope it realizes the significant threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia, and likewise the signal to the region our support sends.

The risk of not helping is far too great. If we turn our back on those who need our support in the region, Russia and China appear eager to take our place, or ISIS can continue to grow in its new safe haven. Neither is an acceptable option.

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