Thousands pray for rain in Indonesia as forests go up in smoke

Indonesian Muslim women pray for rain during a long drought season and haze in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Indonesia, September 11, 2019 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Rony Muharrman/ via REUTERS

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Thousands of Indonesians prayed for rain in haze-hit towns on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo on Wednesday, as forest fires raged at the height of the dry season, the state Antara news agency reported.

Fires have burnt through parts of Sumatra and Borneo island for more than a month and the government has sent 9,000 military, police and disaster agency personnel to fight the flames.

Indonesia’s neighbors regularly complain about smog caused by its forest blazes, which are often started to clear land for palm oil and pulp plantations.

But Indonesia said this week it was not to blame and fires had been spotted by satellites in several neighboring countries.

Several parts of Southeast Asia have seen unusually dry conditions in recent months including Indonesia, which has seen very little rain because of an El Nino weather pattern, its meteorological department has said.

Some communities have taken to prayer in the hope of ending the dry weather, and the haze it brings.

Thousands of people in Pekanbaru, capital of Riau province in Sumatra, held Islamic prayers for rain outside the governor’s office. Many of those taking part wore face masks to protect themselves from the smoke, Antara reported.

“We’re doing everything we can, now we pray to Allah for the rain,” deputy provincial governor Edy Nasution told the news agency.

Similar prayers were held in towns in Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo, where air quality has been at unhealthy levels and schools have been forced to close, the news agency said.

Mosques in Malaysia have also been encouraged to hold prayers for rain, said the head of Malaysia’s Islamic Development Department, Mohamad Nordin, according to the state news agency Bernama.

Indonesian authorities are using 37 helicopters and 239 million litres of water bombs to attack the blazes, the disaster agency said on its Twitter account, while aircraft were seeding clouds in the hope of generating rain.

The agency said 5,062 fire “hot spots” had been detected in six Indonesian provinces, as of Wednesday morning.

Endro Wibowo, deputy police chief of the town of Sampit in Central Kalimantan province, said his team was working around the clock to put out the fires.

Police were also taking legal action to deter farmers from illegally using fire to clear land, Antara reported.

Criminal cases have been initiated against 175 people in different places on suspicion of starting fires while four palm oil companies were facing charges of negligence, police told media.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) said small-scale farmers were being blamed for fires started by palm oil plantation companies.

“Actions by the central and local governments have not been strong enough against companies in industrial forests or palm plantations on peat lands. They always blame the community,” said Muhammad Ferdhiyadi of the group’s South Sumatra branch.

(Reporting by Gayatri Suroyo and Jessica Damiana in JAKARTA; Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff in KUALA LUMPUR)

Record number of U.S. Marines to train in Australia in symbolic challenge to China

FILE PHOTO - U.S. Marines aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship stand in formation during a ceremony marking the start of Talisman Saber 2017, a biennial joint military exercise between the United States and Australia aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship on the the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sydney, Australia, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The United States will deploy a record number of Marines to train in Australia, the Australian defense minister said on Friday, as Washington seeks to counter what it describes as Chinese aggression in the region.

Payne said 1,587 U.S. Marines will spend six months training in Australia’s remote north, an increase of nearly 27 percent on its 2017 rotation for the program known as the Force Posture Initiatives.

“The U.S. military plays a vital role in underwriting security and stability across the Indo-Pacific, and the Force Posture Initiatives will be an essential component in preserving stability and security over the coming decades,” Defence Minister Marise Payne said in a statement.

The deployment, first introduced in 2011 as part of a U.S. “pivot” to Asia, has emerged as a key indicator of Washington’s commitment to the region under U.S. President Donald Trump and his willingness to counter Chinese influence in a region where tensions have spiked amid disputes over the South China Sea.

China claims most of the South China Sea, an important trade route that is also believed to contain large quantities of oil and natural gas, and has been building artificial islands on reefs, some with ports and air strips.

In a move likely to irk Beijing, the U.S. Marines will train with personnel from Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, some of which also have claims in the South China Sea.

“China will monitor whatever the U.S. does and it would prefer that the United States not work with the Asian countries included in these exercises,” said Euan Graham, director of the international security program at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute.

“Beijing would like to deal one-on-one with Southeast Asia nations that have counter claims,” he said.

The U.S. Marines will also bring additional military equipment, including helicopters and F-18 jets, Payne said.

The military deployment also threatens to further weaken Australia-Chinese relations.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally with no claim to the South China Sea, has long maintained its neutrality in the dispute to protect its economic relationship with China.

But bilateral relations have soured in recent months after Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said China was improperly interfering in Canberra’s affairs, an accusation that triggered a rare protest from Beijing.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait)

Shady triangle: Southeast Asia’s illegal oil and fuel market

A bird's-eye view of ships along the coast in Singapore July 9, 2017.

By Henning Gloystein and John Geddie

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – An alleged oil heist in Singapore that has already led to 20 arrests, the seizure of at least one tanker and allegations that thieves siphoned thousands of tonnes (1 tonne is approx. 2, 204.6 pounds) of fuel from Shell’s biggest refinery is shining a spotlight on an illegal trade worth tens of billions of dollars worldwide.

Working routes in a triangle of sea anchored by Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore and encompassing the oil facilities of Malaysia, the smugglers take advantage of a difficult-to-patrol sea and enticing black market prices, experts say.

The suspects in the latest case are accused of stealing oil from Royal Dutch Shell’s Pulau Bukom refinery, often during business hours, and distributing it around the region.

Several of the men charged worked for Shell. Employees of a major Singaporean fuel trading company and a London-listed business that inspects and certifies cargos have also been charged.

“Siphoning off fuel is a common thing in Southeast Asia. There is a huge black market for it,” said Ben Stewart, commercial manager of the shipping security firm Maritime Asset Security and Training, which has helped authorities in the region fight fuel theft and smuggling.

Singapore is by far the world’s biggest ship refueling port, and Southeast Asia’s petroleum refining hub. Hundreds of vessels pass through the small city-state’s waters every day.

Security officers say the sheer amount of traffic makes checking every ship impossible, opening the door to illegal trade.

In most cases, oil is discreetly siphoned from legal storage tanks and sold into the black market. But there have also been thefts at sea and even hijackings of entire ships to steal their fuel.

Data from the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), based in Singapore, shows more than half of the serious shipping incidents reported in the past year have occurred off the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula.

Some officials put the value of the illegal trade in Southeast Asia at $2 billion to $3 billion per year. But Yousuf Malik, principal at security consultancy Defence IQ, estimated about 3 percent of Southeast Asia’s consumed fuel is sourced illegally, worth $10 billion a year.

“The scale of the illegal oil trade varies with oil prices – when oil prices are high, so is the level of smuggling,” said Praipol Koomsup, former Thai vice minister of energy and professor at Thammasat University.

Crude oil prices have risen by more than 50 percent since mid-2017 to about $70 per barrel, the highest level in over three years. That increases the black market demand in poorer Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam and Thailand.

“Smuggled oil has been known to be sold to factories for industrial use, or unnamed roadside oil stations. Regular citizens and fishermen are involved in the smuggling,” Koomsup said.

OPEN SEA FUEL STATIONS

Several fuel traders told Reuters that the illegal sale of fuel is common enough that companies plan for losses of 0.2-0.4 percent of ordered cargo volumes.

Stewart said one common method of theft involves a simple fudging of paperwork at sea: captains overstate how much fuel their ship is using, then sell the excess.

Sometimes entire ships are captured for their fuel cargo.

When fuel is stolen on such a large scale, it tends to be transferred to other ships at sea.

Legal ship-to-ship transfers frequently happen between oil tankers in registered zones. In the South China Sea, however, illegal traders use purpose-built ships – with some even disguised as fishing trawlers – to take in and distribute fuel.

According to ReCAAP, the waters around the remote Natuna Islands, which sit between peninsular Malaysia and Borneo but belong to Indonesia, are a hot spot for piracy and illegal fuel transfers.

The Atlantic Council, a policy research group, said many of the region’s illegal fuel operations had links to organized crime.

Police in Thailand and Vietnam said most illegal fuel comes into the country by sea, usually transported on mid-size trawlers in unmarked drums. Smaller vessels then bring the fuel ashore for sale on the street.

“The coasts of Thailand and Vietnam are vast, and its cities big. To catch or even trace the illegal fuel in this area is virtually impossible. That’s why it happens,” said one security source, speaking on the condition of anonymity as he was not cleared to talk to media about contraband operations.

THE BUKOM HEIST

Bukom, just south of Singapore, is an island serving just one purpose: 1.5 square kilometers (0.6 square miles) of tropical land devoted to the biggest petroleum refinery owned by Anglo-Dutch Shell. It can process 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

As global markets were gearing up for a new year in early January, Singapore authorities conducted coordinated raids across the city-state, arresting 20, charging 14 Singaporean and Vietnamese men, and seizing millions of dollars in cash. They even confiscated an oil tanker.

At the heart of the police operations is Bukom, where suspects, including current and former Shell employees, are accused of stealing oil worth millions of dollars in the past six months.

Singapore’s biggest marine fuel supplier, Sentek, last weekend saw its marketing and operations manager, as well as a cargo officer, charged in connection with the case.

Another person charged works for Intertek in Singapore, a British-listed company specializing in quality and quantity assurance, including for fuel products.

In a statement to Reuters, Shell said, “Fuel theft is an industry problem globally and not something that anyone can solve on their own.” The company added that it was working with governments and ReCAAP to address the issue.

A representative for Intertek was not immediately available for comment. Sentek declined to comment.

A lawyer representing one of the accused men said he had not yet had opportunity to obtain instructions from his client. Lawyers for some of the others charged were not immediately available for comment.

The Prime South, the small 12,000-tonne Vietnamese tanker police seized, frequently shipped fuel between Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City. The ship had also recently made stops at Rayong, Thailand.

Between ports, the tanker often switched off its transponder, which every merchant vessel is required to carry.

The scale of the theft was big enough that Shell did not think it could handle the case internally. Instead, in August the company contacted authorities, triggering one of the biggest police operations in Singapore in years.

Police investigations are ongoing. The charges in court documents allege the suspects in the Singapore case stole over $5 million worth of oil.

Globally, oil theft could be worth as much as $133 billion, said Malik of Defence IQ.

“Its sheer scale and the flows of illicit cash related to oil and fuel theft and smuggling exacts a toll on virtually every aspect of the economy,” Malik said.

(Reporting by Henning Gloystein and John Geddie in SINGAPORE; Additional reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng and Panu Wongcha-Um in BANGKOK, Mai Nguyen and James Pearson in HANOI, and Fathin Ungku and Roslan Khasawneh in SINGAPORE; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

China, Southeast Asia aim to build trust with sea drills, Singapore says

China, Southeast Asia aim to build trust with sea drills, Singapore says

By Manuel Mogato

CLARK, Philippines (Reuters) – China and Southeast Asian navies aim to hold an inaugural joint maritime exercise next year, Singapore’s defense minister said on Tuesday, as they try to build trust amid conflicting claims over the South China Sea.

China claims almost the entire strategic waters through which about $3 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims, with tensions exacerbated by Beijing’s island-building and Washington’s increasing freedom of navigation patrols.

“Singapore supports it,” Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen told reporters when asked about China’s offer to hold maritime exercises. “We will push it … for the very reason that all ASEAN and China want that. If you exercise, you at least build understanding and trust.”

The exercises were discussed at a meeting between China and Singapore on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers’ Meeting at the former U.S. air force base at Clark, north of the capital Manila.

“We’ll work out the details. See the logistics… and find a suitable area where ASEAN and China navies can exercise together,” Ng said.

Singapore and China have not always seen eye to eye in recent months. Singaporean troops have trained in self-ruled Taiwan, an island China claims as its own, which had been an irritant in ties.

Last November, Chinese-controlled Hong Kong impounded nine Singaporean armored military vehicles being shipped home from Taiwan, inflaming tension. Hong Kong later released the vehicles.

Ng said Singapore also had a proposal to “reduce risk of actual conflict” by agreeing to a new code of unexpected encounters in the air after ASEAN adopted a code to avoid sea encounters.

ASEAN and its eight regional partners, the United States, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand, had agreed to set up a “direct communications link” among them to ease tension.

Ng said the United States and Japan also welcomed the idea of exercises.

“Secretary (of Defense Jim) Mattis welcomed the exercises together with ASEAN countries,” he said.

Ng also hoped for the early conclusion of a code of conduct in the South China Sea after a framework agreement was reached this year to reduce conflicts and misunderstanding.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Philippine police watching Muslim hitmen ahead of international gathering

FILE PHOTO - Police line up for a flag-raising ceremony outside a station in Quezon City Police District in Manila, Philippines April 3, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew RC Marshall

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine security forces are monitoring a group of former Maoist assassins who joined Islamist militants as a possible threat to this week’s 50th anniversary meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers, Manila’s police chief said on Tuesday.

Twenty-seven foreign ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its dialogue partners like Japan, the United States, India, Canada and Russia, will gather in Manila from Friday until Tuesday.

Metro Manila’s police chief Oscar Albayalde said there was no specific threat so far, but police were monitoring several “Balik-Islam”, or Christians who converted to Islam. They were former hitmen of the communist Alex Boncayao Brigade, or ABB, a group of assassins that was active in the 1980s.

He said the men had joined pro-Islamic State militant groups in the Philippines and could be planning to disrupt the upcoming meetings of foreign ministers.

“We are watching several enclaves where there are large numbers of Muslim populations,” he said.

Among those is Quiapo, an old commercial district close to the presidential palace area, where a bomb during an ASEAN leaders’ summit in April wounded 14 people. The authorities said the motive was a personal dispute.

Security forces have been on high alert since an alliance of pro-Islamic State fighters laid siege to the southern Marawi City on May 23, a battle that is still ongoing and has killed more than 650 people, mostly rebel fighters.

Albayalde said that although the ABB was small and has long been dormant, the conversion of some of its members to Islam meant it needed to be watched.

The Philippines is deploying 13,000 police officers to secure and guard more than 1,700 delegates.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty and Michael Perry)

Southeast Asian states vow cooperation on ‘growing’ militant threat

Combat seized weapons are display by Philippines army during a news conference, as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group in Marawi city, Philippines July 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

By Tom Allard

MANADO, Indonesia (Reuters) – Southeast Asian nations will cooperate more closely with intelligence and law enforcement authorities from the Middle East amid “grave concerns” about an elevated threat from Islamic State (IS) in the region.

Representatives from four Southeast Asian nations, Australia and New Zealand met in the Indonesian city of Manado on Saturday to develop a response to the increased danger posed by IS, highlighted by the occupation of parts of the southern Philippines city of Marawi by militants owing allegiance to the group.

The battle has sparked alarm that as IS suffers reversals in Iraq and Syria, it is seeking to create a stronghold in the region, buttressed by Southeast Asian fighters returning from the Middle East and other militants inspired by the ultra-radical group and the Marawi conflict.

Describing the regional threat from Islamist militants as growing and rapidly evolving, a joint statement by the participants called for enhanced information sharing, as well as cooperation on border control, deradicalisation, law reform and countering Islamists’ prolific use of social media to plan attacks and lure recruits.

“We must face the threat together,” said Wiranto, Indonesia’s co-ordinating minister for security.

The meeting was co-hosted by Indonesia and Australia. The other participants were Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and New Zealand.

The main initiative was a law enforcement dialogue to be co-hosted by the Indonesian and Australian police forces in August bringing together key stakeholders affected by IS.

Two senior law enforcement sources at the Manado meeting said countries from the Middle East, including Turkey, would attend the summit to kick off cooperation across the two regions.

Islamic State has a dedicated military unit made up of hundreds of Southeast Asian fighters in Syria and Iraq led by Indonesian militant Bahrumsyah.

According to Indonesian police, there are 510 Indonesian supporters of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, including 113 women.

About 20 Islamist fighters from Indonesia are believed by counter-terrorism authorities to be fighting in Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city on the Philippines island of Mindanao which has been a hotbed of Islamist unrest for decades and a magnet for militants from around the region.

One of leaders of the militants in Marawi is a Malaysian Islamic studies lecturer, Ahmad Mahmud, who arranged financing and the recruitment of foreign fighters.

POOR RECORD OF COOPERATION

While the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the multilateral regional forum made up of 10 nations, has long had a framework for cooperation on combating violent extremism, analysts and officials say coordination has been poor.

A report last week from the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict identified “formidable obstacles” to greater cooperation between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, the front-line states facing the Islamist threat in Southeast Asia.

“These include the deep-seated political distrust between the Philippines and Malaysia that impedes information sharing; concern from Indonesia and Malaysia police about mixed loyalties of local counterparts in Mindanao, especially given clan and family links; and institutional disjunctures that give the lead in counter-terrorism to the police in Indonesia and Malaysia but to the military in the Philippines,” the report said.

After more than two months of intense fighting, IS-aligned militants still control part of Marawi. Over 600 people have been killed, including 45 civilians and 114 members of the security forces. The government has said the other dead are militants.

(Reporting by Tom Allard; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

More attacks likely in Southeast Asia after Marawi: report

FILE PHOTO: Philippines army soldiers ride in trucks into the fighting zone as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group in Marawi City, Philippines June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

By Tom Allard

JAKARTA (Reuters) – As a lengthy, urban battle drags on between Philippine forces and Islamist militants in the southern city of Marawi, a new report by a think-tank has warned of more attacks by radicals in Southeast Asia, including on foreigners.

A coalition of Philippine militant groups, augmented by foreign fighters, stormed Marawi, on the island on Mindanao, nearly two months ago. The militants, who claim allegiance to Islamic State (IS), still control a portion of the city despite a sustained military offensive.

There have been similar attacks in the Philippines since last year, but the duration and ferocity of the fighting in Marawi has alarmed Southeast Asian nations and led to fears the assault could inspire and unite the region’s disparate Islamist groups.

“The risks won’t end when the military declares victory,” said Sidney Jones, director of the Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, adding that threats would mount in neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia, both Muslim-majority nations.

“Indonesia and Malaysia will face new threats in the form of returning fighters from Mindanao, and the Philippines will have a host of smaller dispersed cells with the capacity for both violence and indoctrination.”

The Marawi siege had united two feuding pro-IS factions in Indonesia, the world’s most-populous Muslim-majority nation, and led to soul-searching among militants there “about why they cannot manage to do anything as spectacular”, the report said.

“Once the battle for Marawi is over, it is possible that Southeast Asian ISIS leaders (in Syria) might encourage Indonesians to go after other targets, including foreigners or foreign institutions – especially if one of them comes back to lead the operations,” the report added, using another acronym for the Islamic State.

Asked about an elevated threat in Indonesia, including for foreigners, police spokesman Setyo Wasisto said: “We will stay cautious, increase our alertness and monitor the movement of those who come home from Marawi.”

Malaysia’s police counter-terrorism chief declined comment. Authorities in the Philippines did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Authorities estimate about 20 Indonesian militants were involved in the fighting in Marawi but it is not clear how many survived.

About 565 people have died in nearly two months of fighting in Marawi, according to officials, including over 420 militants, 45 civilians and almost 100 Philippines military and police.

After missing several deadlines for re-taking Marawi, Philippine officials say it is not possible to say when the fighting will end.

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon told reporters on Friday a hard core of fighters has been hemmed in to three barangays, or urban villages, down from the 12 they held earlier. Marawi has 96 such barangays.

CHAIN OF COMMAND

In a key revelation, the IPAC report tracked the chain of command for the Marawi operations.

At its apex was Islamic State “Central” in Syria, represented by Katibah Nusantara, the IS military unit made up of fighters from Southeast Asia and led by Indonesian militant Bahrumsyah, likely the highest ranked member of IS from the region, it said.

Bahrumsyah organized funding and helped find international recruits, liaising with Malaysian militant Mahmud Ahmad, a former university lecturer and Islamic scholar believed to be in Marawi.

Mahmud “controlled recruitment as well as financing and has been the contact person for any foreigner wanting to join the pro-ISIS forces in the Philippines”, the report said.

Tactical decisions on the ground were made by local militant commanders but the report said “the Syria-based Southeast Asians could have a say in setting strategy for (the) region when the siege is over.”

The report warned the devastating damage to the city from Philippines military air strikes was being exploited by militant ideologues.

It cited a post on the social media platform Telegram, a message presumed to be from a militant, that said: “We did not bomb it to ashes”.

“We ordained good and forbade evil … but the response of the Crusader Army was brutal.”

The Philippines military has defended the use of air strikes in its offensive, noting that militant snipers positioned on top of buildings made it difficult for ground troops to make headway in the dense urban environment.

(Additional reporting by Stefanno Reinard in Jakarta, Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur and Martin Petty in Manila; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

The Maute brothers: Southeast Asia’s Islamist ‘time bomb’

A policeman stands on guard behind a window full of bullet holes as government soldiers assault the Maute group in Marawi City, Philippines

By Neil Jerome Morales and Tom Allard

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – On his Facebook profile page Omarkhayam Romato Maute describes himself as a “Walking Time-Bomb”.

When a band of militants led by Omarkhayam and one of his brothers over-ran a town in the southern Philippines on May 23, festooning its alleyways with the black banners of Islamic State, the Facebook description seemed appropriate.

Governments across Southeast Asia had been bracing for the time when Islamic State, on a back foot in Iraq and Syria, would look to establish a ‘caliphate’ in Southeast Asia and become a terrifying threat to the region.

“The Middle East seems a long way away but it is not. This is a problem which is amidst us,” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Australian radio on Saturday as the battle to re-take Marawi neared the end of the third week, with a death toll of nearly 200. “It is a clear and present danger.”

Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute grew up with several other brothers and sisters in Marawi, a Muslim-majority town in a country where over 90 percent of the population is Christian.

Marawi is, historically, the center of Islam on Mindanao, a sprawling island where violent resistance to authority has been a tradition since the era of Spanish colonialism, spurred in recent decades by poverty and the neglect of successive governments.

As teenagers in the 1990s, the brothers seemed like ordinary young men, said a neighbor of the Maute family: they studied English and the Koran, and played basketball in the streets.

“We still wonder why they fell to the Islamic State,” said the neighbor, who was once an Islamist militant himself and surrendered to the government. “They are good people, religious. When someone gets to memorize the Koran, it’s unlikely for them to do wrong. But this is what happened to the brothers.”

In the early 2000s, Omarkhayam and Abdullah studied in Egypt and Jordan, respectively, where they became fluent in Arabic.

Omarkhayam went to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, where he met the daughter of a conservative Indonesian Islamic cleric. After they married, the couple returned to Indonesia. There, Omarkhayam taught at his father-in-law’s school, and in 2011 he settled back in Mindanao.

It may have been then, and not when he was in the Middle East, that Omarkhayam was radicalized.

In Cairo “none of his fellow students saw him as having any radical tendencies at all, and photographs show a young man enchanted by his baby daughters and playing with the growing family by the Red Sea,” Jakarta-based anti-terrorism expert Sidney Jones wrote in a 2016 report.

Little is known about Abdullah’s life after he went to Jordan, and it is not clear when he returned to Lanao del Sur, the Mindanao province that includes Marawi.

Intelligence sources said there are seven brothers and one half-brother in the family, all but one of whom joined the battle for Marawi.

Men identified by Philippines Intelligence officers as Isnilon Hapilon (2nd L, yellow headscarf) and Abdullah Maute (2nd R, standing, long hair) are seen in this still image taken from video released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines on June 7, 2017.

Men identified by Philippines Intelligence officers as Isnilon Hapilon (2nd L, yellow headscarf) and Abdullah Maute (2nd R, standing, long hair) are seen in this still image taken from video released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines on June 7, 2017. Armed Forces of the Philippines/Handout via REUTERS TV

SMART, ARTICULATE

The Mautes were a monied family in a close-knit tribal society where respect, honor and the Koran are paramount.

Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera said the ‘Maranao’ clan, to which the Mautes belong, has a matriarchal tradition, and so their mother played a central role.

He said Farhana Maute, who according to the neighbor had furniture and used-car businesses, helped finance the group, and she drove recruitment and radicalization of local youths.

On Friday, she was stopped outside Marawi in a vehicle loaded with firearms and explosives and taken into custody. It was a major blow for the militants, according to Herrera, as she had been the “heart of the Maute organization”.

A day previously, the brothers’ father, an engineer, was arrested in Davao City, 250 km (155 miles) away.

When the Marawi siege began, several hundred militants were involved, including men from nations as far away as Morocco and Yemen. But most of the marauders, who took civilians as human shields and torched the town cathedral, were from four local groups allied to Islamic State, and in the lead were the Maute, military officials said.

According to Jones, the Maute group has “the smartest, best-educated and most sophisticated members” of all the pro-Islamic State outfits in the Philippines.

Samira Gutoc-Tomawis, a local civic leader who knows some of the Maute’s extended family, said the brothers rely heavily on social media to recruit young followers and spread their “rigid and authoritarian” ideology.

“The Mautes are very active online. On YouTube, they upload their ideas” she said. “They are articulate, they are educated, they are idealistic.”

The Maute family’s neighbor, who requested anonymity for his own safety, said the group’s fighters are fearless too.

He was trapped for five days in his three-storey house last month watching the battle between the militants and the Philippines armed forces unfold, with sniper fire pinging around him and OV-10 aircraft bombing from above.

“During the bombing runs of the OV-10, they just carried on eating biscuits, not running for cover,” he said.

On May 28, a group of seven fighters – he recognized Omarkhayam among them – came to his house and asked why he had not left. When he told them that he feared being caught in the crossfire, they guided him and several others to a bridge leading out of town and gave them a white cloth to wave.

“I WANT TO KILL THEM NOW”

The Maute group first surfaced in 2013 with a bombing of a nightclub in nearby Cagayan de Oro. Its stature has grown since then, most notably with the bombing last year of a street market in President Rodrigo Duterte’s hometown, Davao City.

Maute members who were captured said the Davao attack was ordered by Isnilon Hapilon of Abu Sayyaf, a group that has fought since the 1990s for an independent Islamic province but is as well known as a vicious gang of criminals and kidnappers.

Hapilon, who was last year declared by Islamic State as its ’emir’ of Southeast Asia, was seen in a video that emerged last week showing the militants – including two Maute brothers – plotting to seal Marawi off as a separate enclave.

Herrera said the Mautes enjoy strong support in Marawi.

“This is their place, this is where their family is, this is where their culture is, this is where the heritage is. There is a huge sympathetic perspective towards the … Maute,” he said.

But Khana-Anuar Marabur Jr., a Marawi town councillor, said the Mautes had made enemies in the area with their radicalism.

He said he went to the brothers on the day the attack on Marawi was launched and they told him to the leave the town.

“They told me to leave because the caliphate … had ordered it,” Marabur told Reuters. “They treated me like an enemy.

I want to kill them now.”

(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in MANILA and by Simon Lewis in MARAWI CITY; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Southeast Asian nations step up cooperation as Islamic State threat mounts

By Kanupriya Kapoor and Fathin Ungku

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Southeast Asian nations plan to use spy planes and drones to stem the movement of militants across their porous borders, defense officials said at the weekend, as concerns rise over the growing clout of Islamic State in the region.

Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines said they will launch joint air patrols this month at their shared boundaries in the Sulu Sea, in addition to existing maritime patrols.

Authorities in the region have urged greater cooperation to counter the fallout from a raging battle with Islamic State-linked militants in the southern Philippines, the biggest warning yet that the ultra-radical group is building a base in Southeast Asia.

“Our open borders are being exploited by terrorist groups to facilitate personnel and material,” Le Luong Minh, Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) told the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual regional security forum in Singapore.

The region is home to 600 million people and includes Indonesia, which has the world’s highest number of Muslims. Authorities in both Indonesia and Malaysia, also Muslim-majority, have said thousands of their citizens are sympathizers of Islamic State and hundreds are believed to have traveled to Syria to join the extremist group.

Indonesian authorities blamed Islamic State for bombings last month that killed three police officers, the latest in a series of low-level attacks by the militants in the last 17 months.

In recent months, dozens of fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia have crossed from their countries to Mindanao in the southern Philippines, intelligence officials have said, easily passing through waters that have often been lawless and plagued by pirates. Mindanao is the one region in the largely Catholic Philippines to have a significant Muslim minority.

ASEAN made a joint pledge with the United States on the sidelines of the Shangri-La forum to help the Philippines overcome the militant assault in the city of Marawi.

“What featured quite strongly in the U.S.-ASEAN meeting was the pledge by both U.S. and ASEAN members that we stand ready to help the Philippines…whether it’s information, intelligence or otherwise,” said Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis (5th L) poses for a picture with ASEAN defence leaders after a meeting on the sidelines of the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore June 4, 2017.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis (5th L) poses for a picture with ASEAN defence leaders after a meeting on the sidelines of the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore June 4, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su

JOINT PATROLS, INTELLIGENT-SHARING

Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, with the assistance of neighboring Singapore, have carried out joint maritime patrols in the Sulu Sea since last year after a series of kidnappings by the pro-Islamic State Abu Sayyaf group.

“We decided at least these three countries, to avoid being accused of doing nothing…We’re doing joint maritime and air patrols,” said Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, adding that the air patrols will be launched on June 19.

“If we do nothing, they get a foothold in this region.”

Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told Reuters his country will consider deploying drones and surveillance planes at its borders with the Philippines.

The measures come amid concerns that fighters may try to escape the military offensive in the Philippines, and flee to neighboring countries.

“We believe the elements involved in the Marawi clashes may try to escape through the southern Philippines and head either for Malaysian or Indonesian waters,” said Malaysia’s counter-terrorism police chief, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay.

“This is one of their only ways out.”

Among other measures, Singaporean and Malaysian officials said monitoring and intelligence-sharing on specific individuals had been stepped up in the wake of the fighting in Marawi.

Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Sunday urged residents of the wealthy city-state to report friends or family suspected of being radicalised, according to local media.

Security experts have warned that Southeast Asian countries are vulnerable to the spread of Islamic State as it suffers setbacks in Syria and Iraq.

“We’re seeing that, as Islamic State is losing ground on the battlegrounds of the Middle East, they’re pushing their franchise overseas as energetically as they can,” said Nigel Inkster of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“We’re seeing this in the southern Philippines but there are other countries in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, that are at risk.”

(Additional reporting by Greg Torode in Singapore and Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Lincoln Feast)

Scientists find deadly scrub typhus bacteria in South America

Picture of a Chigger, known carrier of Scrub typhus in Southeast Asia.

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Scrub typhus, a deadly disease common in southeast Asia and spread by microscopic biting mites known as chiggers, has now taken hold in a part of South America and may have become endemic there, scientists said on Wednesday.

The tropical disease, which kills at least 140,000 people a year in the Asia-Pacific region, has been confirmed in a cluster of cases on a large island off Chile, some 12,000 kilometres from its usual haunts on the other side of the Pacific.

Scrub typhus has been known of for years and the bacteria that causes it was first identified in Japan in 1930.

It is caused by the bacteria, Orientia tsutsugamushi, transmitted by chiggers, and spreads through the lymphatic fluid. Those infected find the illness can begin quite suddenly, with shaking chills, fever, severe headache, infection of the mucous membrane in the eyes, and lymph node swelling.

Until 2006, scrub typhus was thought to be limited to an area called the “tsutsugamushi triangle”, from Pakistan in the west to far eastern Russia in the east to northern Australia in the south.

But writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers from Britain’s Oxford University and the Pontificia Universidad Católica and Universidad del Desarrollo in Chile the cases found off of Chile’s mainland “suggest there may be a much wider global distribution than previously understood.”

In 2006, two cases of scrub typhus were found outside the triangle. One, in the Middle East, was caused by a previously unrecorded bacteria related to tsutsugamushi and named Orientia Chuto. The second was found on Chiloé island, just off mainland Chile.

In January 2015 and again in early 2016, three more cases were discovered in Ancud, on the northern coast of Chiloé.

“Scrub typhus is a common disease but a neglected one,” said Paul Newton, director of the Lao–Oxford–Mahosot Hospital Wellcome Trust Research Unit, which collaborated in the study.

“Given that it is known to cause approximately a million clinical cases, and kills at least 140,000 people each year, this evidence of an even bigger burden of disease in another part of the world highlights the need for more research and attention to it.”

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Toby Chopra)