The Maute-Abu Sayyaf (ASG)-led terrorism that besieges Marawi City, in the province of Lanao del Sur in Mindanao is connected to the issue of maritime border security that concerns one of the most important waterways in the country: the Sulu Sulawesi Seas. Homeland and maritime border security determines who or what is allowed or denied access to the state’s territory. It creates a mechanism that involves a confluence of military and civilian actors who uphold the territorial integrity of the national state through customs, immigration, quarantine, surveillance, interdiction, and deterrence of illegal flows.

Research into the Sulu Sulawesi Seas by Angel Rabasa, establishes the region as an important maritime domain that borders the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

As much as this area contains important sea lanes for shipping, trading and energy transport, it is also a largely anarchic region. Maritime borders here are largely un-patrolled. The archipelago (Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan, Jolo) that divides the Sulu and Sulawesi sectors are sites of decades old impoverishment, extremism, and rebellion in the Philippines. Indonesia, like the Philippines, has battled against terrorist sleeper cells specifically in the Northern and Central Sulawesi. Shared problems of insurgency and terrorism coupled with geographical and ethno-cultural linkages in this region have facilitated age-old illegal cross-border trading of goods, arms, drugs, and crimes such as armed robbery, piracy, and terrorism.

In the ’90s, the Moro National Liberation Front (MILF) rebels and ASG have penetrated this maritime space, their activities conflating terrorism with criminality.

Jihadist Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) have used this maritime and border spaces to forge relations in recruitment and training with the MILF prior to 9/11 and with the ASG, post 9/11.

Justin Hastings author of Geography, Globalization, and Terrorism: The Plots of Jemaah Islamiyah, specifically describes how geography and maritime border security issues in the Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippine rear areas facilitated JI’s movement, creating and traversing one of several illegal routes from Nunukan, East Kalimantan to Tawao, Sabah and to Sandakan, Malaysia and finally to Zamboanga, eventually transplanting the seeds of the JI-MILF-ASG transnational link. Today, this link forms part of the Maute group’s identity.

The Philippine military has identified the ASG as a threat group since the 20th century. Its mainly internal security focus, however has inhibited it from recognizing the ASG as more than a domestic actor but a transnational actor with associated foreign connections and capabilities that could seriously threaten the territorial and maritime security of the Sulu Sulawesi region and Mindanao.

The military’s security plan of 2011 recognized the porousness of the Philippine southern borders, the ASG’s involvement in the kidnap for ransom of 21 individuals from Sidapan Resort Island in Malaysia in 2000 and the presence in the Philippines of about 50 foreign terrorist groups with affiliations with al Qaeda and access to terrorist knowledge of improvised explosive devices.

Indeed, while the military has highlighted the ASG’s capabilities, it has not done so from a security lens that would have framed it as a major threat that should recast its intended and impending shift to territorial defense.

The Duterte government should be mindful that the Maute group crisis is not only an internal security operation, but mainly an issue of the weak state and years of exclusionary policies against the Moros. These are hard core issues that are beyond the scope of military intervention. Given the roots of crime and terrorism in the Sulu Sulawesi seas also transforms this into a maritime security concern.

Under the pretext of the military’s internal security thrust, Presidents Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Benigno S. C. Aquino III have enforced policies that addressed the nexus of terrorism and maritime security. This policy framing has led to various initiatives such as the establishment of the Coast Watch South (CWS) in 2006, a maritime domain awareness facility in eastern and western Mindanao with monitoring, surveillance, and interdiction capabilities targeted against ASG pirate-terrorists, among other threats. It served as one of the points of contact of the US maritime initiative in the Philippines and southeast Asia immediately after 9/11. Aquino III’s expansion of the CWS as the National Coast Watch System (NCWS) has provided the Philippines with a theoretical advantage.

Anchored on “comprehensive border protection program” and naval and air force modernization, it has widened the scope of border protection from the southern backdoor to the western seaboard of the country specifically the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

However the NCWS is only as good as the available modern naval and coast guard forces. In addition, the securitization of the WPS that Aquino pursued in 2011 became detrimental to the Armed Forces in terms of its impact on the military’s capability to address simultaneously active security threats: transnational security threats and a traditional military threat taking place in the southern and western maritime domains.

In balancing anti-terrorism and external defense, the Duterte government is focusing on managing its relations with China, “tread(ing) with prudence” and “calibrat(ing) its diplomatic moves” as the National Security Policy, 2017-22 provides.

The Duterte government has moved to revisit the evolving internal security threat from the ASG as the latter makes a comeback after atrocious beheadings and kidnappings in 2015 and 2016. This renewal of internal/ transnational thrusts reopens possibilities for cooperative and coordinated approaches to border security. It builds on the earlier trilateral and bilateral efforts to secure the area that security analysts have referred to as the “ungoverned” backdoor of the Philippines.

Alma Maria O. Salvador is assistant professor of Political Science of the Ateneo de Manila University.