Before the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed a peace deal with the Philippine government to end about half a century of Muslim rebellion in the troubled south in 2014, rebel camps in the mountains and marshes in Lanao del Sur and Maguindano were teeming with foreign jihadis.

The Islamist militants from Algeria and other North African countries, Southeast Asians, and Middle Easterners were trying to get exposure, experience, and training in guerrilla warfare and bomb-making.

After some months, they returned to Iraq,, Syria, Libya, and other parts of the world, where militancy remained active, sowing chaos and terror.

It stopped when the MILF returned to peace negotiations and shut down these “terrorist” training camps, forcing foreign militants to seek out smaller and more violent Islamist groups with links to al Qaeda and, much later, to the Islamic State.

There were reports of Indonesians based in Syria and Iraq before the ISIL or Daesh was defeated in 2017 in Mosul, and Raqqa were they regularly sent funds to some local militants in the south.

ISIL had managed to organize the fragmented Islamist groups in the south to band together and attack Marawi City in May 2017.

They were defeated after a five-month battle that destroyed the commercial center of Marawi City.

Just like ISIL, the local Islamist militants were not completely wiped out. Younger and more radicalized Muslim youth, who are heavily influenced by social media and ISIL propaganda, have been joining the Islamist ranks.

In December, the Daesh-linked Daulah Islamiyah-Maute group detonated a crude bomb inside the campus of the Mindanao State University (MSU), killing four and injuring about 50 others.

Last month, four soldiers who went out from their camp to buy food were killed in an ambush by members of the radical Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

These attacks were a grim reminder that the Islamist militants remained a potent
threat to the country and perhaps to the world.

As Islamist militants’ activities in the south increase, the spotlight is focused on the role of the United States in the fight against terrorism.

Is the US really helping defeat Islamist militants by training and advising the military?

Since 2002, when Washington deployed US Special Forces to Mindanao to fight a second front in the global war on terrorism, US commandos have not left the South.

Fighting terrorism has remained one of Washington’s foreign policy tools in this part of the world despite increasing engagements with Manila in external defense due to China’s creeping influence in the region.

There must be a reason for the continued presence of US commandos inside local military bases in Mindanao, which is not part of the nine Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) sites.

For instance, US Special Forces continue to coordinate and cooperate with local anti-terrorism forces to “neutralize” targets, like the Malaysian Marwan in January 2015, when 44 local police commandos died in a botched operation. The US Special Forces were also used to monitor militants’ training camps, which continue to host foreign jihadis.

These low-key militants’ training camps could be ideal locations away from hotspots in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Islamist militants trained locally could end up in global hotspots, including Ukraine and the Gaza Strip.

However, some people asked whether the US wanted to control the militants’ movements or allow them to destabilize “unfriendly” states.

The political and economic conditions within the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) are also less conducive to ending militancy as the government falls short of its promises to settle the normalization phase of the peace agreement.

The older MILF leaders might be tired of fighting a rebellion, but the younger members of the rebel movement are getting restless of the situation.

These younger members were also very vulnerable to recruitment by Islamist militants, and they could be trained and sent to other parts of the world.

The possible temporary transit of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees in Manila could also potentially impact the security and safety of the Philippines.

There is no 100 percent guarantee that only those allowed by the Taliban to leave as refugees were former workers who served America’s interests.

Allowing the Afghans to transit in the Philippines also increases the risks of retaliatory attacks from the Taliban in other parts of the world.

Taking all these factors, including the uncertainty of the peace process, the entry of Afghan refugees, and the potential use of the southern region as the playground for Islamist militants, there must be a review of the US military presence in Mindanao.

The US Special Forces has only less than 200 troops in Mindanao.

What can a small contingent of US Special Forces troops do to help stop the Islamist militants’ training in Mindanao?

The Philippines could probably request Washington to totally end its anti-terrorism operations and shift to maritime security and external defense operations.

It could also ask its MILF peace partners to do more in ending militancy by stamping out the BIFF, Daulah Islamiyah, and the Abu Sayyaf operating in BARMM.

The Islamist militants’ activities may have been reduced to a peace and order problem that does not need US support.