RAAF spy planes to join fight against Islamic State in the Philippines

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The RAAF will start flying its advanced intelligence-gathering planes over the southern Philippines to help the country’s military beat back an onslaught by Islamic State-affiliated insurgents.

Defence Minister Marise Payne has confirmed to Fairfax Media that Australia will operate two of its P-3 Orion aircraft over the southern region of Mindanao, where the Philippines military is locked in a furious battle with insurgents that has already claimed hundreds of lives and displaced thousands more people.

A US P3 Orion surveillance plane flying over Marawi, in the Philippines, earlier this month. Australia is expected to ... A US P3 Orion surveillance plane flying over Marawi, in the Philippines, earlier this month. Australia is expected to soon send P3 Orions to join the fight. Photo: AP

The decision by the Turnbull government underscores the seriousness with which it views the growing links between Islamists in the Philippines and the so-called Islamic State.

With the Islamic State losing territory in Iraq and Syria, there are concerns that it may disperse and set up in places such as the Philippines, from which it could threaten the rest of the region.

“The regional threat from terrorism, in particular from Daesh [Islamic State] and foreign fighters, is a direct threat to Australia and our interests,” Senator Payne said.

“I recently spoke with my counterpart Secretary of Defence Delfin Lorenzana about how Australia can assist the Philippines in its fight against extremists. We agreed the best way to defeat terrorism in our region is for us to work together.”

Senator Payne did not say where the Orions – which typically have a crew of 11 or 12 – would fly from. But one possibility would be they would come from Butterworth base in Malaysia, from which the RAAF flies patrols over the South China Sea.

While the precise capabilities of the planes are classified, some have advanced equipment to gather up signals intelligence such as mobile phone conversations.

They could also provide aerial images and other surveillance of the battle space to feed to Philippines military commanders.

Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the pair of Orions was “a serious commitment and a useful one”.

“They will be able to play a very significant tactical intelligence-gathering role,” he said.

“There is always a premium on being able to gather intelligence for these types of operations. It tells you that they’re taking the threat very seriously in the south as well, which is right.”

Four Islamist groups in the southern Philippines claim affiliation with the Islamic State. Their ranks have reportedly been strengthened by hundreds of battle-hardened Islamic State fighters who have joined them from Syria and Iraq.

There are concerns that Australian would-be jihadists could travel to the Philippines to join the groups.

Two of those groups, Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group, have seized control of parts of the city of Marawi, which has a population of 200,000, and are engaged in a prolonged urban war against government forces.

At least 300 people have been killed in the conflict and 18,000 displaced. President Rodrigo Duterte has placed the Mindanao region under martial law.

The US is already flying Orions to help the Philippines and is also providing special forces training and advice to local forces.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Senator Payne discussed the problem of the Islamic State in the Philippines with US counterparts at the AUSMIN meeting in Sydney earlier this month.

Recently in Singapore, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull flagged Australian help to the Philippines, saying the Islamic State problem was becoming so serious that it needed more co-operation between governments in the region.