After a period of icy relations and threats of a strategic rebalance towards China, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is now bidding to reconcile and expand ties with the United States to combat a rising, internationally-linked terrorist threat in his country’s southern regions.

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella told journalists this week that Duterte has accepted the fact that his troops need assistance from their American counterparts to flush out the heavily armed terrorists that have laid siege to the southern city of Marawi.

Abella’s statement came in response to journalists who inquired if the tough-talking Duterte was already wavering on his earlier pronouncement directed at America that foreign militaries should not meddle in the Philippines’ internal affairs.

In a separate event, when journalists ambushed Duterte to comment on the fact US Special Forces were openly helping Philippine soldiers against terrorists led by the Islamic State-affiliated Maute Group in Marawi, Duterte replied, “I have to be thankful to them. It’s already there.”

With a rising death toll of soldiers and no clear signs that the battle of Marawi will end any time soon, Duterte allowed his Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana to call on US Special Forces situated at a military base in nearby Zamboanga to provide surveillance aircraft and intelligence assistance to reinforce and provide bombing guidance to Filipino armed forces.

A military helicopter flies past a mosque in Marawi. Photo: Reuters
A Philippine military helicopter flies past a mosque in Marawi. Photo: Reuters

Duterte sent his top ministers and key advisers, including Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano, Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Eduardo Ano and Lorenzana, to personally welcome Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, who recently traveled from Hawaii to confer on how best to address the rising terror threat in the southern Philippines.

Swift’s visit reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to the Philippines’ counterterrorism efforts, a relationship based on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that aims to jointly combat piracy, transnational crime and terrorism. This month, the US delivered counterterrorism gear to the Philippine Marines, including high-powered assault rifles, ammunition and combat-ready rubber boats, under the agreement.

There are questions about how deeply American forces are involved in the Marawi operation. A photo of US military forces widely circulated in local and social media shows Caucasians believed to be US Special Forces flying drones over the battle zone.

Philippines' Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gestures as he delivers a speech during the closing ceremony of the annual joint US-Philippines military exercise in Manila on May 19, 2017. The Philippines and the United States launched annual military exercises on May 8 but the longtime allies scaled them down  which focuses only on counter-terrorism and disaster relief in line with President Rodrigo Duterte's pivot to China and Russia. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE
Philippines’ Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana delivers a speech at the closing ceremony of the annual US-Philippines military exercise in Manila on May 19, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Ted Aljibe

The Philippine Defense Department has admitted the presence of armed US forces in the area, but insisted that their role has been limited to technical assistance and intelligence sharing.

Philippine laws prohibits foreign troops from engaging in direct firefights with local rebels, though US troops have been known to be directly involved in past raids on the hideouts of Abu Sayyaf terror group leaders. Abu Sayyaf is one of a handful of Philippine militant groups to declare loyalty to IS.

After frequently lambasting the US and its military role in the region, Duterte’s administration has now dramatically changed its diplomatic tone. Vice President Leni Robredo recently expressed how “thankful” she was to the US for supporting Philippine forces in Marawi and appealed to Filipinos to nurture relations with its traditional treaty ally.

The two sides’ counterterrorism cooperation is rooted in the 9/11 terror attacks on the US. That attack was planned in part on Philippine soil by Al Qaeda terror operatives. In 2002, US-Philippine military cooperation intensified in operations aimed at Islamic militants in the southern Philippines, namely the then Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group.

Abu Sayyaf rebels in the interior of the southern Philippine Jolo island in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Philippine National Red Cross via Reuters TV
Abu Sayyaf rebels in the interior of the southern Philippine Jolo island in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Philippine National Red Cross via Reuters TV

In 2013, when 400 Islamic militants attacked Zamboanga City, the US military deployed drones over the battle zone that helped to provide the real time intelligence needed to end a three-week fierce battle similar in many ways to the Marawi siege. Hundreds of separatist militants surrendered to security forces in that infamous battle.

US intelligence and technical assistance also contributed to the 2015 killing of Malaysian militant Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, then one of Asia’s most wanted terrorists and bomb-making experts. Before his assassination, the US Federal Investigation Bureau had offered a US$5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

In the assault, an estimated 44 Philippine Special Action Forces were killed in an area controlled by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), an Islamic militant group that at the time had already declared its loyalty to Islamic State. Duterte was previously critical of the operation, including a flourish that blamed the US Central Intelligence Agency for a botched operation that caused Filipino deaths.

BIFF launched an assault this week on villages in North Cotabato, in an assault some analysts believe aims to divert the attention of Filipino forces fighting in Marawi. If so, it is the first sign that Islamic State affiliated groups are working in cooperation across a wide geography in Mindanao.

US marines during a beach landing as part of the Philippines-US amphibious landing exercise (Philbex) at a naval training base on October 7, 2016. Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte threatened then to end joint military exercises with the US, saying in October 2016: "This year would be the last." Photo: AFP
US marines during a beach landing as part of the Philippines-US amphibious landing exercise (Philbex) at a naval training base on October 7, 2016. Photo: AFP

Duterte’s reach towards the US to combat homegrown terror groups represents a significant climb down for the tough-talking leader. Last year, Duterte publicly announced he could combat Abu Sayyaf without US military assistance, giving his troops a June 30 deadline to finish off the group. He deployed 10,000 soldiers, including battle-tested Marines and army scouts, to drive the end-game offensive.

But while the defense establishment felt its forces were winning the battle, including through the killings of known Abu Sayyaf operatives in the region’s deep southern reaches, the group’s Islamic State-anointed top leader, Isnilon Hapilon, had quietly moved to Mindanao’s northern sub-region to forge an alliance with the Islamic State-linked Maute Group and possibly BIFF.

At the height of his anti-American rhetoric, Duterte stated that this year’s joint military exercises with the US would be the last and that American forces situated in his country should plan to “go home.” As Duterte reverses course under terrorist fire, joint Philippine-US exercises are now expected to be intensified as the two sides cooperate shoulder-to-shoulder again to neutralize Islamic State-linked groups.

Noel Tarrazona is a freelance geopolitical analyst