For U.S. Commandos in the Philippines, a Water Pump Is a New Weapon Against ISIS

PADAS, Philippines — While neither guided bomb nor armored vehicle, a gray oblong water pump sticking out from the brush along a remote dirt road is intended to be just as clear a sign of the United States’ efforts to stop the spread of the Islamic State.

It has taken two months, an American Special Operations civil affairs team, three nonprofit organizations and an entire platoon from the Philippine Army to bring the pump to Padas, a village of about 3,000 people in the Mindanao chain of islands in the country’s south. If all goes to plan, water from the pump will help impoverished farmers establish trust in the government, and, in turn, seek to undermine the militants’ influence.

“Whatever the international community gives us, we’ll accept,” said Macaraya Ampuan, an influential leader in the village. “But first thing to address is security. Eliminate ISIS so our livelihoods can be stable.”

The contest between the Philippines government and shadowy insurgents in one small village in the Pacific Ocean carries familiar echoes of the United States’ long wars and counterinsurgency campaigns against Islamist extremists since the terrorist attacks of 2001. But the project in Padas is also linked to the defeat of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria and the Pentagon’s race to stop its resurgence in other parts of the globe.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for twin bombings in January at a Catholic cathedral on the Philippine island of Jolo, killing 23 people. They were an eerily similar prelude to coordinated bombings on Easter Sunday targeting Christian churches and tourist hotels across Sri Lanka that killed at least 250 people — another attack claimed by the Islamic State.

Years ago, the Pentagon identified the Philippines as a remote locale where the Islamic State could expand and flourish. The American military’s focus on Padas was fueled by concerns about a backlash among local residents, and a possible regrouping by insurgents after the bloody battle for a nearby city, Marawi, in 2017.

The monthslong siege there left hundreds dead, displaced thousands more and plunged much of the city into ruin. What remained of the Islamic State affiliate fled to the south and to other islands, and they started to rebuild and recruit around villages like Padas.

The Philippines is a majority Christian country with a minority Muslim population in the south. A November report to Congress put the number of Islamic State fighters in the Philippines at around 500.

The American military has deployed about 250 troops to the southern Philippines. They are part of a counterterrorism campaign that has existed in some capacity since 2002, but was officially restarted by the Pentagon in 2017 under the name Operation Pacific Eagle.

The mission is rarely promoted because of sporadic political tensions between Washington and Manila, the Philippine capital. President Rodrigo Duterte has previously threatened to eject American forces from the country.

During the battle for Marawi, the Pentagon played down the American military’s role, stating that troops there provided only support and assistance. However, officials said Marine commandos helped break the siege by training Philippine snipers who were struggling to defeat expert marksmen among the extremists who proved difficult to target within the city’s concrete buildings.

Now, Marine Special Operations units work quietly alongside Philippine troops spread throughout the country’s southern isles. The United States Army’s only Special Operations civil affairs team in the Philippines is also helping the villages around Marawi, where security concerns prevent State Department officials from traveling.

At the tip of that effort is the $58,000 water pump in Padas.

The project to bring it to the village was started by Capt. Angela Smith, the leader of the four-person civil affairs team, after residents told her of their two-mile trek to get water. The machine, and the solar panels that power it, was donated by two nonprofit organizations: the U.S.-Philippines Society and Spirit of America.

“One water pump, one classroom that we help build, those things make a difference,” Ambassador Sung Yong Kim, the American envoy to the Philippines, said in a recent interview. “So we want to do as much as that as possible.”

The State Department and the United States Agency for International Development have funded nearly $60 million for reconstruction efforts around Marawi.

Captain Smith’s team, whose soldiers wear civilian clothes and are often escorted by a Marine Special Operations unit based in Marawi, is the military’s latest embrace of a trademark American counterinsurgency strategy of winning over local populations.

In the lake region between Marwai and Padas, “internally displaced persons and their communities are vulnerable to violent extremist recruiting and influence,” Captain Smith said in an email. “Our goal is to work with our Philippine partners to facilitate assistance in areas of greatest need.”

Similar efforts were taken in Afghanistan and Iraq, including by American troops who worked with and paid Sunni militias known as the Sahwa, or the Awakening, at the height of the Iraq War. That mission was largely credited with turning the tide against the insurgency in Iraq, before American forces withdrew in 2011 and the Islamic State swept across much of the country three years later.

Broadly, the American military’s practice of counterinsurgency since 2001 has been plagued by frustration and failure. Many of the places where it was deployed are now under the influence or control of militants, either because the insurgents were never defeated, residents were hostile or noncommittal or the Western troops left.

In Padas, officials said it is a gamble to ensure that the extremist group does not regain the strength it mustered before the siege of Marawi, which caught the Pentagon almost entirely off guard.

“This village used to be controlled by the Islamic State,” said Cpl. Jumar Dayanan, a soldier with the Philippine Army platoon who was sent to live in Padas. “But now we’re trying to win the hearts and minds.”

Last month, Philippine troops killed Abu Dar, the nom de guerre of the third and last surviving Islamic State leader who was responsible for planning and carrying out the battle in Marawi. Mr. Dar was shot roughly 500 yards from the water pump in Padas in a gunfight with Philippine Army forces who were supported by Marine commandos, villagers and American officials said.

The Philippines’ southern islands have long been a home for insurgents. Thick jungle, porous borders and little government presence have bolstered a range of extremist groups with money, weapons and militants arriving by sea from Indonesia and Malaysia.

But in Padas, and the other villages around Marawi, the United States is fighting just as much against economics as it is against a creeping ideology.

Wages as low as $6 a day are the market compensation for untrained construction workers in the Marawi area, said Alikman Niaga, who runs a small contracting company around the city. Residents can be paid triple that amount by joining groups that have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State, according to villagers and American officials.

In 2017, the Islamic State’s leadership in the Middle East funneled tens of thousands of dollars to its Philippine counterparts to recruit fighters and help seize territory.

Mr. Ampuan, the village leader who once commanded the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Padas, is afraid there are Islamic State fighters who have been recruited from his community but have yet to surrender or be killed.

“They know people in the community,” Mr. Ampuan said. “ISIS offers money and guns to the young people. Young people are not aware of the reality when they join.”

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The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is a separatist militia that signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014. While Muslims in the southern Philippines gained more autonomy last year under a new law, Mr. Ampuan said government officials in Manila still have not given the people of Padas the necessary authority to stop the Islamic State from infiltrating the village.

The government’s presence in Padas also makes residents skittish, he said.

That tension is mirrored by the 30-member Philippine Army platoon living in a few abandoned farming sheds in Padas, some of whom warily eye the villagers as possible Islamic State sympathizers.

Trying to mediate from the middle are the American civil affairs soldiers and employees of Impl. Project, a nonprofit group based in Virginia that works on development and stabilization in conflict zones. They are working in tandem in Padas to install the four-gallon-a-minute water pump and help form a local council to manage it.

For the water pump to work, the Philippine military must provide enough security to protect the people who, in turn, need to learn how to keep it running.

“The water pump becomes the vehicle for them to learn how to govern themselves again,” said Justin Richmond, the founder of Impl. and a former Army Special Operations soldier.

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