Scenes from the Lightning Academy in Wahiawa on the island of Oahu are reminiscent of a Vietnam war movie. In the thick of the region’s jungle terrain, troops packed with mud, wet from head to toe, conduct three weeks of maneuvers to learn how to operate in this unique environment.
In this Hawaiian base, the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division undergoes the Academy’s training course. "Understanding how to fight in the jungles is invaluable training to us right now," says First Sergeant George Feghali of the 25th Infantry. "The way the army's been focused for the past 16 years,” says Feghali has gotten the force “away from its roots."
Indeed with the conflicts of the US military since 9/11 being focused on the desert terrain and urban environments of the Middle East, jungle terrain training has largely fallen by the wayside. Important shifts in the War on Terror over the past year may be giving jungle training an overdue comeback.
Indeed the very establishment of Lighting Academy reflects the diverse nature of the global conflict on militant extremism. Founded in 2013, the academy came into being when jihadist groups in places like the Philippines and other Pacific countries were just beginning to gain a foothold. Now, almost five years later, the Academy and the tactics it specializes in may be getting some more attention.
The idea of jihadism being primarily a Middle Eastern concern is quickly dissipating. After major coalition victories in Iraq and Syria, especially against ISIS, strong signs of the group shifting its resources to other regions began coming to the fore. The highly publicized ambush of an American military contingent in Niger which resulted in the deaths of four special forces personnel, being one poignant example.
Recently, similar signs are beginning to show their head in the Philippines. Local media reported at the end of last week that the fighting between government forces and jihadists had been slowly intensifying in its epicenter in the southern city of Marawi. For the past five months, Marawi has been the scene of an intense battle between the Philippines army and ISIS fighters. Reports of brutality against residents of the city have increased sharply in the recent period. Additionally, leaders of the ISIS-inspired Philippine militants, collectively known as the Maute Group, have been continuing their recruitment efforts to further strengthen their ranks.
These are far from isolated incidents, but rather reflect a general trend of ISIS gaining significant traction in the Pacific. Less than two weeks ago, the Philippines’ armed forces and the US military completed the KAMANDAG drill, a joint military exercise held for the first time this year. In a press release, US ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, congratulated both countries on the successful completion of the drill stating that it reflected the ongoing cooperation the United States and the Philippines to “increase counterterrorism capabilities” in the region.
ISIS and other groups are not limited to the Philippines. Cells of the Islamic state are located in neighboring countries as well like Malaysia. In Indonesia the most populous Islamic nation, ISIS units are reportedly based in every province of the country.
The establishment of KAMANDAG as an annual event and the fresh focus on training programs like those at Lightning Academy are clear signs of the US branching out in its strategy of fighting global jihadism. In light of these reports, it will not be surprising to see more US cooperation with its Pacific partners in the months ahead.