Australian Army engineer Steve Driver is on a beach teaching Philippines marines how to blast through doors and walls so they can hunt down Islamic State-linked terrorists.
He knows a thing or two about bombs. The Glasgow native and former British sapper served in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan before taking a few years' break from military life and then finally finding a new home with the Australian Army.
“When I rejoined the army, I was saying I felt as if I still had something to give. Maybe this is it. If I can help an ally keep themselves alive and defeat an enemy that I’ve been fighting for 15 years and is on our doorstep, that’s worthwhile,” he said.
“They will keep coming unless we do something about it.”
Sergeant Driver is part of an Australian Defence Force mission that has quietly trained more than 7000 Philippines troops to beat back a smouldering Islamist insurgency in the country's volatile south. That insurgency poses what Canberra’s top military operations chief calls a “clear and present danger” to Australia.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age has been given exclusive access to the year-long training mission. Up to 80 Australian personnel are working with the Filipinos to sharpen their urban war-fighting skills, teach them explosives, marksmanship, find and counter home-made bombs, and co-ordinate their air support and artillery fire.
The Australian government moved quickly to offer the help last year after about 1000 Islamist militants united under the Islamic State banner and seized the southern Muslim city of Marawi, sparking a siege lasting five months and costing the lives of at least 165 soldiers and marines as well as dozens of civilians.
The Philippines government of Rodrigo Duterte hopes not to repeat that result. Australia wants to stop an IS-backed group or some future metastasisation gaining a foothold in a precarious archipelago that is closer to Darwin than Adelaide is.
The ADF’s chief of joint operations, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, describes the threat as a “clear and present danger” given the movement of foreign fighters back to south-east Asia.
“The Philippines is one very dramatic example of that,” he said. “The fact that … the IS Philippines had very strong links back into Syria and Iraq is one of the reasons why our national interest really starts to intersect with that of the Philippines.”
As with Iraq and Afghanistan, the hope is that suppressing Islamist violence will give the longer-term political solutions in the heavily Muslim southern region of Mindanao the time and space to take root, he said.
The picturesque Ternate beach, where Sergeant Driver and his team are training Filipino marines, is part of Gregorio Lim Marine Base, 50 kilometres south of the capital Manila. It could be a tourist spot, save for the scars on the cliffs where Filipino helicopter gunships have been practising their aim, and the regular, ribcage-rattling thump of plastic explosives detonating.
One of the marines is a tough and experienced special forces captain who commanded men in Marawi for four months and before that served in Sulu province, where the feared Abu Sayyaf group – one of those involved in the Marawi battle – is active.
He cannot be named because of the secrecy of his unit.
“This is a godsend,” the captain said of the explosives lessons. “It was badly needed.”
As with Iraq’s siege of Mosul, the militants in Marawi were heavily armed and had dug themselves in. The Philippines army and marines were not practised in urban warfare, being more experienced at jungle fighting.
As the captain’s marines moved into the city, they could not use the streets because of snipers on rooftops and in high windows. They followed the standard urban warfare doctrine of moving through buildings, punching holes in walls when they had to.
But without trained combat engineers, who can use explosives to blast through walls and doors, the Filipinos were relying on sledgehammers.
It could take up to two hours to get through a solid wall, giving the insurgents plenty of warning. The special forces captain said they had to time their hammer blows with artillery strikes to hide the noise. Often by the time they made a hole, there would be an insurgent’s gun sticking through it.
That’s why the Australians were teaching explosive “breaching”, which lets forces keep the element of surprise as they move quickly through buildings, explained Sergeant Driver.
It also helps them avoid booby trap bombs – known as improvised explosive devices or IEDs – rigged to doors and windows, or snipers positioned in buildings across the street ready to shoot soldiers trying to enter a building.
The bulk of the ADF deployment was based until recently in Cotabato, which lies in Mindanao about 100 kilometres south of Marawi. They relocated last month to the neighbouring island of Palawan, where they have been teaching combat shooting, including basic marksmanship but also how to manoeuvre in teams through buildings.
They are also training them in co-ordinating artillery strikes – many soldiers died in Marawi through so-called “fratricide”, when killed by their own forces – and medical treatment.
Palawan is relatively peaceful, but Cotabato remains a hotspot. If insurgent groups reunite and try another Marawi-style siege, Cotabato would be a prime candidate.
While there are hopes a plebiscite in January on autonomy for Mindanao could be a political circuit-breaker, the Australians’ time in Cotabato was a reminder of how persistent the violence remains.
Philippines troops would go straight out and fight after their training, said Major Luke Holloway, the commander of the training team on Palawan.
“That’s seen guys we’ve trained killed within the week,” he said.
It was confronting for some of the younger Australians on their first deployment, “because they form such strong friendships during the training”.