The Pentagon is reportedly mulling plans to conduct airstrikes against Isil terrorist targets in the Philippines.
A recent surge of terrorist networks affiliated to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), including an ongoing assault on the southern city of Marawi, has caused alarm in the Philippines and neighbouring countries that Islamic State could establish a regional southeast Asian hub even as it declines in the Middle East.
The authority to strike Isil targets as part of a strategy of collective defence could become part of a military operation that may be named as early as Tuesday, two defence officials told NBC News.
The strikes would likely be conducted by armed drones, a strategy already used across the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and one which has a controversial record over allegations of civilian casualties.
If the Pentagon plan is approved, the US military would be able to conduct strikes against the Isil groups the Philippines forces are currently battling in the country’s southern islands.
The US has been sharing intelligence and had a counter-terrorism presence in the Philippines for 15 years.
Speaking at a meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers in the Philippine capital, Manila, on Monday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Washington had already provided Cessna planes and UAVs (drones) for intelligence purposes.
"We’re providing them some training and some guidance in terms of how to deal with an enemy that fights in ways that are not like most people have ever had to deal with.”
Reports of US troops on the ground near the besieged city of Marawi emerged as early as June. Marawi, a Muslim-majority city of 200,000, was overrun by groups claiming allegiance to Isil in late May, and the Philippine military has been unable to regain full control.
The Americans were not fighting but "operating equipment to provide information on situation awareness to our troops,” said military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla in June.
President Rodrigo Duterte initially claimed he was "not aware” of their presence and that he had "never approached America” for help.
While seeking stronger ties with China, Mr Duterte has tried over the past year to distance himself from Washington, which he has accused of treating the Philippines like "dogs on a leash”.
On Monday, he changed his tone. "I am happy to see you,” Mr Duterte told Mr Tillerson at the presidential palace. "I am your humble friend in Southeast Asia.”