The liberation of Marawi, the city occupied by militants loyal to Islamic State, will take some time. In the meantime the president, Rodrigo Duterte, has extended martial law and relaunched the economic development of Mindanao. Although tested, his popularity remains solid for the moment.
Jihadism’s appeal in the southern Philippines has taken hold beyond all expectations and has the Philippine Army in check with possible devastating consequences for the whole of Southeast Asia. As a result, Rodrigo Duterte’s government has adopted a “tough stance” and ordered the extension of martial law (initially announced for sixty days) until the end of 2017. In a speech to the nation made at the end of his first year in power, the “sheriff-president” said that it will take time to annihilate the scourge of extremist and violent groups present in the south who are being seduced by Islamic State sirens.
On May 23rd over 500 terrorists belonging to the “Maute” group, loyal to ISIS, used a surprise attack to occupy the city of Marawi, capital of the province of Southern Lanao in Mindanao, a large island in the southern Philippines inhabited by a significant Muslim minority (over five million citizens out of 100 million Filipinos).
It was a siege that lasted two months, marked by intense “hand-to-hand fighting” and carpet bombing that did not flush out and defeat the jihadists. This was evidence of an attack by militants prepared down to the smallest detail and that mercilessly brought to light the flaws in the control exercised by Philippine intelligence over this area, in spite of it being as militarised as in war time for a number of years. These terrorist showed strategic ability, clear objectives, and were trained in guerrilla warfare. They occupied the city of Marawi and barricaded themselves in a district where they had previously built underground tunnels well-stocked with food and ammunition, ready to endure a lengthy siege. Snipers lie in ambush at strategic locations, on top of buildings, making the army’s counteroffensive difficult, slow and costly, with over 100 soldiers killed in two months. Finally, the Filipino jihadists took out ‘life insurance’ by taking hostage about 300 civilians to be used as bargaining chips and human shields. Among them were 15 Catholics and Father Teresito Suganob, captured at the city’s Catholic cathedral before the jihadists laid waste to the holy building and then set fire to it.
The fact is that, in spite of the difference in the number of fighters fielded (seven thousand soldiers deployed) and even technical assistance provided by American troops sent to assist the Philippine Army (even equipped with drones and sophisticated technology), although significantly weakened (over 430 terrorists killed), the jihadist militias are resisting tenaciously and show no sign of surrendering. The unexpected success of those already described on social media accounts linked to ISIS as the “heroes of Marawi” – acting as a countermelody to the solemn funerals held for the young soldiers fallen in battle, also considered “heroes” by the state – fuels symbolic imagination and Islamic State’s propaganda narrative in Southeast Asia.
This unprecedented successful occupation of a city with 200,000 inhabitants (all currently displaced and in refugee camps in the area), an important provincial capital, has galvanised jihadist groups in the Philippines and in neighbouring countries with a Muslim majority such as Indonesia and Malaysia. According to the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a think-tank based in Jakarta, states in the ASEAN region (Association of South East Asian Nations) may over the coming months see a multiplication of extremist jihadist insurgency which – although historically embedded in countries in Southeast Asia and motivated by particular reasons linked to the political, social and religious context – has found in Islamic State a common brand that works well on the market of international visibility.
The caliphate in Mindanao
The stated objective is to create “an official hub for ISIS in the region”. Today the attack on Marawi amounts to an injection of enthusiasm as the tenacity of the Filipino fighters, which has attracted the attention of Islamic State’s central command in Raqqa, Syria, strengthens the objective of creating a mini-caliphate in Southeast Asia, an exceedingly tempting prospect for returning prestige to an organisation that is inexorably losing ground in the Middle East. Middle Eastern foreign fighters, identified by the Philippine Army in Marawi, confirm once again the existing bond between indigenous jihadist groups (such as the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, active for over thirty years in the South Seas) and Islamic State, which, as suggested by IPAC’s recent report, has “small cells of good fighters also capable of indoctrinating other young people” in Southeast Asia.
In Mindanao the local reference point is currently the commander Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the Abu Sayyaf group; a man who swore loyalty to ISIS already in 2014 and said to be one of the organisers and leaders of the attack on Marawi. The over 500 militants who ravaged the city are instead mainly member of the “Maute”, one of the many armed groups spread throughout the southern Philippines and the expression of a historical Islamic irredentism that is divided along ethnic lines (there are 12 main ethnic groups within the Muslim community). Maute is the surname that identifies one of the family clans that has for centuries shared political power and control over the territory in Mindanao, also using small private armies often created thanks to the illegal trafficking of weapons. It is precisely thanks to these dynamics that Abu Sayyaf has existed and resisted for three decades. Just like the Maute, a dynasty of Maranao that supported the autonomist plans of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (the historical guerrilla movement that reached a compromise with Manila) they have become a subversive group that initially due to an initiative taken by the brothers Omar and Abdullah, changed direction to join the project of the caliphate and the armed struggle.
A regional plan
The rising threat posed in this region by groups affiliated to ISIS requires the overcoming of political obstacles (such as, for example, the historical mistrust between the Philippines and Malaysia) as well as the implementation of coordinated action between ASEAN governments to effectively oppose extremism and ensure that the social fabric is less fertile to jihadist recruitment. In spite of initial steps taken in this direction, the path remains long. There is an urgent need for the adoption of real transnational measures, especially as far as intelligence and prevention are concerned, but also work at a cultural, social, political and economic level in order to put an end to the cultural mish-mash – consisting of poverty, social malaise, unrest, alienation, lack of educational services, political claims – in which Islamic extremism’s ideology blossoms. To state just one example; What has happened to the peace process in the Southern Philippines and the “Bangsamoro Basic Law”? This law would have established new borders and competencies for a new autonomous political entity created specifically to answer, in a federalist sense, demands for self-management coming from a significantly large part of the country. The law, which ran aground in parliament at the end of Duterte’s predecessor’s mandate, that of former president Benigno Aquino, is expected to be one again placed on the agenda and debated in parliament. A year ago, Duterte had said he supported this law.
In order to respond to the national emergency – with the country under terrorist attack – on May 23rd President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law for the entire island of Mindanao. This provision, constitutionally valid for two months, was recently extended by parliament until December 2017. Duterte very recently travelled to Marawi to raise the morale of the soldiers fighting a difficult military campaign. Immediately afterwards, in a second “Speech on the State of the Nation” made on July 24th – a report made at the beginning of his second year as president – did not avoid stating that the “security” challenge remains central to his political mandate. Jihadist groups and terrorists proliferate on Mindanao, he said, especially because of the catastrophic economic situation experienced by the island’s population. Hence, the president promised, the government’s focus and its consequent financial commitments will be addressed at economic development plans aimed at alleviating poverty in the Southern Philippines (the people in the provinces with a Muslim majority are ranked among the last in classifications linked to the UN human development indexes that include education and social services). Duterte spoke of an “inclusive economy” with the primary intention of reaching out to Christian and Muslim communities, improving the infrastructure network, creating employment and wealth for everyone and rebuilding Marawi.
In the meantime, in the Mindanao region, the population has complained of distress and abuse carried out by the soldiers applying the special laws. Sharing the appeals made by many human rights organisations, even the Catholic bishops have opposed the extension of martial law to the whole of Mindanao and, at a recent plenary assembly, asked for an urgent “return to normality and peace” on this troubled island.
There is, however, one element that emerges from these events; although tested, the popularity enjoyed by Duterte remains solid for the moment. His fame as an “avenger” and as a “strong” leader results in his compatriots considering him to be the right man for opposing the terrorist threat and a “commander in chief” capable of defeating the jihadists. According to surveys, for example, the Filipinos basically approve of martial law. Paradoxically, the defeat suffered in Marawi might even increase the president’s popularity in public opinion.
Translated by Francesca Simmons