Island Wilayat Rising? Stemming the tide of violent extremism after Marawi

Thanks to a few twists of fate, I’ve got a short (read: heavily redacted) piece on Marawi  published by the Australian National University’s East Asia Forum. It comes in several weeks later than I’d like, but at any rate, I’m posting here an earlier unedited and less circumspect version, written roughly two, three weeks ago.

Marawi was a victory for Islamist extremism in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. The next choices taken by the Philippine government will determine the extent of its spread.


It has been more than sixty days since the outbreak of violence in the Islamic City of Marawi, just over 500 miles south of Manila, and kilometre zero of the island-region of Mindanao. What started in the morning of May 23 has led to over 314,000 persons displaced. More than half of the lakeside city is in ruins; approximately 100 civilians and hostages are still trapped in the crossfire. Aerial bombardments and house-to-house fighting continue. As the first widespread incident of urban violence in the Philippines—its partial precursors being Zamboanga in 2013, Ipil in 1995 and the razing of Jolo in 1974—the impact of the Marawi siege is unprecedented, not least in its implications to the rise of violent extremism in the region.

While the reported death of Abu Bakr Baghdadi and the jihadi group’s losses at Mosul and Raqqa signal a transformation of Daesh presence in the Middle East, Marawi by all accounts was a victory for islamist terrorism in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. From a ragtag group of ‘black flag wannabes’ that could barely stage a bomb attack on the US Embassy in Manila in 2016, the Maute group now has enough street cred to attract international interest and support. They have achieved what others have failed to do: signal to the disgruntled and marginalised that violent extremism, particularly through urban warfare, is a viable path forward.

Though these splintered efforts may never amount to the true territorial control required for a wilayat, these scattered groups across the archipelago can cause damage for years to come.  This is despite the declaration of martial law over the entire island of Mindanao, which was recently extended on 22 July until 31 December by President Rodrigo Roa Duterte after meeting its initial 60-day deadline. Two days later, Duterte gave a second State of the Nation Address, signalling the end of his first year in office.  The next steps to be taken by the Philippine government—ending the skirmishes, securing peace, stabilising local governance, ensuring swift and sustainable rehabilitation and reconstruction—will determine the extent of its spread.


Securing the city

Ending the hostilities in Marawi is paramount, even if a quick, decisive victory is now impossible. The Philippine military has thrice failed to beat their internal deadlines of clearing Marawi and its extensive network of foxholes and underground tunnels. This is despite the declaration of Martial Law over the entire island of Mindanao, although most of the fighting has been limited to the southeast quadrant of Marawi City. Although ringleader Omarkhayam Maute is considered ‘more or less dead,’ Abu Sayyaf Group’s head and supposed Daesh emir for Southeast Asia Isnilon Hapilon remains at large.

Over three hundred Maute and allied fighters have already been neutralized, but Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana admits that the total number of fighters is closer to 700. Enough have escaped Marawi to potentially stage attacks in other Philippine cities. Ground observers believe that remaining jihadis in Marawi City are foreigners unfamiliar with the terrain. Unable to leave, they fight to the death. In the meantime, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters harry rural communities in the neighbouring provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato, triggering the displacement of another 300,000 civilians.


Keeping the peace 

Mindanao is home to some of the longest-running armed conflicts in the world, covering both communist and Islamic separatist insurgencies. Airstrikes, checkpoints, Duterte’s proclamation of protection over soldiers who commit rape — all of these trigger deep-seated collective trauma. As such, physically securing the city will only be the first step in finding a new equilibrium.

The largest non-state actor in the country, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has renewed its commitment to a 2012 peace deal with the Philippine government by securing a humanitarian corridor down the western coast of Lake Lanao. The Bangsamoro mufti has also released a fatwa against a brand of ideology that puts civilians in harm’s way, supporting the MILF’s admonition to its members to deny sanctuary against ‘this kind of people’ (without directly mentioning specific groups). The MILF’s most battle-tested field general, nom-de-guerre Commander Bravo, has released a video dispelling fears of his joining the hostilities in Marawi. But as admitted by negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, clan ties are strong between the Maute group and certain branches of the MILF, as with other major families in Lanao. Many fear that the recently-submitted Bangsamoro Basic Law will be sidelined in favour of Duterte’s push for federalism. Despite many recent steps taken by the MILF, including appointing Maranao scion Marjanie Mimbantas to its peace panel, the burden now falls on the Philippine Government to prevent the major armed groups from slipping back to war.


Local and regional cooperation

Stemming the tide of violent extremism after Marawi will take a level of cultural sensitivity and political deftness that does not come easily to Imperial Manila. Not even one led by a Bisaya-Mindanawon settler such as Duterte, who claims partial Maranao heritage. This is a war that cannot be won from a distance. Local and traditional governance structures must be empowered to resist violent extremist groups, using their influence to reach out to those most vulnerable to recruitment. However, the recent action of the national government to strip seven governors and 132 mayors of their control over the local police, as well as a proposal for a nationwide ID system for Muslims, greatly undermine the agenda for peace.

Regional cooperation with partner military and intelligence forces will also be key. This is assuming that neighbours such as Indonesia and Malaysia will trust their notoriously leaky Philippine counterparts. The United States’ Special Forces have been assisting in Marawi, despite President Duterte’s claims that he had “never approached America.” Australia has also offered the use of P3 Orion surveillance aircraft. Speculation and sensitivities abound, especially with the Philippine pivot to China and to Russia, where Duterte was when the siege began.


Swift and sustainable rehabilitation and reconstruction

 The degree to which reconstruction efforts do not totally fail will also be a major determinant of recruitment. A task force called Bangon (“Rise”) Marawi was created with the Department of National Defense taking the lead. There are limited roles for the governments of the city, province, and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The President has committed 20 billion pesos for reconstruction—an amount that has no dedicated budget cover, and will likely be limited to attributions from existing funds. No foreign assistance is purportedly sought. Unless implementation, financing, and monitoring arrangements are made clear, it will only take the next crisis du jour to shift attention away from Marawi and any hope of rebuilding.


What next?

The final test will be for Duterte himself. At 72, he is the Philippines’ oldest serving president, and was not seen for several days during the first weeks of the crisis—fuelling speculations that he was on his deathbed, and that his stylish leather jacket hid a colostomy bag. The president eventually resurfaced when critics questioned the wisdom of taking a break while a city burns.

The Supreme Court dismissed petitions to nullify Martial Law over Mindanao on 8 July. Now there is talk that military rule will be extended over the rest of the country. Even prior to the crisis, heavily-armed Lanao del Sur was already home to some of the poorest of the poor, despite the traders’ wealth of the people of the lake. Coupled with the deaths from Duterte’s drug war, one can only ask: how much stress can Philippine institutions take? Filipino patience and resilience notwithstanding, the anger and dissatisfaction that drives ‘black flag’ ideologies will not be easily quelled. It will take more than what is offered to begin stemming the tide.




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