Where will ISIS strike next in the Philippines?
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One year after Islamic State-aligned Filipino and foreign militants laid siege to Marawi, the war-torn city has yet to rise from the ashes. With over a score of extremist groups that still pledge allegiance to ISIS lurking in the shadows of the southern island of Mindanao, the restive region is on a knife’s edge in anticipation of a next big attack.
Maute and Abu Sayyaf Group rebels first launched their surprise siege on May 23, 2017, an attack that exposed the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ ill-preparedness for full-scale urban warfare. It took President Rodrigo Duterte’s government five months to liberate the Muslim city from the ragtag militants’ clutches.
Marawi’s central core was left in ruins in a battle that killed some 1,100 people, mostly militants. Over 350,000 civilians were displaced by the battle, more than half of whom remain displaced one year on. It’s a dire situation social media-savvy extremist groups are now exploiting to recruit new members with the lure of money, guns and ideology, analysts and officials say.
Key to the extremist groups’ narrative is the notion that Marawi’s devastation was inflicted mostly by the state, through indiscriminate aerial bombardments and mortar fire they say was intentionally disproportionate to destroy the country’s only Muslim majority city.
The government, which has yet to begin the rehabilitation of the city’s so-called “ground zero” center that remains restricted to civilians, utilized overwhelming air, artillery and ground assets that flattened buildings and residences in an area spanning 250 hectares. The battle’s destruction left behind more than three million tons of debris, according to official estimates.
One year on, analysts say the government’s declared victory at Marawi was far from decisive and that a new, devastating militant assault could be on the cards as ISIS-aligned militants regroup and potentially join forces.
“The threat is real,” says security analyst Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Manila-based Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. Citing government intelligence reports, he notes that there are at least 23 armed groups based in Mindanao that still pledge allegiance to ISIS, though it’s unclear how many receive direct support from the terror group.
On May 15, in an event organized by the military in cooperation with the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Development Academy, Banlaoi told assembled soldiers, police and Muslim religious leaders that ISIS elements have deeply penetrated major Mindanao cities and that some are believed to be planning attacks during Islam’s fasting month of Ramadan, which started in the Philippines on May 17.
He claimed that foreign ISIS fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia and even China who cannot return home after the group’s defeat in Syria and Iraq are likely to seek refuge in the southern Philippines.
Banlaoi also claims that ISIS extremist ideology is starting to influence certain camps operating in the bailiwick of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Philippines’ largest Islamic armed group that forged a peace agreement with the government in 2014 after decades of fighting for ancestral lands.
The core of that agreement, namely the establishment of a new Bangsamoro region that will replace the current ARMM, is still stuck in Congress despite Duterte’s vow to give it legislative priority. As the deal remains unimplemented, Banlaoi fears ISIS is now making inroads and winning sympathies in the extensive areas over which the MILF holds sway.
“MILF-controlled areas are deeply penetrated by Islamic State-inspired groups,” Banlaoi told Asia Times, referring in particular to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
BIFF, one of the 23 active Muslim groups that pledge allegiance to ISIS, broke away from the MILF after it signed an autonomy-devolving Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain with the government that was eventually ruled unconstitutional and upended by the Supreme Court in 2008.
The MILF holds sway over Maguindanao and North Cotabato provinces in Central Mindanao, areas where the outlawed BIFF also operates. Many MILF and BIFF members are linked to each other either by blood or through intermarriages. Some analysts feel the area is a likely target for a next ISIS-inspired attack.
Maguindanao became known as a haven for Islamic militants when the notorious Malaysian terrorist and bomb-making expert Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan was killed there in 2015. He had been coddled by BIFF elements, according to reports.
Forty-four members of the government’s elite police Special Action Forces were killed in the area when the commandos encountered MILF and other private armed groups during a raid to arrest Marwan in the Muslim-dominated province’s Mamasapano township. Then President Benigno Aquino III now faces potential charges for his oversight role of the deadly botched raid.
Speaking to the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines in Manila in February, MILF chieftain Al Haj Murad Ebrahim abhorred the ideology espoused by ISIS, assuring the government it would help to flush out violent extremism in their stronghold. But not all analysts and observers are convinced.
On May 11, Duterte visited Marawi for the 10th time since the siege to ceremonially receive recovered firearms and distribute assistance to 27 members of the vanquished Maute Group who surrendered to the government.
The mercurial leader asked the city’s residents for patience while calling on other ISIS supporters to come above ground and assist in the city’s peaceful redevelopment.
“Give us time to rebuild, give us time to establish the goodwill,” Duterte said in apparent recognition of the growing animosity towards the state among displaced residents.
He also expressed regret for declaring martial law for the entirety of Mindanao in response to the Marawi siege, a rights-curbing measure that will remain in effect until the end of the year. “I was not very happy with it,” Duterte claimed while in Marawi. “It was a decision most painful to me because I know that lives will be wasted.”
Critics, however, say his reconstruction plans are tone deaf to local sentiments. His government has provisionally chosen a Chinese-led consortium to lead Marawi’s rehabilitation, although its proposal may be challenged by other contractors until the end of May.
The government aims to commence rehabilitation of the city’s “ground zero” in June. The reconstruction is estimated to cost 51 billion pesos (US$1 billion) and will take around three years to complete, according to the government’s plans.