On May 23, local authorities in a section of the largely Muslim city of Marawi located in the Mindanao province of Lanao del Norte had been keeping watch for Omarkayam and Abdullah Maute, two prominent members of a family of Muslim extremists. Instead, they caught sight of Isnilon Hapilon the leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (Asg) a terrorist faction originally based on Basilan Island in the distant chain of islands off Mindanao’s western coast that extends toward neighboring Malaysia.
There had been rumors that Hapilon left his island base for Lanao, but this sighting was solid confirmation. Hapilon had long been a prime “target of opportunity” for the Philippine Armed Forces (Afp), but had risen to even greater prominence when, in January 2016, he and the ASG swore allegiance to Isis. Later in June of that year, the Isis weekly newsletter in Syria, al-Naba, announced that Hapilon had been appointed Emir for the Philippine and Southeast Asia. The local Marawi City officials rushed to report their discovery to the local commander of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division.
Major General Rolando Bautisa, with personal past experience trying to chase down Hapilon in Basilan, immediately ordered his men to move in. For some time, there had been disquieting rumors that the Maute family was secreting their men into Marawi and that Asg fighters had joined them, but the opportunity to take Hapilon unaware was too great for hesitance. However, when government soldiers attacked they were immediately engaged by a vastly superior force of seasoned foes. In fact, Hapilon had almost 100 of his men from Basilan who were now combined with the Maute’s 300 or more followers.
Adding to these forces were an estimated 40 militants from two small Mindanao extremist groups, the Ansar al-Khilaf Philippines and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. Further supplementing the Philippine extremists were an unknown number of militants from Indonesia and Malaysia and there were rumors of nationals from Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and even Chechnya. Government soldiers soon fell back with heavy losses. In an interview soon after, Bautista admitted his surprise, but believed that the ill-executed raid had at least “triggered the plan” of extremists to seize Marawi thereby foiling their objective.
The Toll to Date
In an August interview Philippine Secretary of National Defense, Delfin Lorenzana, confirmed how government troops were “caught off guard” and that many of the foreign fighters were experts in urban fighting which Afp soldiers were not. He also noted that the military had an intelligence agent in the militant ranks, but he was killed early in the uprising and then “we were blind.”
From its start in May, the fighting continues until now. For almost four months Marawi has seen nearly daily bombings by Philippine Air Force planes supported by aerial intelligence supplied by Australian and United States allies. By mid-June the extremists only held about one-fifth of the city an area southeast of the Agus River. However, their area had a number of tall buildings which were home to snipers that led to a number of government casualties. The rebels also had plenty of high-powered weapons and even night vision goggles.
By mid-August most of the city had been evacuated and was a burnt out shell with homes, shops, schools, churches and mosques in ruins. An estimated 360,000 residents are homeless, the government lost over 170 soldiers while the militants may have lost as many as 500 men, including fighters from Malaysia and Indonesia. A mid-September report claimed that the rebels have now been reduced to an area of only a few hectares and no longer held high buildings. The last bitter days of fighting are drawing near.
Background to the Uprising
Philippine Muslims first rose in revolt in the late 1960s when University of the Philippine professor Nur Misuari formed the Moro National Liberation Front and sought independence from the government in Manila. When his revolt failed to achieve its goal, Misuari shifted to a demand for an autonomous regional governing entity. Many of his fellow Muslim leaders were not satisfied and the 1970s saw the rise of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Milf) led by a former Misuari associate Salamat Hashim who was a teacher of Islam educated in Cairo. Though more religious in its tone, the Milf also sought autonomy and not an independent Islamic state. Both organizations negotiated with the government in good faith, but nothing substantial resulted. Why not?
The Philippine Muslim tragedy is that the government has consistently failed to deliver on its promises. Time and again agreements are reached only to be broken, voted down by Philippine legislators or declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court responding to suits by Christian legislators. While the Asg has also been around for a number of years, they were best known as a kidnap for ransom gang with little allegiance to Islam beyond window dressing. So, what has changed?
The short answer is that accumulated frustration with the government has pushed at least some to become increasingly radical. The parents of the Maute brothers were at one time leading members of the Milf, but by 2007 they attracted the attention of Philippine authorities for harboring militants from the Indonesian terrorist organization the Jemaah Islamiyah well known for deadly bombings in their country. Meanwhile, a radicalized Hapilon has moved the ASG to become increasingly militant and a variety other radical groups have proliferated.
Government Failure and Isis Attraction
The final straw came with the failure of the government to approve the Bangsamoro Basic Law (Bbl), a laboriously developed agreement that avoided earlier contentious issue and represented major concession by the Milf’s chief negotiator and Bangsamoro Transition Commission chairman, Mohagher Iqbal. More than three years ago, Iqbal characterized the Bbl as the “main antidote” to possible radicalization. The Bbl was developed during the preceding administration of Benigno Aquino III, but was not ready for legislative approval by the expiration of his six year term. The election of Rodrigo Duterte of Mindanao initially brought some hope for final passage and long-term peace, but that has evaporated. Instead of working for peace, the new president has focused his energy on police extra-judicial executions of alleged drug dealers and uses. As the count of Duterte’s drug war murders reaches into evermore thousands of victims, Muslim patience has worn thinner and thinner.
Then, in the Middle East, the appearance of the seeming invincible Isis juggernaut captured the imagination of many Philippine Muslims who could no longer continence the government’s inattention to their legitimate grievances. Ironically, the number of militants in the Philippines has been bolstered as Isis fortunes in Syria evaporated as coalition forces closed in and reduced the vaunted “Islamic State.” Instead of encouraging Muslim youth to join its besieged Syrian holding, Isis leaders urged would be jihadists to go to the Philippines and support emir Hapilon.
In the short-term, the long-drawn out Afp military success will reduce the numbers of extremists in the Philippines and Southeast Asia and perhaps dampen the mystique of the warrior jihadist. But the only genuine long-term solution remains in the hands of the Philippine government. The best outcome for the Marawi uprising would be that Philippine legislators will finally at long last confront their responsibility and do what is best for their Muslim brothers and sisters and for their good of their nation. Are they up to the job?
Suggested Background Readings:
- Sidney Jones, “How ISIS Got a Foothold in the Philippines,” New York Times, 4 June 2017
- Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, “Pro-ISIS Groups in Mindanao and Their Links to Indonesia and Malaysia,” IPAC Report, 33, Jakarta, 25 October 2016, 25
- Nathan Gilbert Quimpo, “Mindanao: Nationalism, Jihadism and Frustrated Peace,” Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs, 3(1), 2016, 64-89.
- Maria A. Ressa, Seeds of Terror, (Free Press, NY, 2003).
- Steven Rood, “Force Not Enough to Halt Islamic State-Inspired Violence in the Philippines,” Forbes, 6 June 2017, forbes.com/sites/insideasia/2017/06/06/philippines-must-act-to-
- Weiss, Caleb, “The Islamic State grows in the Philippines,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, The Long War Journal longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/06/islamic-state-officially-creates-province-in-the-philippines.php