By: Ben Schaefer, Columnist
Photo credit: Jes Aznar for The New York Times
On May 23, 2017 Philippine insurgents affiliated with the Islamic State captured the world’s attention when they seized the city of Marawi on the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao.[[i]] Five months later, with little fanfare from mainstream media, Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte announced that the insurgency had been defeated, the group’s major leaders killed by government forces.[[ii]] Similarly, the Philippine National Defense Secretary assured reporters that all of the fighters involved in the siege were killed, yet hundreds of other militants still live on the Philippines’ less governed islands, creating future opportunities for these groups to make territorial advancements on Mindanao.
Mindanao and the other islands south of the Philippine mainland enjoy isolation from the central government’s security apparatus. Many groups involved with Southeast Asian terrorism find safe haven on the small islands near Mindanao, and porous borders with neighboring countries allow a free flow of fighters, arms, and supplies for insurgent groups. These fighters are unlikely to give up simply because the siege of Marawi failed, and further insurgent activities will almost certainly continue with Mindanao as a launching ground for the hostilities.
Islamist groups have long advocated for independence or autonomy from the rest of the Philippines. Mindanao, located in the country’s south, has a history of being an Islamic stronghold in Southeast Asia, and has been targeted for political and religious conversion since Spanish colonization in the 1500s.[[iii]] More recently, early twentieth century policies encouraged transmigration for Christians from other parts of the country and Mindanao’s once Muslim majority now represents only about twenty percent of the population.[[iv]][[v]] These demographic shifts caused deep feelings of resentment among the Muslim population, and in the 1970’s armed political groups began pushing—often violently—for greater autonomy. Today Mindanao is one of the poorest regions in the Philippines, and many inhabitants of the island feel their voices continuously go unheard by the government in Manila.[[vi]]
The Islamic State is not the first insurgent group to wreak havoc on Mindanao, nor is it even the most prolific. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the first highly organized Muslim self-determination movement, began waging a low-intensity insurgency in 1971.[[vii]] After peace talks with the Philippine government in 1996, the MNLF negotiated autonomous status for Mindanao and gained a stake in the Philippines political process, effectively ending its reign as the nation’s leading terrorist organization.[[viii]]
During the same period, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Abu Sayyaf followed suite, beginning violent confrontations with government forces in 1977 and 1989 respectively, based on more extreme versions of self-determination than those envisioned by the MNLF.[[ix]] These groups both continue to operate today, seeking more narrowly defined secessionist goals than the MNLF. Recently, the MILF began negotiations with government forces to generate political concessions regarding further autonomy for Mindanao.[[x]] Abu Sayyaf on the other hand, along with a network of other small secessionist terrorist organizations, aligned itself with the Islamic State.[[xi]] The Siege of Marawi grew out of a Philippine operation to capture Abu Sayyaf’s leader, Isnilon Hapilon, who took over the Islamic State in the Philippines and was reported to be hiding in the city.[[xii]] The ensuing five-month conflict demonstrated the resolve of terrorist forces not to back down to government security measures.
Marawi is now firmly back in the hands of the Philippine government, and the Islamic State is defeated in the Middle East, reduced to small pockets of resistance and cadres of support in its previously conquered provinces.[[xiii]] However, while President Duterte and the Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana announced that all of the insurgents had been killed or captured, there is reason to speculate otherwise.
Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group, the main organizations comprising the Islamic State in the Philippines, retained large bases of tacit supporters in the Southern Philippines, allowing a continuous flow of new recruits to swell the organizations’ dwindling ranks. Further, regional experts believe that President Duterte may have inflated the number of militants killed, meaning many fighters could have escaped back to their safe havens on less secure islands outside government control.[[xiv]] These experts also expressed concern that certain military tactics may have killed more civilians than actually disclosed, which could in turn increase the groups’ recruitment potential.[[xv]] Finally, the terrorist groups which started out as disparate and largely unrelated may have been driven closer together by the siege. Increased partnerships between terrorist organizations could facilitate a quicker resurgence of violence than might otherwise be expected.
In the eight months since Marawi was recaptured, there have been no signs of a major terrorist resurgence in the Philippines; however, officials are wary. Sec. Def. Lorenzana indicated at a conference in March that terrorist recruitment continues apace, aided by technological advancements and cryptocurrency.[[xvi]] The Philippine Army continues to launch operations aimed at IS-affiliated fighters in the area surrounding Marawi.[[xvii]] Meanwhile, the US State Department listed ISIS-Philippines as one of its newly designated terrorist organizations last February.[[xviii]] Finally, the entire Southeast Asian region is set to absorb potentially hundreds or thousands of returning foreign fighters from the Middle East, at a time when Muslim persecution, especially against Rohingyas in Myanmar, is at an all-time high.[[xix]] This confluence of circumstance, coupled with an already lax security apparatus in the islands of the Southern Philippines, could be the perfect mix to allow the Islamic State and its affiliates to regroup, recuperate, and launch more successful attacks in the future.
[[i]] Felipe Villamor, “Philippines Calls City ‘Liberated,’ Months After ISIS Allies Seized It,” The New York Times, October 17, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/17/world/asia/philippines-marawi-fighting.html.
[[v]] “Philippines, International Religious Freedom Report 2004,” United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/2004/35425.htm.
[[vi]] Ralph Jennings, “Why The Philippine Fight Against ISIS-Backed Rebels Can’t End Even After Victory,” Forbes, October 17, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphjennings/2017/10/17/why-the-philippine-fight-against-isis-backed-rebels-cant-end-even-after-victory/#1fccd8b47d5d.
[[x]] Adam Desiderio, Isobel Yeung, Angad Singh, “A Muslim insurgency called MILF is close to getting a homeland in the Philippines,” VICE News, June 3, 2018, https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/zm8yve/a-muslim-insurgency-called-milf-is-close-to-getting-a-homeland-in-the-philippines.
[[xii]] Audrey Morallo, “AFP: Marawi Clashes Part of Security Operation, Not Terrorist Attack,” Philstar, May 23, 2017, https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2017/05/23/1702885/afp-marawi-clashes-part-security-operation-not-terrorist-attack.
[[xiii]] Daniel L. Byman, “Where Will the Islamic State Go Next?” The Brookings Institution, June 25, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/06/25/where-will-the-islamic-state-go-next/.
[[xiv]] Audrey Morallo, “Expert: Military Offensives vs Maute Can Fuel Recruitment,” Philstar, October 24, 2017, https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2017/10/24/1752049/expert-military-offensives-vs-maute-can-fuel-recruitment.
[[xvi]] Nyshka Chandran, “Family Terrorism is Southeast Asia’s Newest Threat, Defense Officials Warn,” CNBC, June 3, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/03/family-terrorism-is-southeast-asias-newest-threat-defense-officials-warn.html.
[[xvii]] “Philippines: Thousands flee as army hits ISIL-linked Maute group,” Al Jazeera, June 20, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/06/philippines-thousands-flee-army-hits-isil-linked-maute-group-180620065038477.html.
[[xviii]] “State Department Terrorist Designations of ISIS Affiliates and Senior Leaders,” United States Department of State, Office of the Spokesperson, February 27, 2018, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2018/02/278883.htm.
[[xix]] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Islamic State’s Attacks Raise Threat of Southeast Asia Hub,” The Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/islamic-state-attacks-raise-threat-of-southeast-asia-hub-1528363801.