Date: 06 June 2017

Islamist terror in Southeast Asia: the battle for Marawi

Attempts to snatch a self-declared ISIS leader have descended into a battle for control of the Philippine city of Marawi. How strong is the militant presence in the region – and what are those militants’ ties to the global Jihadist movement?
Philippines soldiers and civilians in Marawi, May 2017. Credit: TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

By Jens Wardenaer, Research Associate for Armed Conflict

On 23 May the Armed Forces of the Philippines launched an operation in the city of Marawi to capture or kill Isnilon Hapilon, the declared leader of the Southeast Asian branch of the Islamic State, also known ISIS or ISIL. However, the operation devolved into a battle for the city when security forces met unexpected levels of resistance from the Maute Group, militants who have also aligned themselves with ISIS. By the end of the day, President Rodrigo Duterte had declared martial law across Mindanao, the island on which Marawi sits. This emergency measure will last for at least 60 days.

At least 70,000 people have fled their homes, and the media report that around 120 militants, 36 soldiers, 19 civilians and three police officers have been killed so far. Eleven of the soldiers were killed in an errant airstrike on 31 May. Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana declared on 26 May that Marawi would be recaptured by 2 June; most of  thecity has now been cleared, but fighting is still ongoing near the city centre, where Hapilon remains with about 100 fighters. The militants, who have carried out religious tests and killed several non-Muslims, may still be holding civilian hostages.

While the situation is still evolving, some points are already clear. If Hapilon is eventually captured or killed, this will certainly be a victory in the armed forces' seemingly endless fight against criminal-terrorist-insurgent groups in the south of the country. Hapilon is also the leader of the iihadist Abu Sayyaf Group in the island province of Basilan, and as a result has long been a target for the security forces. According to Lorenzana, Hapilon recently approached the Maute Group in a possible attempt to set up an official Mindanao branch of ISIS, and was injured in an airstrike in January.

However, there are question marks around the operation itself. The apparently unexpected presence of many heavily armed militants in the city suggests that the decision to move in on Hapilon was based on an incomplete intelligence picture. Officials have since suggested that the Maute and their allies were planning to establish a presence in Marawi and nearby Iligan.

Corruption and long-standing grievances fuel violence

Duterte's declaration of martial law has caused some unease among sceptics and opponents due to the president's public declarations of admiration for Ferdinand Marcos, the former dictator who used such measures to extend his rule. However, the country’s post-Marcos 1987 constitution limits actions under martial law, and there is no proof that the current president wishes to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.

The situation in Mindanao and the nearby Sulu Archipelago is complicated by widespread corruption and a weak state presence, intra-clan disputes, and historical grievances against Manila. A security response will not solve the problem, even if it is enhanced by martial law, though such steps may contain the Maute and their allies temporarily.

There is also a risk that martial law in Mindanao could affect the broader peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Philippines' largest Islamist insurgent group. MILF reached an agreement with the previous Aquino administration in 2014, but the peace process has been stalled after another botched raid in January 2015, the Mamasapano incident, in which 44 police special forces personnel died trying to capture a high-value terrorist target in Mindanao. The government failed to coordinate with MILF forces in the area, who assumed they were under attack and clashed with the security forces.

MILF has condemned the terrorist actions in Marawi, but also asked the government to continue to respect bilateral ceasefire mechanisms. The insurgents say the failure of these mechanisms would be 'disastrous'. Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussain said in January that the MILF peace process should be expedited to prevent the southern Philippines becoming a safe haven for Islamist fighters returning to Southeast Asia.

The future of Islamist terror in the region

Longstanding concerns about terrorism in Southeast Asia, recently heightened by the potential return of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria and the activities of the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Sulu Archipelago, are set to continue. Regional cross-border linkages between armed non-state groups have been boosted by the emergence of ISIS and the subsequent pledges of allegiance to its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by many of these groups.

The extent of actual links with the ISIS leadership in the Middle East are unclear, and at least initially many groups appeared to use the ISIS name mainly for local gains in recruitment and fundraising. But Philippine authorities believe ISIS has transferred significant funds to Hapilon. The discovery of two Indonesian and two Malaysian fighters among the Maute Group in Marawi was not a surprise, but Lorenzana has said at least two Saudis, a Yemeni, and a Chechen fighter were also among those killed in the city. He added that they were probably ISIS members.

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