Philippines: Addressing Islamist Militancy after the Battle for Marawi
The Philippine city of Marawi, on Mindanao island, remains in ruins more than a year after a five-month jihadist takeover. To avoid fuelling militancy, Manila must involve locals in reconstruction, implement a 2014 deal with Mindanao separatists and go beyond efforts to counter jihadist ideology
In May 2017, Muslim militants acting in the name of the Islamic State (ISIS) seized Marawi, a lakeside economic hub in the Lanao del Sur province of Mindanao, the second-largest island in the Philippines. It took the Filipino military five months to regain control of the city. Now, more than a year after the siege began, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration in Manila appears overwhelmed by the task of reconstructing the destroyed city.
Manila faces significant challenge in restoring its writ, enabling the 200,000 civilians displaced by the fighting to return home and, more broadly, preventing a militant resurgence in Mindanao. Thus far, the government has tended to view jihadism in the archipelago as mostly ideologically motivated. Its policies, as a result, focus mostly on promoting counter-narratives, often through hand-picked local religious leaders who typically lack local legitimacy. In reality, jihadism’s roots lie in decades of separatist insurgency and dysfunctional local politics. Carrying out the provisions of a 2014 peace deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest armed group on Mindanao, would better suck the oxygen from jihadists than attempts to counter their ideology. Manila also should involve local communities in reconstruction, so those efforts do not fuel anger at the state.
Muslims are a minority in the Philippines, making up about 11 per cent of the population. On Mindanao, however, that proportion rises to roughly 23 per cent. In 1989 the government formed the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao with Lanao del Sur and three other provinces. This west-central part of the island has a rich Islamic heritage, embodied by Marawi with its concentration of historic mosques. When, in 1980, the city council designated Marawi an “Islamic city”, many of the city’s inhabitants saw that step as a welcome acknowledgement of this history. Now the city centre, including the Marawi Grand Mosque, has been reduced to rubble and is littered with unexploded ordnance, preventing the displaced from returning. Manila’s vision of reconstruction is a showcase of promenades and resorts built by a China-led consortium in the ruined commercial district.
The struggle to retake Marawi was the largest urban engagement for the Philippines armed forces since the Battle of Manila during World War II. The Maute Group, a jihadist group hailing from Lanao del Sur seized the city in an operation ISIS propagandists likened to the capture of Mosul in Iraq. It remains unclear how much operational guidance the Maute Group received from the ISIS core in Iraq and Syria during the battle. Open source evidence showed the Maute leaders, brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, calling the shots during the final stages of attack planning.
This group of largely college-aged and, in some cases, particularly among the leadership, college-going militants held the city for months, thanks to a combination of local knowledge and planning capacity, funds generated locally and abroad, the arrival of dozens of foreign fighters and propaganda support from ISIS-linked media. The militant’s infiltration of the city before they seized it suggested the presence of sympathisers among Marawi’s inhabitants. Disenfranchised youth frustrated with the protracted Mindanao peace process and local clans who take an adversarial stance toward Manila-imposed policies provided a permissive environment for the Maute Group.
The protracted battle to oust the group highlighted limitations within the Philippines security forces in information gathering and urban warfare. These weaknesses, in turn, result at least partly from Manila’s struggle to adapt to the growing threat posed by jihadist cells adept at decentralised operations, after years fighting more hierarchical Mindanao secessionist groups whose structure emulates conventional military forces.
Jihadism in Mindanao should be understood against the backdrop of the 40-year Moro separatist conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced millions, and faltering efforts to find a political solution to that conflict. In 2014, the Philippine government and the MILF signed a peace deal – the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro – which pledged increased political autonomy, more equitable resource sharing and the demobilisation of former secessionists.
Since then, however, the agreement’s implementation has faltered due to factionalism among militant groups, objections from some legislators to the autonomy it envisaged for Muslim Mindanao and breaches of a ceasefire between the Philippines and the MILF. Prior to the Marawi siege, MILF commanders had warned that the longer the peace process remained mired in the legislature, the more receptive their junior cadres could grow to ISIS propaganda. Indeed, the Maute Group appears to have recruited former MILF fighters and has ties to armed factions previously aligned with the MILF.
Implementing the Bangsamoro deal is thus essential to efforts to curtail the influence and spread of jihadism, as well as the MILF’s splintering or return to combat. On 31 May, after an almost three-year delay, the Philippine legislature approved the bill that would enact a future Bangsamoro Basic Law, the most important component of the 2014 deal. Once signed into law by President Duterte, the bill would allow for the creation of a “new, political entity” – called Bangsamoro – in Mindanao to replace the existing Autonomous Region. This would address the MILF’s demands for self-rule and for Bangsamoro to benefit from a share of the wealth from Mindanao’s natural resources. Government surveys estimate natural gas reserves in the Liguasan Marsh at 68 billion cubic feet, leading some Maguindanao politicians to refer to the province as the “next Dubai”.
President Duterte is expected to sign the bill this month, which should check the growing impatience of younger MILF commanders. But while autonomy for Bangsamoro will be a good start, Manila also needs to rethink some of its core assumptions about what drives many Muslim Filipinos to militancy.
Domestic Roots of Mindanao Militancy
In the case of the Marawi takeover some observers solely attribute the Maute Group’s ability to occupy the city and then withstand the siege through foreign cash and fighters. Certainly foreign funds and the apparent reinforcement of the group’s ranks with seasoned fighters from abroad seem to have helped. But the full story is more complex. Mindanao’s jihadist milieu has its origins in local clan and electoral politics, as well as the grey economies that sustain militants such as the Maute Group.
Prior to pledging allegiance to ISIS, the Maute Group was in effect a private militia for the eponymous clan headed by matriarch Farhana Maute, intimidating other clans that contested in local elections in the province. It used coercion to mobilise votes and extort contractors involved in public works projects. This provided the group with experience in purveying violence that would prove useful during the Marawi siege. In 2016, after candidates backed by Farhana suffered losses, the Maute Group appeared to adopt ISIS-related imagery, less because of any particular affinity for ISIS’s ideology than to burnish its fading image as a tough enforcer. It also began to attract former fighters from MILF, especially younger members who felt that the peace process with Manila was taking too long.
In the past, other militants in Mindanao have similarly deployed jihadist rhetoric to promote a more ferocious image. Best known is the Abu Sayyaf Group, formed in the early 1990s by Abdurajak Janjalani, a Filipino veteran of the anti-Soviet mujahidin in Afghanistan. After Janjalani’s death in a 2006 police raid, the Abu Sayyaf Group became infamous for kidnapping-for-ransom activities under the guise of jihad. Kidnapping for ransom is a lucrative supplement to communities that would otherwise derive their incomes from fishing and subsistence farming. The lack of law enforcement and the challenging agricultural environment in western Mindanao incentivise kidnapping.
Abu Sayyaf leaders have long been connected to jihadist movements elsewhere. In its early years, the group’s leaders enjoyed al-Qaeda links and the global movement provided seed funding for attacks in the Philippines. Since mid-2014, Abu Sayyaf factions, particularly in the western Mindanao province of Sulu, have used ISIS-associated iconography such as black flags, apparently in part to extract larger ransoms from foreign governments.
Factors that motivate people to join Mindanao’s jihadist groups are complex. While ideology undoubtedly plays some role, motives among those in outfits like the Maute Group tend to be more material. As described, some local militias adopt the ISIS brand to intimidate rivals or project greater ferocity. Among the rank and file, involvement in jihadist militancy is often the result of a vocational decision within a family or a village, rather than an individual’s epiphany. Not a single Filipino Muslim has attempted a suicide bombing in nearly five decades of insurgency in Mindanao. The rewards in the afterlife promised by jihadist ideology have yet to trump the real-world needs of militants and their kin.
Nor have local jihadist groups produced ideological texts that indigenise the global jihadist movement. Compare this to the prolific writings of other non-state armed groups in the Philippines, such as the Communist Party of the Philippines and its New People’s Army, which outline what form locally-rooted communism might take. Or compare it to jihadists in Indonesia, who have long produced original vernacular material in various formats including books, pamphlets and DVDs. No such material exists in the Philippines.
Thus far, Manila has not invested seriously in understanding the origins of jihadism in Mindanao. Since the election of President Duterte, the Filipino policy response has veered from military operations to policies framed through the lens of “countering violent extremism” (CVE) – mostly involving efforts to counter jihadist propaganda and indoctrination – despite the absence of a national policy that defines “violent extremism”. CVE framing tends to reduce the complex interaction of political and socio-economic factors that underpin Mindanao’s ongoing conflict to the single cause of jihadist ideology.
The dominance of CVE discourse is likely to render Manila’s policy in Mindanao ineffective. The government’s effort to promote Muslim clerics it views as “moderate”, for example, may further alienate a populace that derides them as mere mouthpieces. Strategic communications campaigns to counter extremist content on social media do not resolve the real-world issues such as dysfunctional politics and economic deprivation that jihadists tap to win recruits.
In the shattered city of Marawi, civil society and neighbourhood collectives eye Manila’s reconstruction plans warily. Many fear that reconstruction, which will most likely be carried out by a Chinese-led consortium, may mean permanent exile for the displaced.
The Duterte administration has declared it wants to build a “new Marawi”, which includes plans for transforming the battle area into an “economic zone”, though precisely what this would entail remains unclear. Its plans appear to ignore the murkiness of land ownership in the city, where competing deeds and informal property claims have sparked periodic clan and family disputes for decades. Many residents of the area that saw the worst destruction, known as the “most affected area”, do not have deeds to their houses, many of which now lie in ruins. They may lose the right to rebuild their homes, while potentially receiving no compensation from the government. Manila cannot solve the problem by paving it over.
Mishandling Marawi’s reconstruction, notably by carrying it out in a manner than angers inhabitants, also risks amplifying the idea, pushed by the Maute Group and its allies, that Islam is under attack in Mindanao. A botched reconstruction could also impugn the autonomy-centric political stance of mainstream groups such as the MILF, potentially driving more of its younger members toward jihadism.
Locals take considerable pride in the city’s heritage as the centre of Islamic education in Mindanao. Should the government disregard that sentiment – and proceed with plans to gentrify the city centre in order to lure tourists – it could further alienate inhabitants of the city from the state. It also could entrench the sentiment of some influential clans that deployment of state security forces in the city was tantamount to foreign occupation. This, in turn, would play into the hands of Maute Group remnants or other violent rejectionist movements that may emerge.
Instead, Manila should enhance measures to involve Marawi’s inhabitants in its reconstruction. Substantial local input would signal a deeper commitment by the central government to Mindanao’s autonomy, even beyond the provisions of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which itself should be enacted without delay. The Bangon Marawi (Rise Marawi) inter-agency task force supervising reconstruction should become an active partner of affected residents, rather than simply promoting the Chinese-backed plan.
Meanwhile, the Duterte administration should avoid pronouncements that cast Mindanao militants as “desperate” individuals driven to crime or hardcore terrorists who should be “eaten”. The Filipino security forces should instead refocus on intelligence analysis and build on their experience of peacebuilding, gained while the MILF was still in negotiations with the Philippine government. Nor should those officials who spearhead CVE policies pick which community or religious leaders will represent Marawi or Mindanao. Rather, they should focus on addressing the grievances that jihadist movements exploit, thus empowering individuals and communities that promote peace and support a political solution to the Mindanao conflict.
The jihadist takeover of Marawi, with the Maute Group able to leverage frustration at the gaps in governance and stalled peace process, was a jarring reminder to Manila of the depth of Muslim grievances in Mindanao. What started as militants’ tactical use of ISIS iconography ended in a protracted siege that brought into question the Philippines’ ability to attain peace in Mindanao. The government should take a holistic view of the drivers of conflict, being careful not to lose sight of those that predate the emergence of jihadist cells, notably the demands of many Muslims in Mindanao for a greater say in running their own affairs and reaping the benefits of the region’s natural resources. The Maute Group, for now, appears weakened, but if Manila mishandles the aftermath of the battle for Marawi and the reconstruction of that city, similar forces could easily arise in the years to come.
Joseph Franco, Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security, helped with research and preparation of this commentary as a Crisis Group consultant.