By Geoffrey Hartman —
The ongoing battle for Marawi City — the capital of Lanao del Sur Province on the island of Mindanao — between Philippine government forces and Islamic militants with links to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seems increasingly an important bellwether of growing violence in the Philippines’ restive south. Fears that the breakdown of the government peace process with Islamic insurgents would lead to disillusionment and a return to violence, exacerbated by the influence of international jihadist movements like ISIS, appear to be coming to pass.
The importance of the Marawi battle was not obvious at its start and may not be clear for some time, given the mess of conflicting reports and likely propaganda that surrounds the battle. Fighting in Mindanao is a common occurrence, and even large-scale sieges of cities are not unprecedented. It has been only four years since a similar battle between government forces and Islamic militants for control of Zamboanga City.
While the fighting in Marawi is not a great departure from the norm in Mindanao, the ISIS links of the key groups involved are a new element that has sparked understandable alarm. The fighting is led by the local Maute group and an Abu Sayyaf group faction led by Isnilon Hapilon—the ISIS-anointed emir for Southeast Asia—which had relocated to Lanao del Sur last year after a government offensive against its original stronghold on the island of Basilan. Cooperation between the Maute and Hapilon groups—self-styled as IS-Ranao and IS-Basilan respectively—has been increasing since both declared their allegiance to ISIS in 2014, but the Marawi siege is a major step forward in coordination between this nascent coalition of ISIS-linked fighters in the southern Philippines.
Beyond their ISIS connection, the profile of the Maute and Hapilon groups makes them a more worrying long-term threat than previous Islamic militant groups. Both groups are on the rise and have cleverly utilized social media and the ISIS brand to boost their own profiles. The Maute group in particular represents the next generation of Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia, with a leadership educated in Egypt and Jordan and ties to jihadist allies in both the Middle East and other parts of Southeast Asia. The vitality of the groups responsible make the Marawi attack a far cry from the attack on Zamboanga in 2013, led by fighters from the once-central Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) desperate for relevance after being excluded from government peace negotiations with the now-dominant Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The Maute-Hapilon coalition represents a threat to even the MILF, and there are indications that the Maute group has been successfully stealing away young MILF followers disillusioned with their leadership’s continued cooperation with the Philippine government despite the stalling of the peace process. The tabling of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL)—the key outcome of the 2014 government-MILF peace agreement—by the Philippine Congress following the botched Mamasapano raid in January 2015 that killed 44 Philippine police has led to questions in MILF ranks about the wisdom of continuing to work with Manila.
This problem will get worse the longer the peace process remains stalled, and the Maute group is well-positioned to attract support from the MILF due to its family ties to elites in both the MILF and Lanao del Sur Province. In addition to this local support, the Maute-Hapilon coalition can hope to attract increasing numbers of foreign fighters, both veterans returning from fighting in the Middle East and younger Southeast Asians who choose to pursue jihad closer to home given the dimming prospects for ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The battle for Marawi is a wake-up call for Manila on the threat posed by the Maute-Hapilon coalition, and the government should take steps quickly to constrain the ability of these groups to build further support. Much damage has already been done, as the Marawi battle has already boosted the profile of these groups and made them more attractive to aspiring fighters, both foreign and domestic. This will make the challenge of stemming the flow of foreign fighters into the Philippines that much more difficult, putting a premium on boosting cooperation with neighboring countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.
More importantly, the Philippine government should move forward on the BBL in order to preserve the central role of the MILF and prevent further defections to more extreme groups. Unfortunately, the Rodrigo Duterte administration has complicated an already fraught peace process by relying on a dual-track approach with both a revised BBL and a proposed federal system to address Moro desires for greater autonomy. The introduction of the MNLF into peace negotiations previously restricted to the MILF has also had the predictable impact of complicating talks thanks to having rival groups representing the Moro side.
Despite these difficulties, there are tentative signs that the BBL may be moving forward again after being stalled for more than two years. A new draft of the BBL was finalized on June 6 and is ready for Duterte’s approval and submission to Congress when it reconvenes on July 24. The BBL died in Congress once before and there is no guarantee that it will fare better this time around, but the fighting in Marawi may have convinced Philippine legislators about the imperative of moving forward on the peace process.
While Philippine political leadership tries to revive political solutions to the violence in Mindanao, Philippine security forces should also take stock of their military and law enforcement approaches to counterterrorism operations in Mindanao. The track record of Philippine counterterrorism operations in recent years is poor: the 2015 Mamasapano raid was a disaster great enough to derail the peace process, the 2016 Basilan offensive drove Hapilon’s group into greater cooperation with the Mautes, and the attempted arrest of Hapilon in Marawi City in May 2017 led to over a month of urban fighting. There is reason to think these operations are doing more harm than good, and Manila should consider ways to refocus its security operations to pursue terrorist leaders while minimizing the risk of future large-scale conflicts.