State of Emergency: The Philippines in bloody fight against ISIS-linked groups
At around 2pm on Tuesday, May 23, Filipino police attempted to raid several locations in Marawi, a Muslim-majority city located on the southern Filipino island of Mindanao. Their target was Isnilon Hapilon, the most senior ISIS figure in the country, and leader of the Islamist group Abu Sayyaf.
While what exactly transpired over the following hours is still somewhat murky, it is suffice to say the raid was a complete failure. Police and military found themselves outgunned and outnumbered by a significant number of ISIS-linked militants from both Abu Sayyaf, as well as the Maute Group (also known as the Islamic State of Lanao). The initial police attacks were routed, and then militants began to spread throughout the city of Marawi.
By nightfall, the Islamists had taken control over almost all strategic positions within the city and the black flag of ISIS flew from major buildings. Fires spread throughout Marawi, as the militants staged a jailbreak from the city’s prison, releasing many of their comrades.
The international fight against ISIS suddenly had a new hotspot.
Muslim separatism in The Philippines has a long history. For decades separatist groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) had fought a bloody conflict with the Philippine Government for control over the Muslim-majority region of Mindanao, called Bangsamoro. The groups, which either called for a secular independant government or a Muslim democracy, were largely militarily defeated, or politically reintegrated into the Filipino society through several peace processes.
But in recent years a new trend began to emerge — Islamic groups fighting not just for regional separatism and self-determination, but also for a transnational theocratic Islamic State. Since 2014, two groups among these have become the most dangerous: Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and the Maute Group.
“The ASG and Maute took advantage of the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2014, and quickly declared their allegiance. The ISIS label helped them grow,” says Dr. Zachary Abuza, an expert on Southeast Asian politics from the National War College.
Soon these groups began not just copying the rhetoric and ideology of the so-called Islamic State, but also their slick propaganda videos and brutal violence. In 2015 ASG conducted their first execution of two Christians in the trademark style of ISIS, kneeling in orange jumpsuits. In January of 2016, they were officially recognised by the core organization in the Middle East, which called for Isnilon Hapilon to lead both groups.
Over the same period, attacks against security forces and civilian targets in the region continued, with Abu Sayyaf especially focusing on piracy, kidnapping and ransom. Maute also likely cooperated with ASG to conduct a bombing in Davao City which killed 15 people, as well as a failed attempt to bomb the US embassy in Manila.
Driving the increase in strength for these groups has been a peace process with the MILF which has dragged on for years, without specific promises by the FIlipino Government being honoured. Many disaffected or radical fighters are joining these groups, as they now represent the sole realm of military opposition to the Philippine Government.
“Neither group has much support from the mainstream Muslim population. But that’s not their goal. […] they are gaining support from the youth and members of the MILF, whose peace process has been in purgatory since January 2015. There are a lot of disaffected young men with guns out there, who feel utterly betrayed by the Philippine government, after very high hopes for a peace process,” says Dr Abuza.
It has now been five weeks since Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group took control of Marawi. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has been so far unable to dislodge the group from the city. Initially they believed there was less than 100 militants in the city, and they could be cleared within days, however soon they revised the number of ISIS-linked fighters upwards to around 500.
In an apparent panic, the President Duterte declared Martial Law across the entirety of the island of Mindanao, and deployed greater troop numbers to the ongoing battle within the city, and even went so far as reach out to other former rebel groups to join the fight against the Islamists.
Attack helicopters and fixed wing aircraft were also deployed, conducting airstrikes against the militants’ positions. Attesting to the inaccuracy of these strikes, at least 11 Filipino soldiers were killed in a single friendly fire incident.
Currently the death toll from the fighting stands at approximately 500, with at least 110 of the dead being being civilians. Meanwhile hundreds of civilians are estimated to still be trapped in the city, and dire fears persist for their safety. The government claims the majority those dead were killed by the militants themselves, and while there is significant evidence of mass executions of Christians, local residents of Marawi also claim that ‘dozens’ of civilians have been killed by airstrikes.
“These people are at risk of being caught in the crossfire between the Maute insurgents and the Philippine military, with potentially deadly results. We are also hearing reports that they are running low on food and drinking water after a siege that is now about to enter its third week,” says Phelim Kine, Deputy Asia Director of HRW.
Further compounding these fears, President Duterte has issued a number of highly questionable statements regarding the conduct of his soldiers, including an offer to absolve them of responsibility for raping civilians.
“President Duterte’s so-called “joke” about allowing Philippine security forces to commit rape without any fear of accountability sends a very dangerous message to the Philippine armed forces that they can commit serious abuses against the civilian population with complete impunity. Duterte’s comments earlier this week that he could end the Marawi fighting in 24 hours by giving a green light to the military to “bomb the whole place and level it to the ground” is also tantamount to instigating unnecessary civilian casualties,” says Kine.
As the fighting grinds on, the ISIS-linked groups continue to lose ground, and will eventually be defeated. However, if the Philippine military continues their destructive tactics, and more civilians die, there is every likelihood that further radicalisation will occur.
Trapped between violent jihadis and a brutal government, invariably some of the country’s Muslim minority will turn to extremism, ensuing the conflict will continue for years to come. Illustrating this cycle of violence, President Duterte was recently quoted to have said: “The objective of ISIS is to kill and destroy. I will also kill and destroy!”
(Note: the article was originally commissioned for Vocativ, however due to them shutting their editorial department, it was not published.)