Cells, Factions and Suicide Operatives: The Fragmentation of Militant Islamism in the Philippines Post-Marawi.

AuthorTemby, Quinton

In a historic step forward in the peace process in the Southern Philippines, a plebiscite held on 21 January 2019 saw voters overwhelmingly ratify a law to create the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), providing for deeper and wider autonomy in the area than ever before. The law promises "genuine and meaningful self-governance" and financial autonomy through an automatic annual block grant from the national government equivalent to five per cent of the national internal revenue tax collection. (1) The success of BARMM, and the peace process as a whole, is central not only to uplifting Muslim Mindanao--one of the poorest areas of Southeast Asia--but also to countering violent extremist groups, many of which are now aligned with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Yet Bangsamoro autonomy comes at an awkward moment in the campaign against violent extremism in the Southern Philippines. The fallout from the battle of Marawi City between ISIS-aligned militants and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) from May to October 2017 continues to gather force. The destruction of the city centre by aerial bombardment, and the never-ending mismanagement of the reconstruction effort, plays into militant Islamist narratives. The failure of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)--the leading Moro rebel group--to intervene in Marawi out of concern for the fragile peace negotiations only serves to raise doubts about the MILF's independence and authority. Meanwhile, for the first time in Philippine history, suicide bombing has emerged as a tactic, most prominently in the mass casualty attack on 27 January 2019 against worshipers at Sunday mass in a cathedral in Jolo, Sulu province.

By analysing the post-Marawi situation in Muslim Mindanao, this article argues that the conflict is transitioning away from one of powerful insurgent groups that have the ability to control territory towards one of a decentralized terrorist network composed of small, autonomous groups and cells that are more likely to engage in tactics such as suicide bombing because of the greater power asymmetry between such groups and the Philippine state. As the insurgency draws to an end, and the MILF begins a process of demobilization and transition to a political party, violent extremism will enter a less predictable and more lethal phase, where there is a risk that terrorist tactics become more frequent.

As the unifying influence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq weakens, a distributed network of smaller groups may begin to more closely resemble the pattern of militant Islamism in neighbouring Indonesia, where clusters of autonomous factions and cells--some influenced by ISIS more than others--vie for prominence in the face of limited resources. Such a pattern can already be seen in the fragmentation of several pro-ISIS groups, such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, into multiple contending factions. It can also be seen in the inability of these groups since Marawi to appoint an emir, a centrally determined ISIS leader, to replace the late Isnilon Hapilon. Both Abu Dar, on the run in central Mindanao, and Hajan Sawadjaan, isolated in the mountains of Sulu, have emerged as rivals for local ISIS leadership. Given the fall of ISIS in the Middle East, and the diminishing of opportunities for central funding and recognition that the fall represents, local pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines have much less of an incentive to demonstrate unity under the banner of ISIS than they did prior to the Marawi siege.

In these circumstances, militant Islamists in the Philippines, as in Indonesia, represent a fragmented but enduring threat to the state, whether or not they continue to be influenced by aspects of ISIS ideology, including a utopian vision of creating a pure Islamic State. Such groups, although better armed than their Indonesian counterparts, may not be capable of executing another Marawi siege. But as part of an enduring decentralized clandestine network, they may be capable of disrupting the peace process, delivering unpredictable violent shocks to Philippine society, and provoking new cycles of conflict that test the resilience of the country's fragile democratic institutions.

The Trauma of Marawi

The siege of Marawi, a city with a population of around 200,000 people, over five months between May and October 2017 dramatically demonstrated that ISIS links to militants in the Philippines were more than mere branding. Although led by the Maute group, a powerful local clan, the fighters were an alliance of militant Islamists that transcended clan and ethnic boundaries, in an effort to demonstrate unity under the caliphate and receive recognition from ISIS central. (2) The Marawi attack appears to have been modelled on the ISIS takeover of Mosul, Iraq in 2014, and sought to carve out territory for ISIS in the form of an "East Asia Wilayah" or East Asia Province. It represents the longest urban battle in modern Philippine history and ISIS's greatest achievement in urban warfare outside of Syria and Iraq. Some 1,000 militants, representing a unique inter-island, inter-ethnic coalition of the ASG and Maute fighters led by ASG commander Isnilon Hapilon, stormed the city, freeing prisoners from the jails and capturing and executing Christian hostages, whom they dressed in orange uniforms. (3) Videos of the executions were distributed via ISIS media channels. The capture of Marawi itself served as an important propaganda victory for ISIS, which dedicated editions of its primary media products--its "Inside the Caliphate" video series and its glossy magazine Rumiyah--to the capture of the city.

Over a thousand people died in the fighting, including many civilians, although most of the casualties appear to have been ASG and Maute militants. Most of the civilian population fled the city early on in the fighting, with many displaced to nearby camps. Having trained in jungle counter-insurgency tactics, the AFP struggled to counter the militants in an urban warfare context in which the Mautes enjoyed the home ground advantage as well as the protection provided by the traditionally highly fortified homes in the city. Thus, the AFP relied on a heavy aerial bombardment campaign which ultimately dislodged the militants but destroyed the city centre. After five months of fighting, most of the militants had been killed, including Isnilon Hapilon and the Maute leaders Omarkhayyam and Abdullah.

On 17 October 2017, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi City "liberated" and announced the start of a process of "rehabilitation", even before the fighting had ended. (4) A year later, however, rehabilitation of the city had barely begun.

The mishandling of the Marawi reconstruction process has compounded the trauma of the local Maranao people recovering from an event described by one prominent Philippine non-governmental organisation (NGO) as "our own 9/11". (5) Neglect and incompetence have reinforced grievances against Manila that serve ISIS narratives. Although it is hard to gauge the post-conflict level of recruitment efforts by militants after Marawi, internally displaced youth in Marawi's surrounding Lanao del Sur province continue to be contacted by, and vulnerable to, ISIS recruiters. (6) One year after the conflict, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimated that 65,000 people remain displaced from their homes. (7)

Thus, it is the steady accumulation of anti-government grievances in Marawi and its hinterlands that presents the greatest risk of another large-scale violent extremist attack in the Philippines. The overlapping of the Marawi debacle with the complications of the autonomy process--a process that will inevitably fail to satisfy some, if not many, expectations--presents an opening for Islamist militants to continue their campaign for an alternative vision of governance based on the strict application of Islamic law under a caliphate.

The process to create the BARMM government, and to disarm and demobilize the MILF, also raises particular challenges for the fight against extremism. Undoubtedly, any large failures in the process would provide ammunition to the extremists. However, a successful process that nevertheless diverts attention from the organizations responsible for most of the recent violence in Muslim Mindanao carries its own risks that such extremist groups will exploit the opportunity to grow in the background. The creation of BARMM under MILF leadership will do little to appease ISIS-aligned groups such as the splinter groups of the ASG, remnants of the Maute Group, factions of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF], and what remains of Ansar Khilafa Philippines (AKP), based in Sultan Kudarat. The establishment of BARMM may even incite these groups to attempt to sabotage the peace process.

An enduring symbol of the mismanagement of the Marawi rehabilitation process was the groundbreaking ceremony held on 30 October 2018. The ceremony was postponed more than ten times throughout 2018, with various reasons given, including the need to schedule the attendance of President Duterte. But when the event finally took place, Duterte was on other business in Mindanao. (8) Moreover, the groundbreaking was widely criticized as an inconsequential event that occurred without a contractor having been appointed to lead the reconstruction.

Earlier, in May, it had emerged that two firms in a Chinese-led consortium poised to win the lucrative development contract had been blacklisted by the World Bank for corruption. (9) In June, the consortium was deemed ineligible for the contract for legal and financial reasons, further delaying the groundbreaking ceremony. (10) The current prospective developer, PowerChina, was criticized in a report by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism for its opaque business structure and lack of a track record in the...

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