Poor governance and mismanagement of the root causes of the Islamist insurgency in Mindanao from the Duterte administration are among the main reasons for the continuation of security struggles in the Philippines.

By Adrien Morin

The battle of Marawi (aka the siege of Marawi), which lasted from 23 May to 16 October 2017, cost the lives of over 1,000 people including at least 165 government soldiers and 45 civilians, while hundreds of thousands were forced to flee the area. The battle broke out as the Philippines’ army launched an operation in the city to capture former Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) leader and Islamic State’s (IS) designated emir in Southeast Asia, Isnilon Hapilon. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) faced fierce opposition from Islamist insurgents who had gathered in the city and stockpiled weapons and ammunitions, forcing President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law on the first day of the intervention.

Philippines Map with city of Marawi - The Foreign Analyst
Map of the Philippines with the city of Marawi in the southern island of Mindanao (Source: Google Map)

The 2017 Islamist insurgency in Marawi was mostly led by the Maute Group, an IS-linked jihadi cell headed by the Maute brothers (Omar and Abdullah) and operating in the Philippines since late 2012-early 2013. The battle of Marawi only ended in October 2017 after the death of both Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute (Abdullah Maute had been killed in August 2017). The end of the siege (as enacted by Duterte), however, does not mean the end of security struggles in Marawi, in the Mindanao region and in the entire country more broadly. The Filipino president knows this and has extended martial law in the Southern island until the end of the year, amid reports about renewed recruitment and terrorist plots from the Maute Group (or what is left of it) and other IS-linked organizations in the country.

True to his strongman reputation, Rodrigo Duterte intends to answer to the Islamist insurgency with harsh security measures. In addition to the long-term establishment of martial law, the Filipino president is building more military bases in the Mindanao region and has even examined the possibility of arming (non-Moro) Filipino citizens with high-powered guns in case violence spreads and generalizes outside of Mindanao, throughout the entire country.

The Foreign Analyst - Maute Brothers
Abdullah and Omar Maute (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A complex history of insurgency

Ever since the 1960s, the Philippines has seen successive periods of violence interspersed with ceasefires and attempts to settle peace agreements between the central government and the country’s various Muslim Moro groups. These groups have long been embroiled in a political and identity crisis in the Southern Philippines, and in Mindanao more specifically. In about six decades, this internal conflict has claimed over 120,000 lives.

The original Moro group to oppose Manila’s central leadership was the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), working on an agenda that included Moro nationalism and the promotion of the Moro identity more broadly. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) emerged from the partition of the MNLF and quickly became the most prominent insurgent group in the Southern Philippines in the 1990s. MILF brought a strong religious narrative to its political agenda, defending a radical Islamist ideology while establishing connections with jihadi groups in Southeast Asia such as Jemaah Islamiyah. However, the agenda supported by MILF ultimately did not match the ones of transnational jihadi groups. Although MILF included the use of terrorism as a tactic and despite its religious rhetoric, its agenda remained mostly articulated around nationalistic, cultural and identity claims.

The roots of insurgent and terrorist violence from Moro groups in Mindanao are to be found in their historical grievances towards the central government in Manila. These grievances are primarily based on the decreasing demographic and religious prevalence of Muslim populations, to the benefit of Christians, despite the historical and cultural legacies erected by former Muslim kingdoms in the Mindanao region. Indeed, Mindanao has always been perceived by Moro Muslims as their homeland, but mass resettlement of Christians from the Philippines’ northern islands, following the independence of the country, led to a contested political and social assimilation process. Violent action has been widely used by Moro groups to resist that process ever since.

In comparison to nationalist struggles, violent religious activism is a relatively new phenomenon in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia more broadly. It was introduced in the region as part of a Global Jihad phenomenon promoted by al-Qaeda, with cooperation networks established between the Middle Eastern terrorist group and local organizations such as Jemaah Islamiyah. The Islamic State replicated this operating mode and most IS-linked groups and individuals in the Philippines emerged as splinters of MILF, eager to ride the wave of Global Jihad and Islamist insurgency. Such groups include the Maute Group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) among others.

The Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB), signed between the government of the Philippines and MILF in 2014, established the conditions of a peace process between the Filipino central state and Muslim insurgents, by creating the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). IS-linked jihadi groups, however, are not constrained by the CAB and will continue their violent struggle as long as opportunities exist.

What is left of the Islamist insurgency?

Victory in Marawi came at a high price for the Philippines, but it still inflicted a major blow to one of the most important bastions of jihadism in Southeast Asia. The remaining elements of the Maute Group and its allies had to give up territorial control and return to guerilla tactics used against AFP targets. Although Manila’s sovereignty was reestablished in Mindanao, these jihadi groups remain an important security threat nationwide, one that the AFP is far from being done with.

The rise of terrorist activities in the Philippines is also accentuated by the downfall of the Islamic State in the Middle East, as the terrorist organization has been attempting to reorganize in other regions of the world, including Southeast Asia. To compensate its territorial losses in Syria and Iraq, IS must try to reestablish strongholds elsewhere. Jihadi fighters – and especially Asian ones – who were engaged in the Middle Eastern theater are moving to Southeast Asia and could play an important role in maintaining the momentum of the Global Jihad movement in the region, while reunifying and reactivating IS-linked groups (and sleeper cells in particular).

In line with modern guerilla warfare tactics, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have become the weapon of choice for insurgent groups and are being used against military and civilian targets in the Philippines, at an alarming rate. IEDs are not only filling up the arsenals of jihadi groups but also that of other organizations at odds with Manila, such as the New People’s Army (NPA – the communist opposition), labelled a terrorist group by Duterte in December 2017 and subjected to a renewed security crackdown.

IED training U.S. Navy and Armed Forces of the Philippines - The Foreign Analyst
US Navy and AFP personnels during a training session on IEDs in the Philippines in 2014 (Source: U.S. Pacific Command)

Michael Hart stresses that IED-attacks are on the rise in the Philippines since the end of the battle of Marawi, with at least 35 incidents reported since the beginning of 2018 (most of which were attributed to BIFF), causing dozens of casualties. Hart also emphasizes that IED-attacks, along with the resilience of terrorist organizations, are largely a result of Southeast Asia’s porous borders (due to the archipelago structure of the region). Indeed, explosive materials but also foreign fighters easily pass from one country to another, the later to find refuge or carry out attacks. In short, eight months after the end of the siege in Marawi, terrorist groups continue to affect the security of the Philippines on a daily basis and will likely continue to do so until the country implements an adequate security response.

The long-term security perspectives in the Philippines

Implementing appropriate security measures to counter the terrorist phenomenon in the Philippines implies understanding the root causes of the spread of violence in Mindanao and acting on them. So far, the Duterte administration has only implemented classic military responses to the issue, such as increasing AFP presence in the region. The militarization of Mindanao, however, is not without consequences. According to Nina Trige Andersen, this militarization might be provoking serious discontent locally. The installation of military facilities in Marawi is causing further displacement of populations that have already been severely impacted by the outburst of violence in the city.

In  addition, the resources allocated to the military buildup are perceived locally as that much less money invested in the reconstruction of destroyed urban areas in Marawi. Finally, and more importantly, the increased AFP presence in Mindanao violates the spirit of the CAB and the presupposed autonomy it accords to the ARMM. Manila’s harsh security policies thus create favorable conditions for insurgent groups to play on local grievances and enroll new recruits which might very well lead the next armed insurrection in the Southern island.

These grievances are further reinforced by the lack of trust Filipinos (and Moro communities specifically) have in their security forces. Southeast Asian security specialist Zachary Abuza explains that endemic corruption within the AFP has made it a largely inefficient task force incapable of ensuring long-term security in the Philippines, and even more so under the leadership of Rodrigo Duterte “who has transformed the security forces into an unaccountable extrajudicial killing squad, responsible for over 20,000 deaths.”

President Rodrigo Duterte - The Foreign Analyst
President Rodrigo Duterte in Davao in 2016 (Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office of the Philippines / Wikimedia Commons)

Duterte’s uncompromising domestic stance has alienated the country’s political, religious and ethnic minorities, while his indiscriminate security campaigns have probably done less in bringing peace and stability than calling for more violence from insurgent groups. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front – with whom Manila brokered the CAP in 2014 – is losing its influence over Muslim communities in the region, leading to the spread of jihadi groups with ties to the Islamic State (ASG, Maute Group, BIFF). These groups have successfully used regional grievances – which used to be essentially ethnonationalist in nature – to recruit local fighters and have them adhere to the Global Jihad agenda.

Unless Manila acknowledges that the outburst of violence it is facing today stems from insurgent movements built on long-established grievances and improves its governance in order to ensure a fair treatment of all Filipinos, terrorism, including in its jihadi dimension, will continue to haunt the country. In this context, successive harsh security campaigns will be little more than temporary patches to a larger problem that has been entrenched in the country’s DNA for decades.

Cover Picture: members of the Armed Forces Philippines (AFP) participate in live fire exercise while receiving training with the U.S. Army Special Forces in 2003, © Marion Doss / flickr