The siege of the Philippines’ southern city of Marawi by ISIL-aligned Islamist fighters marks a shift in Southeast Asian terrorism and clearly demonstrates ISIL’s ambition to expand in the region as it incurs loses in the Middle East, international security and terrorism experts said.
These same experts said the on-going attack on the city, just slightly smaller than the northern French city of Lille, also indicates the presence of ISIL’s influence on armed groups in the Philippines keen on carving out their own Islamic state.
“This attack was distinct in scale, magnitude and intensity,” said Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, the head of the S. Rajaratna School of International Studies’ (RSIS) International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore. “Islamist terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia hitherto did not attempt to control territory and to build a state. But the attack in Marawi clearly demonstrates that the Islamic State, by placing fighters on rooftops, by placing its flag on top of buildings and by commandeering vehicles with loud speakers urging people to join, want to control Marawi.”
The Philippine military and national police have battled since last week to dislodge Maute Group fighters, also known as ISIS-Lanao, from Marawi, a Muslim-majority city on the southern island of Mindanao.
Tens of thousands of people from the provincial capital left their homes, fleeing from intense urban warfare, which has included close government air support and air strikes.
The Philippine army’s intervention hit a deadly set back Thursday when a government air strike accidentally struck and killed 11 soldiers in the city.
The government suspects at least 120 militants have been killed in more than nine days of fighting. At least 38 security force members and 19 civilians are also thought to have perished.
Brigadier General Restituto Padilla, a Philippine military spokesman, said an estimated 50 ISIL-aligned fighters remain holed up in three key strategic areas of the city.
He said they are using mosques as sniper positions and are expected to fight to the death.
“It has to be a slow painstaking process,” Padilla said. “We are seeing tell-tale signs they’re using children as human shields.”
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law over the entire island in the hope of quelling the insurrection amid fears similar attacks could spread to other communities.
Gunaratna said as much as 10 percent of Marawi came under ISIL control and though ISIS-Lanao are likely to be defeated this time, similar attacks are sure to follow.
“The success or failure in Marawi doesn’t matter,” Gunaratna said. “The battle of Marawi will always be a part of the IS iconography. All this is to build a legacy that will attract a new generation of fighters because, for IS, this is just one of many battles and this is a point of propaganda.”
He said the battle in Marawi emulates ISIL’s on-going struggle in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where ISIL fighters are surrounded by the Iraqi army.
Terrorism, and indeed Islamic terrorism, is nothing new to Southeast Asia and the Philippines has struggled to dismantle insurgent networks in Mindanao since the 1970s.
The island is home to a constellation of armed groups, some with overlapping memberships, who subside on criminal activities including kidnappings and extortions.
But since 2014, as many as 62 Southeast Asian armed groups have pledged their allegiance to ISIL and among that number, as many as 16 are based in the Philippines.
Chief among them are ISIS-Lanao and ISIS-Philippines the latter of which is led by Isnilon Hapilon, who pledged his loyalty to ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in 2014.
Hapilon is wanted by the US’ FBI who has offered a $5 million (€4.4 million) reward for information leading to his capture or conviction.
According to Philippine military and police intelligence reports, collated by Vera Files and partly shared with euronews, Hapilon leads a splinter faction of militant group Abu Sayyaf.
The intelligence briefings say ISIL-Central in Iraq and Syria accepted Hapilon’s pledge in its Daquib publication but stopped short of announcing the southern Philippines as an official ISIL-province or wilayah.
“Hapilon was referred to as an ‘emir’ or leader of an IS ‘division’, with the Philippines being considered part of ‘the land of jihad’ and not as the ‘land of the caliphate’, read the intelligence briefs.
The briefings added that ISIS-Lanao and ISIS-Philippines, though two distinct groups, share a tactical alliance and are thought to have met but failed in December 2016 to officially join forces.
By 2016, both ISIS-Lanao and ISIS-Philippines were recognised by ISIL as part of an East Asia division of ISIL combatants.
The ideology of ISIL in Southeast Asia represents a new chapter of transnational terrorism in the region because unlike al Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiyah, two terror groups present in the region who professed their desire to form an “Islamic State”, ISIL actually managed to create one, said Joseph Liow Chin Yong, the dean of Singapore’s RSIS.
The terror group’s ideology, he said, has gained particular traction in the region because ISIL sympathisers support the group’s “eschatological underpinnings” – the belief in an “end of times struggle” between Islam and so-called “evil” forces.
“Not a few ISIS supporters from Southeast Asia are captivated by this and want to be part of this great struggle,” Yong said, who added the southern Philippines is a weak link which ISIL is keen to exploit.
Yong said the region’s importance is growing in ISIL’s calculus due in part because of Manila’s struggle to dismantle existing groups including ISIS-Lanao and ISIS-Philippines.
“If ISIS is looking for a safe haven, there are few places in the world today that are safer than the southern Philippines,” Yong said. “This is also an area that has hosted militants not only from the region, but from beyond as well, including from the Middle East. No doubt, it is far from Syria, and the likelihood of an exodus of Syria and Iraq-based ISIS fighters to Mindanao is unlikely to impossible, but the picture is different when we are talking about Southeast Asian fighters, either those trying to return home or those who never left but remain intent on perpetrating attacks in the region.”
Philippine officials said they found evidence of dozens of foreign fighters among those who attacked the city of Marawi. They include Malaysians, Indonesians and several from Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan.
Gunaratna said ISIL has consistently urged recruits from Southeast Asia, unable to travel to Iraq or Syria, to join with ISIL-aligned groups in Mindanao. He said ISIL released as many as 20 propaganda releases specifically referring to the Philippines and even posted a propaganda video showing Southeast Asian fighters all within the last year.
And it is this call to arms, combined with ISIS-Lanao’s surprising ability to withstand the Philippine military, which troubles Dr. Zachary Abuza, a professor of national security strategy at the National War College in Washington D.C., and an expert on Southeast Asian politics and security issues.
He said ISIS-Lanao live among a much larger militant group on Mindanao known as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MILF were involved in peace negotiations with the Philippine government which have been indefinitely put on hold since 2015 after a botched government raid unravelled talks.
“Now the MILF have around 11,000 men under arms and they really do control significant territory. Although the leadership remains committed to the peace process, rank and file members of the MILF are definitely defecting to groups like [ISIS-Lanao],” Abuza said. “My concern is that when you have this group – after nine days they have still not been defeated – that is sticking it to the Philippine government and the military.”
And this could engender added support for a relatively unknown but motivated armed group eager to prove and establish itself.
Extremism in the Philippines is also opportunistic and militant groups have shifting or sometimes contradictory alliances, Yong said.
ISIS-Philippines, for instance, had pledged their support to al Qaeda two decades ago. This means fighters could flock to those groups seen most in fashion or those who could best “lend further impetus to their actions”, Yong said.
“The appeal of ISIS could well outlive the actual organization,” Yong said. “In other words, even if ISIS central is defeated and the ‘Islamic State’ retaken by Syria, the ideology will still be able to perpetuate and spread. We must be alert to this.”
ISIS-Lanao was relatively unknown until earlier this year after they attacked a Mindanao military base killing two and wounding six Philippine soldiers, according to Philippine military intelligence.
But Abuza said ISIS-Lanao had been active before they appeared on the military’s radar. He said they have been consistent in mimicking ISIL’s imagery.
He said in the fall of 2015 the group filmed the beheading of two Philippine captives and were responsible for killing 14 people in a market bomb attack in the city of Davao.
Davao is the home city of President Duterte.
“In 2014, while there was talk of peace [with the MILF], there was this nefarious entity spreading its tentacles and nothing was done to stop it,” said Sajjan Gohel, director of International Security for the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a security think tank which assess global risks and how they evolve. “We’ve sleep-walked into this problem in the southern Philippines. The warning signs were there. These groups aren’t just terrorists, they’re criminal entities as well. They have been there for a while. This is not entirely new.”
Gohel said there were constant “blips” of violence involving ISIS-Lanao including shootings targeting police, which Philippine authorities left unchallenged for too long.
He likens it to the complacency shown by the Iraqi government when ISIL was not yet an internationally renowned terror organisation but already defeating local police forces and eroding Baghdad’s control.
Though Gohel says he does not anticipate ISIS-Lanao can spread in the same way as did ISIL in Iraq and Syria, they could have the ability to stage further attacks either in Mindanao or in the capital Manila.
“It could be a warning this attack won’t be a one-off and it may not be confined to Marawi,” Gohel said. “This attack has the potential to exacerbate social and political tensions. It’s very deliberate. They are doing it to stoke sectarian tensions in a bid to undermine Duterte.”
The attack on the city of Marawi mostly targeted Christian sections of the Muslim-majority city which could act as a trap for Duterte, Gohel said.
Duterte’s uncompromising tenure as President in tackling the country’s drug problem, could play into ISIL’s hands, he said.
Duterte warned he would consider imposing martial law over the entire country if he deems the threat posed by ISIL significant enough. He has also reneged on an offer for dialogue with the militants attacking Marawi.
“Duterte needs to take control of the situation but not in the ham-fisted way he might have done with other issues,” Gohel said. “Martial law can be removed. Martial law in itself is not a problem until the military component comes into play.”
On Thursday, ISIL claimed an attack on a hotel and casino in Manila which killed at least 36 people, but police rejected the terror group’s claim and maintain the attack was a botched robbery.
But the attack on Marawi has had a profound impact and has led to concerns regarding the Philippines’ ability to counter insurgencies and dismantle terrorist networks.
Duterte vowed on Friday, June 2 to acquire new military equipment in order to put down the Islamic insurrection in Marawi and a Maoist rebellion affecting the country.
“Tactically, [ISIS-Lanao] will be defeated and will suffer significant casualties. But the attack will once again cast light on the real depth of the problem that the Philippine government faces with regards to counterterrorism in Southeast Asia,” Yong said. “It will also demonstrate how far the Philippine security forces are from the operational state that is required to competently deal with and defeat the militant groups in the region. It should also awaken the region to the need for even greater cooperation, which I think is sorely required.”