Philippine troops have the upper hand in a fight with ISIS-affiliated terrorists in the central-north-west city of Marawi, in Mindanao. Marawi is a city of 200,000 people and is the capital of the Province of Lanao del Sur.
Over 100 people have been killed in the fight with the terrorists, called the Maute group, who number no more than 200.
The terrorists have shown a resilience in the fight and have used snipers effectively. The Philippines’ troops, assisted by police forces, have applied substantial numbers and have been carrying out targeted bombing from the air.
While overwhelmed in numbers and weaponry, the terrorists have effectively used the cover provided by an urban area, and the Philippines army and police are losing one man for every three terrorists killed.
The Marawi City attack by the Maute Group terrorists has seen the deplorable style of murder of Christians by these Muslim extremists which has made the ISIS franchise despised globally. The attack has also seen acts of protection of Christians by ordinary Muslims.
Terrorism experts have been warning for months that, as ISIS loses more and more ground in Syria and Iraq, foreign fighters in that conflict are slipping away to return to Europe and Asia. And, indeed, of the terrorists so far identified in Marawi are fighters from Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, India, Morocco, Chechnya, Turkey, and many from Indonesia.
At the outbreak of the fighting, Philippines’ President, Mr Duterte, declared Martial Law for the entire island of Mindanao. Mindanao represents the southern third of the Philippines and includes 21 million of the Philippines’ 100 million population.
The declaration of Martial Law itself became a major controversy, especially in view of the abuses of human rights in the martial law of the Marcos era. Many from Manila and other parts of Luzon have decried the Martial Law announcement as an over-reaction. It may be suggested that if the ‘imperial Manila’ of recent decades had spent more government funds in Mindanao, rather than hogging those funds for the north, the Marawi terrorism situation would not have happened.
It is quite possible that the opponents of Martial Law are under-estimating the gravity of the situation in Marawi. Sure, those terrorist numbers are small, but few believed that the emergence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq would have proved so devastating and intractable. ISIS is unlike any other terrorist group: it has a sophisticated ability to attract adherents and operate globally. Further, the attempt to establish an urban stronghold in Marawi City is especially alarming, given the difficulty of digging out ISIS fighters from the urban areas of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
President Duterte has also connected the Marawi terrorism with the drug situation in the Philippines. At first glance this appears to be a convenient justification for his controversial war on drugs and drug-users. However, an assessment of Muslim terrorist groups shows a substantial knowledge of drugs, notably the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the self-use by ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq. And quite a few of the ‘lone wolf’ attacks over the last year, in the United Kingdom, France and Belgium have been shown to be drug-users.
The other connection in Marawi is the fact that the the Maute Group started as a local criminal gang. Guns and drugs provide such groups with muscle and income. The ‘lone wolf’ attacks in France and Belgium have also shown backgrounds in, and connections with, organized crime.
The Philippines army will return order to Marawi in a week or so. But the outbreak is a warning sign of new pressures and dangers building in Mindanao. The Philippines Government could ameliorate the danger by more robust policies in Mindanao. There are three levels of possible momentum for ISIS-affiliated terrorism in Mindanao which need to be addressed.
The first is poverty. The question of whether the risk of ISIS-affiliates gaining a toe-hold in Mindanao comes down to a consideration of whether it is ‘idleness or ideology’. For the huge numbers of young men in Mindanao who are without a job, ISIS-type groups can be attractive as they offer a wage, something to do, ‘respect’ and purpose. Development economists know that this is a risk. Dr Ernesto Pernia, the head of the National Economic Development Authority, and a development economist by background, knows that this needs to be rapidly addressed. And yet, there was a widespread view among many Filipinos and also among many experts under previous administrations that the continued 6 percent annual growth rate that the Philippines has had in recent years would be adequate, and that ‘trickle down’ economics would ‘lift all boats’. It did not, and the success of those years of solid growth have not benefited large swathes of ordinary Filipinos. It is possibly this single point which saw Mr Duterte elected to power: a recognition that the improvement in the lives of so many cannot rely on, or wait for, crumbs from the top table, and a belief by many voters that Duterte would do something about it.
The second source of momentum for ISIS-affiliated groups is indoctrination. The two brothers behind the Maute Group went to Saudi Arabia for work: just two of the many Filipinos who live and work in foreign countries and send their wages home. This is a major source of foreign earnings for the Philippines. However, while in Saudi Arabia, the Maute brothers got indoctrinated and when they returned they were not just criminals they were criminals with a ‘cause’. Saudi Arabia also offers scholarships to Filipinos and others, as well as sending clerics, substantial funds for schools, mosques and in some countries even television stations. In this way the doctrinaire and intolerant Wahhabi part of the Islamic faith has been successful in planting itself in a number of countries such as Indonesia. These brain-washed zealots have returned to Indonesia and the Philippines to spread the Wahhabi silliness at home. Hence, the second group of policies that the Philippines Government should consider is strictly controlling Saudi nationals from entering the Philippines and banning Filipino workers from going to Saudi Arabia.
The third source of momentum for ISIS-affiliated groups is the arrival in the Philippines of foreign fighters or trouble-makers. Hence the Philippines Government should consider policies to beef up the sea borders between Mindanao, Malaysia and Indonesia. Mr Duterte has already moved to improve maritime cooperation between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, mainly to counter piracy and to contain another vicious Muslim terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf, but this may need to be strengthened further.
In a week or so, the Philippines Government will regain full control over Marawi City. However, it is at that point that the real work will need to be started. And that work will require comprehensive government administration. It will require a decision on the proposed reorganization of the country on a federal model basis. It will require a number of peace negotiations to be finalized with older Muslim separatist groups as well as the unrepentant old communist insurgents. And it will require a lot of money; indeed, a huge amount of money!
Mike B. Bradshaw has been an officer of the Treasury, Canberra, an investment banker, and a consultant in Europe, the USA and Asia. He now works on project financing.
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