KUALA LUMPUR: As the siege in the southern Philippine city of Marawi enters its fourth week, the military has given up on setting deadlines for the on-going battle against Islamic State (IS)-linked militants.
“There will be no more deadlines,” Philippines’ military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla told a news conference on Wednesday (Jun 14), referring to a pledge by the military to clear the city by Jun 12, the country’s independence day. “It may take some time.”
The scale of ferocity and resilience of militant fighters in Marawi has taken the military by surprise. The 400-odd fighters are from the Maute group and an IS-faction of Abu Sayyaf on Marawi, the provincial capital of Lanao del Sur on Mindanao island.
It also marks the failure of the Philippine government to understand the evolution and strength of extremism in the country, said analysts.
“The military underestimated the strength and influence of the pro-IS militant groups in Marawi,” a regional security source in the Philippines told Channel NewsAsia. “The militants have made plans to declare Marawi as an IS province for Southeast Asia.”
The source, who is a counter-terrorism official, added: “They have been based in Marawi City for a long time and built a defence fortress which include anti-aircraft weapons, underground bunkers and also the use of the civilians as human shields.”
The fighters also have many tunnels and basements that can withstand 500-pound (227kg) bombs. The tunnels were used by fighters to store high-powered weapons as well as an escape route, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jo-ar Herrera was quoted by AFP as saying.
The siege of Marawi began on May 23 when the military stumbled upon Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of Abu Sayyaf’s IS faction. The military decided to move in, triggering the clashes which to date have killed 290 people, including 206 militants, 58 soldiers and 26 civilians.
Led by brothers Omarkhayam Romato Maute and Abdullah Maute, the Maute group has – according to the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) – the “smartest, best-educated and most sophisticated members” of all the pro-Islamic State outfits in the Philippines.
The pro-IS faction of Abu Sayyaf led by Hapilon is aided by Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad whom the regional source described as “the brains behind the alliance”.
“Mahmud is a strategist for Hapilon and he has direct links with Katibah Nusantara in Syria and Iraq,” said the security source Channel NewsAsia spoke with.
Katibah Nusantara is the Southeast Asia battalion of IS.
“The advent of this Maute-Abu Sayyaf coalition, which has closer links to Islamists abroad than any local group before it, marks the government’s failure to understand how the nature of extremism in the Philippines has changed,” said Sidney Jones, director of Jakarta-based IPAC, in a column for the New York Times.
Jones added that Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte had been “dismissive of the growing threat“.
This failure has cost the government dearly – the militants now control 20 per cent of the city, said the military, denying claims by IS, via its Amaq News Agency, that its fighters control more than two-thirds of the city.
EASY ACCESS TO WEAPONS
Known as an Islamic centre, Marawi is a Muslim-majority city in a country where 90 per cent of the population is Roman Catholic.
Former Malaysian and Indonesian militants, who fought in Mindanao, have said the island is the only place in ASEAN where IS stands a chance of establishing its own territory as weapons and ammunition are easily available there.
“IS cannot do it (establish its own territory) in Malaysia and Indonesia,” Ali Fauzi, a former member of the Al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), told Channel NewsAsia.
“They (IS) have the greatest possibility of establishing its territory in Philippines because weapons, arms and ammunition are widely circulated and easily available there.”
Fauzi used to buy weapons easily on the black market in Mindanao when he was fighting for the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) from 1994 to 1997 and again from 2002 to 2006.
According to Fauzi, many of the weapons were sold by the military to the black market.
“I understand from my former colleagues at MILF that the situation has not changed,” said Fauzi.
Fauzi is the younger brother of Bali bombers Mukhlas and Amrozi, who were executed for their roles in the 2002 attacks. Fauzi was not involved in the Bali bombings.
Nasir Abas, a former leader of JI, set up a para-military training camp on Mount Kararao which is close to Marawi.
Like Fauzi, he used to buy weapons easily in Mindanao.
“During my time, some of the Filipino soldiers ran away because they were afraid to fight. Whenever they ran away, they would sell their guns to the local people,” said Nasir. “IS is targeting Marawi because it is a Muslim-majority city.”
According to the regional security source, the Philippines military suffers from corruption, lack of coordination and motivation to fight the enemy.
“There are many weaknesses in the Philippines security forces including corruption and a lack of motivation,” said the source.
BATTLE TO GO ON FOR A LONG TIME
There are several home-grown armed militant groups operating on Mindanao of which the MILF and the Moro Nasional Liberation Front (MNLF) are the largest.
Fauzi has warned that a prolonged battle will galvanise the disparate local militant groups and draw IS supporters from the region to form a formidable force.
“If this group is not neutralised within a month (from now), I believe they will become stronger,” he said. “This is because it will open the opportunity for existing local groups and foreign militants from around the globe to forge a new coalition.”
Philippine intelligence sources have said that foreign fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya are taking part in the Marawi siege.
According to Fauzi, the MILF and MNLF have played no part in the current siege. Both groups condemned the violence in Marawi on May 25.
“MILF and MNLF, as institutions, are not part of this siege,” he said. “However, as far as I know, there are individuals from MILF who are fighting in Marawi.”
There are over 20 disparate groups and cells, including former JI splinters, that have declared allegiance to IS since 2014, according to Professor Zachary Abuza of the National War College in Washington DC
“Abu Sayyaf’s Hapilon is starting to get these groups to coalesce beneath him into a common and organised command structure, but I am not sure how far it will go,” said Prof Abuza.
“That’s why we should be concerned if the Maute-Abu Sayyaf coalition receives protection and support of disaffected MILF members, because they (MILF) do control real territory.”
Nasir warns that the bigger IS grows in the Philippines, the more dangerous it will be for the region, especially for Malaysia and Indonesia.
“It will raise the spirit of IS’ supporters in Malaysia and Indonesia to join them (IS) in southern Philippines,” said Nasir. The IS-linked groups, according to Nasir, are replicating the outfit’s actions in Syria and Iraq.
“They are trying to surround, defend and take control of Marawi. They are forcing local people to join IS, just like what IS did in Syria,” said Nasir. “In the past, groups like MILF and MNLF never killed civilians. But the IS fighters are now killing civilians in Marawi.”
MARAWI SIEGE A PROPAGANDA BOON
“This Marawi siege has been a boon for the IS groups in Southeast Asia,” said Prof Abuza. “”People from the region will be attracted to the cause. More importantly, they will increase recruiting MILF members, whose confidence in the peace process has been shot to hell.
He added: “If Duterte doesn’t deal with that, then this whole problem is going to fester for a very long time; we will have an ungoverned space issue.”
Peace talks with the MILF have been going on for 15 years. According to Prof Abuza, there are many areas in southern Philippines which IS could carve out as its own territory.
“There is no shortage of poorly governed or ungoverned space in the Philippines,” said Prof Abuza. “The mountainous area south of Marawi, between Lanao Del Sur and Maguindanao is the biggest concern.
“This is not just a Philippine security threat. It is a regional security threat.”
The Marawi siege has served to embolden the militants who will mine it for their propaganda.
“Without a doubt they will see it as a success, even after they withdraw,” said Prof Abuza. “They’ve certainly gained a lot of intelligence and knowledge on Philippine security forces operations and capabilities. They’ve in many ways humiliated the government and Armed Forces of Philippines by holding on for as long as they have.”