Future Risks Stemming from Insurgency in Marawi, Mindanao
21 Jul 2017
On 24 May 2017, Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte, declared martial law on his home island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. Duterte took this action after 100 Muslim insurgents laid siege to the city of Marawi following a fatal gun battle with military forces. Fighting started after a failed attempt by government troops to arrest the leader of the Abu Sayyaf terror group, and the “emir” of Islamic State in Southeast Asia, Isnilon Hapilon. Militants set ablaze a number of buildings in the city and occupied other buildings including the local hospital. Hostilities caused power and communications in Marawi to be shut down. Progress made by government troops in the liberation of Marawi City has been slow going, with rebels using IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and civilians as human shields.
- Martial law was originally declared for the island of Mindanao on 24 May 2017, for an initial period of 60 days.
- The move came after heavy clashes between insurgents and the military in Marawi City on Mindanao.
- President Duterte wants to extend martial law until the end of 2017.
Armed Conflict: On 24 May 2017, Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte, declared martial law on his home island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. Duterte took this action after 100 Muslim insurgents laid siege to the city of Marawi following a fatal gun battle with military forces. Fighting started after a failed attempt by government troops to arrest the leader of the Abu Sayyaf terror group, and the “emir” of Islamic State in Southeast Asia, Isnilon Hapilon. Militants set ablaze a number of buildings in the city and occupied other buildings including the local hospital. Hostilities caused power and communications in Marawi to be shut down. Progress made by government troops in the liberation of Marawi City has been slow going, with rebels using IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and civilians as human shields. Filipino soldiers have faced the difficulties of close combat and urban warfare, for which they are not fully prepared. The military have deployed boots on the ground and airstrikes; foreign actors, notably the United States, Australia, and China have offered various levels of support in this conflict. The original declaration of martial law was due to last for 60-days, ending on 22 July. However, President Duterte has asked Congress to extend martial law in Mindanao until the end of 2017.
In the battle to liberate Marawi (as of 17 July), 97 soldiers have been killed alongside 45 civilians, as well as 411 militants. The number of wounded troops sits at 852. The number of firearms recovered is placed at 511, while civilians rescued is just over 1,700.
Solace Global Comment
There has been an ongoing insurgency in the southern Philippines for decades. Unrest in the region has previously come in waves but this current period is seen as particularly challenging. It was believed that after a peace agreement in 2014, between the central government in Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, that unrest in the region would dissolve but this has not been the case. Instead, militant Islamic groups have sought to strengthen their influence in the region with the aim of setting up a wilayat or province of Islamic State.
The attack on Marawi City was conducted by the Maute terror group (also known as the Islamic State of Lanao). The group have conducted armed attacks and suicide bombings across the southern Philippines, including a bombing at a night market in Davao City which killed 14 people. Other groups with links to the Islamic State in the Middle East have also conducted attacks during this period. Notably, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters have launched attacks across Mindanao. Abu Sayyaf, another rebel group who have become notorious for conducting kidnapping of sailors from the Sulu and Celebes Seas, have also conducted land attacks in the islands of Philippines archipelago in this region. It is also believed that Abu Sayyaf militants have strengthened the ranks of the Maute rebels in Marawi. The widespread nature of attacks by different militant groups has seriously limited the ability for the Philippine military to focus solely on the liberation of Marawi.
A New Caliphate?
This insurgency in the southern Philippines represents the beginning of a ‘pivot to Asia’ for Islamic State. The historical clashes on Mindanao, with hundreds of thousands of deaths and displacements as well as widespread conditions of poverty and underdevelopment, have proved a fertile recruiting ground for Islamic militant groups. With the Islamic State’s recent demise in Iraq (where it has lost most of its territory) and Syria, as well as travel difficulties recruits have getting to the Middle East, the southern Philippines offers a new opportunity. Southeast Asia is home to the majority of the world’s Muslims. Indeed, the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia have suggested that dozens of their citizens are fighting in Mindanao, the Philippines military itself has suggested that there are 89 foreign fighters present (without offering any evidence of this). The southern Philippines and surrounding maritime environment are ungoverned or under-governed areas, allowing for hospitable transit and refuge locations. The success of any potential caliphate in the region will depend on the strength and positioning of moderate Muslims in the area, including the Moro National Liberation Front. At present, their allegiances are not fully clear, with some suggesting their leadership may be encouraged by the gains made by extremist groups.
Duterte is evidently a key actor in the development of this conflict but his actions have been less than helpful. He has failed to follow through on his promises of federalisation, which would afford greater autonomy to Muslim-majority regions of Mindanao. Instead, he has focussed much of his attention on a brutal crackdown on drug users and dealers in the country, with extra-judicial killings rife. This perceived lawlessness has spooked some international investors. This may not seem to be of particular importance to Mindanao, but if the island is to re-emerge from conflict and stabilise, investment, including from foreign sources, will be vital in order to reduce factors pushing locals into extremism. The fact that investment in Mindanao has plunged 63 per cent in the first half of 2017 is concerning. Duterte’s decision to prioritise peace talks with Maoist rebels have produced few discernible results. During this distraction, the threat in Mindanao has expanded significantly.
The extension of martial law has caused some concerns in Philippines as has Duterte’s firebrand comments that he would kill and destroy in the way Islamic State’s East Asian affiliates are seeking to do. Unfortunately, this approach is unhelpful and will not lead to a solution in the long run. For Manila to rid itself of its terror threat, there will need to be a multi-faceted approach in Mindanao. There are some, notably opposition figures (rather than the population at large), who have fears about the use of martial law. Ferdinand Marcos, a brutal dictator, ruled using countrywide martial law between 1972 until 1981, crushing dissent. Marcos is a figure to whom some in the opposition have compared Duterte
The United States
Duterte has become notorious in the West for his anti-American rhetoric but on this occasion, has been forced to accept help offered by Washington. Filipino troops are receiving urban warfare training from US Special Forces. The US has also provided advanced weaponry and intelligence support. This may prove to be the foot in the door that the US needs as it seeks to stem the rise of China; Duterte’s early actions suggested he would move away from US leadership into the Chinese camp. The requirement for the US to be involved in Mindanao may act as a reset for the US-Philippines and US-East Asia alliance, after both sides burned some bridges.
SECURITY ADVICEArmed ConflictHigh
Despite the insurgency in the south raging on for decades, this attack in Marawi and developments over the past few years represent a significant watershed. While the Filipino military have made some gains in Marawi, pockets of conflict and unrest in Mindanao continue to crop up and spread. Much of this has so far remained in the deep south of the island nation but it has the potential to spread further. There remains a significant risk that Islamic militants will seek to target larger Philippine cities to the north (if they face setbacks in the south), including Manila Metropolitan Area and Cebu; a lot will depend on the governmentâs strategy, which appears to be lacking at this point. In the medium-term, travellers should remain increasingly vigilant outside of Mindanao and the southern Philippines.
The US State Department has advised its citizens against non-essential travel to Mindanao. Solace Global would advise against all non-business critical travel to the impacted areas of the island and the employment of enhanced security for most travel to Mindanao. Dependent on the area of travel, this may include an armed close protection officer and a security driver. For all travel to Philippines, travellers should employ the minimum travel tracking technology with an intelligence feed, in order to stay up date on security incidents as they occur, and to inform others in case of an emergency.
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