Commentary: No Military Solution to Black Flag Groups in Southern Philippines

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
170601-PH-Marawi-620 Government soldiers take part in operations to clear the southern Philippine city of Marawi from Islamic State-linked fighters, May 30, 2017.
Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao on May 23 following the Maute Group’s siege of Marawi city. This has provoked concerns from human rights activists and civil society groups who have documented sharp reversals to the rule of law since Duterte’s election in May 2016, most notably the extra-judicial killings of more than 8,000 suspected drug users and sellers.

The security situation has clearly been devolving in the southern Philippines since 2015, though it has accelerated under Duterte. In mid-2014, a faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) publicly declared their allegiance to the Islamic State (IS). They were followed by a number of other small “black flag” groups, including Anshar al-Khalifa-Philippines (AKP) and the Maute Group.

It is important to note that it was not until January 2016 that IS recognized any Southeast Asian grouping, perhaps out of pre-occupation; or perhaps hoping to see which Southeast Asian group emerged on top. In the end, IS recognized Isnilon Hapilon as the leader and called on other groups to serve as “battalions.” Hapilon recently fled his home base in Basilan and joined forces with the Maute Group.

The Maute Group is significant for five reasons. First, like IS, it believes in the utility of violence to gain strength and notoriety, such as the siege of Marawi.

Second, it has mimicked IS propaganda, releasing a May 2016 video of the beheading of two orange jump-suited “spies” in front of a semi-circle of jihadis. Third, it has proved remarkably active, staging terrorist attacks in Davao in September 2016, several jail breaks freeing adherents new and old, and the sieging of towns.

Fourth, the Maute Group has attracted militants from across the region. Indeed, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) claims that they killed eight foreign fighters including two Malaysians, two Indonesians, two Saudis, a Yemeni and a Chechen in their assault of Marawi.

Finally, the Maute Group holds territory or at least enjoys sanctuary in areas that are very difficult for the AFP to access. It is this final point that is critical to understand.

Crux of the problem

When he declared martial law President Duterte insisted that it was so that he could “fix all of Mindanao’s problems.” The problems are many and inter-connected. There are multiple armed groups with differing goals and objectives.

But martial law without a strategy is counter-productive and likely to make the situation worse. And with Duterte hinting that he could extend the open-ended martial law decree to the Visayas region and possibly nationally, this could be an enormous setback to the Philippines some 31 years after the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown.

Martial law is not going to lead to the defeat of the Maute Group or any other insurgent group. Insurgencies have core grievances. They are rarely defeated militarily, and require political solutions.

The crux of the problem in Mindanao is the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest of all the groups, that remains unimplemented. The government was on the verge of a historic peace agreement that would have given the Moros significant political and economic autonomy. Yet a botched raid, without coordinating with the MILF, led to the deaths of 44 policemen in January 2015.

Congressional hearings on implementing the legislation needed for the peace process – which until then seemed certain to pass with limited amendments – were shelved and replaced with hearings on what was labeled a “massacre.” In the middle of a national campaign, those hearings became an opportunity for political grandstanding: no fewer than four senators were vying for the presidency or vice-presidency. No candidate saw votes in defending the MILF or supporting the peace process.

A homegrown problem

The proliferation of black flag groups in 2015-2016 was not the result of the spread of IS in Iraq and Syria. It was due to the collapse of the peace process with the MILF, government complacency, and the anger and mistrust towards the Philippine government that it engendered.

Duterte, who hails from Mindanao, is sympathetic to the plight of the Moros. Like all people from Mindanao, he has bristled at Manila’s internal colonial relationship with Mindanao. He has nominally remained committed to the peace process. But his inner circle of aids and advisors – Christian politicians from Mindanao – has been traditionally against the peace process.

He has not been willing to make the peace process a legislative priority, instead focusing his energies on his barbaric war on drugs and the restoration of the death penalty. Duterte even tried to sidestep the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, instead pushing for a constitutional amendment to establish federalism, only walking that back when the MILF balked. Duterte further complicated the situation by reaching out to his friend, the former chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front, Nur Misuari, and beginning a parallel peace process.

The MILF has remained committed to the peace process, and has even assisted in evacuating refugees from Marawi. But managing expectations in their ranks is not easy. Hopes for economic development, peace and security have waned. Many fighters have joined black flag groups, which are able to highlight the government's continued unwillingness to push through the peace process, as well as the underlying mistrust many Filipinos harbor toward the Muslims in Mindanao.

No military solution

Why this matters is that the Maute Group and other black flag groups operate in territory contiguous to or controlled by the MILF. Until they see moves towards the implementation of their peace agreement, they have no incentive to act as a responsible stakeholder and police their territory. More importantly, future AFP raids on the Maute Group could pit them against MILF combatants, as what happened in the January 2015 Mamasapano raid.

Indeed, we should have every expectation that Philippine security forces, whose record on human rights and professionalism is spotty, will abuse martial law, further alienating the local community. That will only serve to bolster the black flag groups and splinter the MILF, whose aging leadership is already showing signs of losing command and control.

The AFP’s Western Mindanao Command has publicly said that the martial law decree would not impact the peace process, to which they remain committed. Indeed, the poorly trained and ill-equipped AFP can ill afford broadening the conflict. The MILF has, similarly, committed itself to the peace process.

Martial law without a strategy for a durable political settlement of the legitimate grievances of Moro issues will only sow the seeds of future unrest. Why should we expect that the AFP, which has proven unable to defeat various Moro forces since the early 1970s, with and without martial law, is up to the task now? If one looks at incidents of terrorism, political violence, and crime in Mindanao, they only declined when the peace process offered hope.

Since 2015, violence has escalated with the proliferation of black flag groups. There is no military solution to this problem. At the end of the day, insurgency is about governance. Martial law only compounds sharp declines in the rule of law and governance under Duterte.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.


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