In mid-August, the Islamic State's Al-Hayat Media Center released a long-expected video on the siege of Marawi, now in its 4th month. The 6:47 video, first released on Telegraph channels, is the latest in an ongoing series entitled "Inside the Khalifah," and everything that one would expect in an IS video. It is well produced and edited, clearly narrated, high resolution, fast moving, and on message. Like any centrally-produced IS media, it is slick and meant to inspire young men to pick up arms. It accentuates their successes, and seeks to empower and inspire others to join the cause, to get revenge, and glorify their religion.
With the Islamic State's serious territorial losses in Syria and Iraq, the amount of centrally produced media has dropped considerably. But nevertheless, experts believe the Islamic State's hallmark media prowess will continue to be a salient feature of the movement as it moves into the virtual caliphate.
But that they would take time to focus on a conflict in a marginal region to the Islamic State, not even yet declared a "wiliyat" – or province of the caliphate – is interesting in itself. Arguably, the Islamic State media chieftains are looking for any success to highlight, as their caliphate crumbles. And arguably it portends a new strategy of a more decentralized patchwork of pro-Islamic state movements rather than a centralized state.
But they have another reason to celebrate the siege of Marawi: from both a strategic and propaganda perspective, it was a highly successful operation.
The siege took meticulous planning, the stockpiling of months’ worth of ammunition and equipment, and humiliated the Philippine armed forces (AFP) – a central theme of the video. Fewer than 500 militants have prevented the AFP from retaking the city for over three months, despite their air assets, artillery, intelligence support from the United States, and far more resources and manpower. Yes, urban warfare is hard and the AFP has never trained for it, but the siege still demonstrated significant weaknesses in AFP planning and operations.
The militants, a combined force of some Abu Sayyaf under Isnilon Hapilon, who retreated from Basilan, and the men under the leadership of the Maute Brothers, did more than discredit the AFP. They forced President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law, deepening societal cleavages. More importantly, it led Duterte to double down on a military-dominated strategy, something that rarely if ever succeeds against insurgents. Whether through collateral damage, increased human rights abuses, or the inability to complete their mission so that tens of thousands of IDPs can safely return home, Duterte's reckless strategy will drive many into the ranks of the militants.
And just as importantly, the militants have clearly been able to win over some defectors from the mainstream Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) whose peace process has been on indefinite hold since January 2015. Frustration amongst rank and file is growing, and despite President Duterte's public commitment to the peace process, there are reasons to be very skeptical that he will deliver, or that Congress will pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law or an acceptable version of it. As such, frustrations within the ranks will mount. The MILF is unable to stem the exodus of members who are joining pro-IS militants, and must now compete for young recruits.
Tactical loss, strategic victory
As the Marawi video makes clear, IS is where the action is. The MILF leadership is looking very old and discredited to a new generation of frustrated and angry Moro youth. The video seeks to convey that only they are actively defending the interests of the Moro "to remove the air of humiliation that lingered over the region as a result of the thagut government's concerted efforts to subjugate the Muslims, expel them from the land and sever the bonds of wiliyat that united their hearts and kept them together." And while the MILF has recently clashed with other IS-pledged militants, its base commander, Abdullah Macapagar, whose forces adjoin Marawi, has been far more accommodating towards them.
And of course, Marawi is now a beacon for militants from across Southeast Asia and further afield. One of the three mujahidin to speak on camera calls on co-religionists from Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Thailand, and Singapore to "join the caravan": "Come forth to the land of jihad. Perform hijrah." These appeals are important and will motivate individuals now unable or unwilling to travel to Iraq and Syria, who are looking for a struggle with regional saliency.
And what the Marawi militants have, that no jihadist in Southeast Asia has, is territory. Since the defeat of the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur in Sulawesi, no militant group or cell in Malaysia or Indonesia actually controls physical space. You can't be a wiliyat without territory. So establishing that "Darul Islam" you can emanate out from is essential. Beyond IS declaring Hapilon the "Emir" of forces in Southeast Asia, his real legitimacy stems from territorial control and military successes.
The Marawi siege is winding down. The number of militants who have remained is dwindling, as is their stock of ammunition. Though the government claims to have killed many of the militants, the leadership remains intact, and many were able to "perform hijrah" and slip back into safe mountainous territory where they will regroup and plan their next wave of attacks.
Ultimately the militants will withdraw from Marawi, a tactical loss, but, the video makes very clear, a strategic victory. The video shows highly motivated militants, committed to their cause, and in good spirits. Those shown wounded and killed were glorified for their martyrdom. And no doubt, more will be inspired to offer themselves to the cause. As the video warns, this is a "generational conflict against the kuffir"; they are in this for the long haul.
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.