With timely international military and intelligence assistance, Philippine security forces have successfully contained, isolated and eliminated the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) in Marawi.
Almost 700 Filipino and foreign fighters who embraced IS ideology and practice have been killed in four months of intense combat. Fewer than 70 IS fighters now hold a battle space of less than 10 hectares. The troop advance has been slow, as the urban area is heavily mined with snipers and explosives. IS also holds three dozen hostages, some of whom have turned fighters or supporters under duress.
IS in Marawi compared its initial success to the IS siege of Mosul, and copied IS practices in Syria and Iraq.
IS Marawi burned the police station and the city jail and freed the inmates. It executed officials, including the chief of intelligence of Marawi. After burning Saint Mary's Cathedral and Dansalan College, IS took hostage Christian leaders, staff, teachers and students. To the hostages, some of whom became fighters, IS preached its ideology, which has been rejected by the Muslim population at large. Some 350,000 people were displaced from Marawi and surrounding areas, and parts of their city were reduced to rubble.
The largest IS-centric groups – Islamic State Lanao (ISL) led by the Maute brothers, and Islamic State Philippines (ISP) led by Isnilon Hapilon – sieged the Islamic City of Marawi on May 23. The ISP and ISL engaged in a fierce battle with over 12,000 military and police personnel, supported by U.S. and Australian forces. But contrary to IS expectations, Maranaos were shocked by the siege, and rejected the IS presence.
The lack of public support severely weakened the militants’ ability to hold Marawi. Their project to establish an IS province (wilayat) failed.
With the death of many of the directing figures of the fight – including Abdullah, Utto and Mahdi Maute – the battle in Marawi is coming to an end. Nonetheless, a dozen local groups that have pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have resumed their activities in other parts of Mindanao.
Unless the threat is managed with exceptional care, IS will persist and is likely to spread from Mindanao to Sabah in Malaysia, and to eastern Indonesia.
The most active of the threat groups operating outside Marawi is the IS-directed Jamaah Al Muhajirin wal Anshor (JMA), a group in the southern Philippines with extensive links to foreign fighters.
JMA is attacking the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest armed group, which is working with the Duterte government to establish a permanent peace.
Guided by IS, JMA is determined to breakup MILF. IS believes that its attacks will fracture MILF and that pro-IS members within MILF will splinter and join IS-centric groups.
Esmael Abdulmaguid (alias Abu Turaipe), who leads JMA, is adept at attracting foreign fighters. The latest encounter between MILF and JMA was at Barangay Tee, Datu Salibo, Maguindanao on Sept. 27. As the battle in Marawi comes to an end, the clashes elsewhere in Mindanao are likely to increase in frequency, scale and magnitude.
Until the IS siege of Marawi on May 23, 2017, the Philippine government was in denial of an IS presence in Mindanao. However, the response of the Philippine government to the Marawi siege was decisive.
The fighting lasted over four months, for three reasons.
First, the government underestimated IS ideology and fighting capabilities, especially the use of snipers and explosive devices. Second, the terrain could not be effectively cordoned and sealed. Third, the Philippine military units were trained for jungle and rural warfare, not urban warfare.
Until August 2017, the infiltration and exfiltration of IS from the Main Battle Area (MBA) enabled IS to replenish its human losses and material wastage. The fighters formed three layers of defense protecting Hapilon, Abdullah and Omarkhayam. With huge battlefield losses, the MBA is isolated, but the remaining quality leadership and the human shield of hostages will protract the fight for another few weeks.
The deaths of several leaders and experienced fighters in Marawi represent the most significant loss the IS has suffered in the Philippines to date. Abdullah Maute was IS operational leader in Marawi until August 2017, when he was killed in combat. Having lived and studied in Marawi, Abdullah planned and led the fight there under the symbolic leadership of Hapilon, overall emir of IS in the Philippines.
Today, Omarkhayam Maute, the vice emir, has succeeded his brother Abdullah, despite injuries suffered during the fighting. With the saturation of Philippine security forces in Marawi, the fight against IS is steadily coming to an end. Both Hapilon and Omarkhayam must fight or flee. Yet they are unlikely to flee and link up with other IS-centric groups. The chief adviser to Hapilon, Dr. Mahmud bin Ahmad of Malaysia, has fabricated a suicide vest, which he is likely to wear in the final battle.
The landscape ahead
Hapilon, a longtime leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group, has instructed his IS men to merge with pro-IS fighters within the ASG rank and file of Radulan Sahiron, and to plan armed attacks in different places in Mindanao. They wish to target the cities of Iligan, Cagayan de Oro and Cotabato. Both ISP and ISL fighters have planned to conduct terrorist activities in the municipalities of Lumbatan, Bayang, Tugaya and Madalum in Lanao del Sur, around Lake Lanao. Some of these plans have been intercepted and disrupted.
However, IS Philippines cannot hold territory unless it has a stronger fighting force. As long as the MILF led by Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim is intact, IS Philippines will not achieve its immediate goals. Demography and geography limit IS expansion and dominance in the southern Philippines. Unless MILF breaks up and a large faction joins IS, the rise of IS is not an existential threat to the Philippines.
Nevertheless, the IS-centric threat landscape outside Marawi is growing. In Mindanao, several groups have joined IS. And the very presence of IS in Mindanao threatens not only the Philippines but its neighbors.
After having attempted and failed to create a province (wilayat) in the eastern edge of Asia, IS central in Syria is thinking long-term.
It intends to build IS forces in the southern Philippines and infiltrate neighboring Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country.
IS created its East Asia Division with the intention of expanding from the Philippines to parts of Northeast and Southeast Asia. If IS spreads to Sabah in Malaysia and to eastern Indonesia, it will pose a significant challenge to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the entire region.
Rohan Gunaratna is professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technology University and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.