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Commentary: Restoring Security and Stability Beyond Marawi

Commentary by Rohan Gunaratna
2017-06-29
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A photo released by the Crisis Management Team shows destruction in the rebel-held Bangolo district in downtown Marawi city, June 29, 2017.
A photo released by the Crisis Management Team shows destruction in the rebel-held Bangolo district in downtown Marawi city, June 29, 2017.
Handout/Zia Alonto Adiong/Marawi City

The emerging generation of Islamic State-centric (IS) threat groups seeks to capture, hold and control territory. Unlike al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) that operated discretely and staged intermittent attacks, IS seeks territorial conquest and governance.

The siege of Marawi on May 23 demonstrates that IS no longer is a phenomenon limited to the Middle East. IS threatens governments worldwide that fail to understand and respond to it.

Marawi also demonstrated that to fight IS, governments need innovative leaders instead of classic bureaucrats. Had the Philippines acknowledged the emergence of IS back in the second half of 2014, and during the active operations of IS-centric groups throughout 2015 and 2016, Marawi could have been prevented.

When it comes to IS, governments should respond immediately and decisively. As Marawi demonstrated, procrastination can be a lethal mistake.

Visionaries needed

National security decision-making depends on visionary leaders. In the case of the Philippines, the government leaders knew that IS was on the rise and that two dozen local groups had pledged allegiance.

Their own commanders who fought against the Islamic State Lanao (ISL), led by the Maute clan since 2015, reported that it had taken root in the region. Since 2016, the Philippine intelligence community reported in detail about the creation of an East Asia Division led by Isnilon Hapilon, anointed by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The reality is that few governments take preventive and preemptive measures. Most governments react, overreact or under react. The Philippines was no exception.

When IS fighters laid siege to Marawi, President Rodrigo Duterte responded decisively by declaring martial law. In the face of adversity, Duterte, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces Chief Gen. Eduardo Año demonstrated leadership.

Despite the initial setback of not reading the threat accurately, they persisted and generated support nationally, regionally and internationally to contain, isolate and eliminate the local fighters.

A practical man with foresight, Lorenzana sought U.S. and Australian support, worked with Indonesia and Malaysia to strengthen border control and built cooperation with several other countries willing to help the Philippines. He convinced Duterte that U.S. military and intelligence support was paramount and in parallel with Chinese economic support.

Because the siege could be coming to an end, the Philippines and its neighbors should understand that the militant occupation of Marawi is a setback for region’s security.

The government inability to recover Marawi for more than a month drew the attention of the Muslim community. While IS initiated the suffering in Marawi, is the narrative changing? Military air strikes, civilian deaths, destruction of mosques and homes dominate the IS and pro-IS news portals.

Although no plans regarding Indonesia and Malaysia were recovered, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein and Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu were aware of the possibility. IS intentions to expand into Sabah and Brunei and take control of the oil fields were discussed by the ministers when the trilateral maritime patrols were launched in Tarakan, Indonesia on June 19.

Groups active

The Philippine military is likely to recapture Marawi next month, but that will not end the IS threat. Other Moro groups pledging allegiance to IS leadership remain active in Mindanao.

Considering its numbers, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) could stage a Marawi-style operation. In a possible show of support to IS, a few hundred BIFF fighters attacked Barangay Malagakit, an agricultural Christian village in Pigcawayan, North Cotabato, during the Marawi siege.

On June 21, BIFF forces occupied a school, the Malagakit Barangay Hall, a local church and looted houses, as well as desecrated the San Jose Chapel, under the orders of Esmail Abubakar (alias Commander Bungos), a former leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The attack left eight dead, including six BIFF members, and 10 injured. Also killed were Abraham Cutay, a member of the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU), and Towan Dading Ismael, a farmer.

A letter to Duterte, written in Filipino, was recovered from the scene. “Duterte is asking help from everywhere. Why can’t he finish us? I am ISIS, be careful Duterte, you cannot hide. We will kill you,” it read, referring to IS by a different acronym.

Governments need to understand that even among groups not embracing the ideology, there are members influenced by IS. The support within ASG was one of the key reasons that Abu Sayyaf leader Radulan Sahiron did not fight his deputy Isnilon Hapilon, when he broke away and formed Islamic State Philippines.

Considering the long-term threat the Philippines is facing, it is essential to revive a task force similar to the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, which was created in 2002 to fight ASG, JI and other terrorists. The United States deployed 1,200 special forces and general purpose soldiers and intelligence personnel to Mindanao, from 2002 to 2015, to train and advise Philippine units.

As U.S. counter-terrorism is 10 to 20 years more advanced than similar Chinese programs, a partnership to generate high-quality and high-grade intelligence, superior weapons and equipment, training and retraining is essential.

Today, the Philippine military and intelligence community is not large enough to meet the IS-centric challenge. Because IS is localized to Marawi, the Philippine security forces have been able to manage the threat because of a 15 to 1 troop to terrorist ratio.

Daily events kept the newly established support base intact and attracted foreign fighters. Additionally, online supporters and sympathizers are creating a permanent pool of IS activists. Online supporters are threatening government leaders, officials, scholars, academics and writers. Unfortunately governments have no effective counter-propaganda campaign.

Global implications

Marawi is a domestic conflict but with regional and global implications. As IS expands, it will gather operational and ideological momentum in different parts of the world. Insurgency, terrorism, extremism and exclusivism will characterize the new landscape.

With IS establishing and sustaining a nucleus in the Philippines, the essential first step for regional governments is to support Manila. Timely military and generous humanitarian assistance to the Philippines is essential for future peace and security of the region. Governments in the region can maintain its stability and security, but only if they can work together in a partnership.

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.

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