The Philippine government’s delay in rebuilding Marawi nearly three years after pro-Islamic State militants ransacked the southern city is encouraging recruitment of new fighters and could provoke an uprising among displaced residents, the head of a local NGO warned Tuesday.
Many residents who remain uprooted are frustrated, especially young people who lost relatives and friends during the 2017 takeover by Islamic State-linked fighters and battle with government forces, said Drieza Lininding, chairman of the Moro Consensus Group of Marawi.
“Not only does it encourage recruitment of ISIS militants, but what I fear most is in the near future is that those affected by the displacement might organize and rise against the government,” Lininding told BenarNews, using the other acronym for the Islamic State (IS).
His group – an association of young professionals, academics and activists – is the main NGO that has been pushing for the government to rehabilitate the lakeside city, which was destroyed during the five-month battle and heavy bombardment by the Philippine military.
In Lininding’s opinion, IS-linked militant groups could exploit the slow rebuilding of Marawi to recruit disillusioned youths into their ranks.
“That is what we fear the most, that instead of them being swayed away from militancy, the opposite can happen,” he said.
Lininding was reacting to a report publicly released last week in which the lead inspector-general for the U.S. Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines (OPE-P) said that extended delays in Marawi’s reconstruction, combined with corruption tied to efforts to rebuild the city, was aiding the extremists’ recruitment drive.
The OPE-P is the overseas counterinsurgency operation designated by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to support the Philippine military’s campaign against IS fighters in the country’s south.
“Public anger at the Philippine government’s extended delays in providing for the reconstruction of Marawi has allowed extremist elements to regain a foothold in the city,” the report said, citing a U.S. Department of State cable from last November.
Reconstruction, it noted, continued to be “delayed this quarter due to multiple government corruption scandals,” it said, referring to the last three months of 2019.
“Extremist recruitment has outpaced the public benefits of rehabilitation in Marawi since the ISIS insurgency was defeated there in October 2017,” the report said.
The cable pointed to “a public perception that politically well-connected government contractors are enriching themselves at the expense of Marawi residents,” and this “has reinforced extremist anti-government narratives and contributed to terrorist recruitment,” the report added.
Philippine air force jets pounded Marawi in airstrikes during the 2017 battle to wrest the city from the militants who seized it in May that year. Officials said more than 1,200 people were killed, most of them militants, in the fighting that ended in October 2017.
While militants who survived the aerial bombings were chased out of Marawi, many have been engaged in recruitment drives to build up their forces, presumably for another large-scale attack, according to security analysts.
The OPE-P report quoted the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as saying that an estimated 7,490 housing units “were occupied, under construction or planned for construction” for Marawi residents, but an additional 4,455 units would still be needed for tens of thousands of evacuees.
Philippine government and military officials who were contacted by BenarNews on Tuesday declined to comment on the findings of the U.S. report.
The OPE-P quarterly report, which covers the last quarter of 2019, was submitted to the American Congress earlier this month. However, it was unclear whether the joint anti-terror campaign would proceed after President Rodrigo Duterte decided last week to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement with the Americans.
Adopted in 1999, the VFA allows for joint military exercises and operations after the U.S. vacated two of its largest overseas military installations – the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base. In 2017, some of that training was put into action as U.S. intelligence officers aided Philippine troops in their successful battle against militants in Marawi.
Analyst: ‘There’s a possibility of recruitment’
Local militants were likely hobbled by the death of Abu Dar or Humam Abdul Najib, one of the militants leaders expected to succeed Isnilon Hapilon, the overall IS regional leader who was killed during the Marawi siege, a security analyst said.
Abu Dar was killed in March 2019 during a gun battle with security forces in the southern province of Lanao del Sur. After his death, the overall IS leadership in the southern Philippines was transferred to Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, a little-known militant based in Jolo island, where recent terror attacks have been concentrated.
Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said “there’s a possibility of recruitment into militant groups” even though the IS may have lost its appeal in Marawi after it was largely defeated in the Middle East and following Abu Dar’s death.
Filipino officials, however, have expressed concern over the possibility that a new armed group from the Maranao ethnic clan from Lanao province could emerge to “capitalize on unhappiness with the pace of Marawi rebuilding,” Jones told BenarNews.
“In short, we have a lot of simmering frustration, but no clear outlet for the anger,” she said.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, Philippine military chief Gen. Felimon Santos ordered troops to end the IS in the south.
“I am 100-percent sure we can achieve our mission,” Santos told military commanders during a visit to the southern city of Zamboanga. “Let us maintain the momentum and let us not relax, let us not put down our guards and continue until we finish them.”
BenarNews staff in Washington contributed to this report.