Smoke billows after aerial bombings by Philippine Air Force planes on Islamist militants'
As the seige of Marawi City by ISIS-linked militants from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups nears its two-month mark, the unsettling events unfolding in the southern Philippines serve as a grim reminder of a militancy and terrorism problem that threatens the security and stability of much of Southeast Asia.
Notwithstanding the urgency of the present security situation, the reality is that while these militants carry the imprimatur of the ominous black standards of ISIS, they are in fact part of an architecture of rebellion and expressions of a long legacy of intractable conflict that has plagued the region for decades.
While the Philippines is a predominantly Catholic society, a significant number of its citizens are followers of the Muslim faith residing in the southern islands of Mindanao, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, and the Sulu Archipelago. While many of these people hail from different ethnic backgrounds, they have come to be known collectively as Moro, or more recently, Bangsamoro. The Bangsamoro also share a history of difficult relations with central governing authorities that have ruled the Philippines, be it Spanish and American colonial administrations or the Philippine state.
Failed Spanish attempts to subdue the southern Philippines during their 350-year colonial rule are a source of pride in the collective memory of the Bangsamoro. The era of American colonialism, which began after the U.S. acquired the Philippines following the 1898 Spanish-American War, witnessed several further rebellions whose heroics have since entered into Bangsamoro legend.
Thousand of Marawi residents escaped the city in fear of ISIS-linked militants taking over the city. Some have taken shelter in the adjacent town of Baloi, as shown here on May 30, 2017. (Credit: Jes Aznar/Getty )
The independence of the Philippines in 1946 ushered in a period of further marginalization of local population and dispossession of ancestral lands, while weak local governance and corruption mired the Bangsamoro regions in poverty. By the 1970s, these deep-seated and longstanding grievances would find expression in the form of organized armed rebellion, mostly revolving around the Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF and later, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF.
Rising militant groups
Since the early 1990s, smaller factions have been breaking away from these traditional rebel organizations to form more militant entities. These include the Abu Sayyaf Group (comprising former MNLF fighters among others), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (a breakaway from the MILF) and the Maute Group.
While they claim to broadly share the objective of liberation of Bangsamoro lands from the rule of “Catholic Philippines” and the creation of an entity governed by Islamic precepts as they understand it, the means pursued to attain these ends are decidedly more violent, intolerant, indiscriminate and uncompromising -- involving kidnappings, beheadings, bombings, the seizure of towns, and armed confrontations with the military and police in the jungles and mountainous regions of Mindanao and Sulu.
Now that these groups have sworn allegiance to Islamic State and claim to represent them across Southeast Asia, the problem of terrorism and militancy has grown more acute. This invariably turns attention to the Philippine government’s counter-terrorism capacity and efforts, which have unfortunately been underwhelming.
Failed counter-terrorism efforts
Despite considerable investment and effort since the turn of the century on the part not only of the Philippine government but also its U.S. ally via Operation Enduring Freedom-Philipines (2002-2015), there has not been any significant reduction in militancy or terrorist capabilities in the region. On the contrary, the point can plausibly be made that in the southern Philippines, terrorism has in fact gathered pace in recent years, certainly in terms of profile and visibility, if not in the actual number of attacks, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of social media. Already, several attacks have appeared on the Islamic State’s notorious social media and propaganda platforms.
Philippine troops on their way to the frontline in the outskirts of Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on June 28, 2017. (Photo credit: TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Counter-terrorism efforts on the part of the Philippine government must assume greater urgency. These efforts must tackle issues of underdevelopment, lack of educational opportunities and poverty -- all of which have contributed to the creation of a pool of young recruits from which militant groups in the south tap.
Taking the threat seriously
From a security point of view, efforts must begin with an acknowledgement of the severity of the problem on the part of Philippine security officials and politicians. Prior to the Marawi siege, a not inconsequential segment of the Philippine security establishment still persisted in dismissing militant groups like the Abu Sayyaf Group as ragtag criminals and small-time bandits. Criminals and bandits they may be but they are hardly ragtag and small-time.
A faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group based in Basilan and under the presumptive leadership of Isnilon Hapilon, who has been recognized by local groups as leader of ISIS-Southeast Asia, are intensely ideological in their pursuit of violence. Another faction, based in Jolo and purportedly under the leadership of Radullah Sahiron, have developed a feared reputation as hardened criminals who kill without compunction.
In a sense, Marawi has proven the perfect storm by way of collaboration between Abu Sayyaf, Maute and foreign fighters mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia; it also laid bare the shortcomings of the Philippine security establishment and the urgent need for security sector reform by way of improved professionalism of the security services.
The weak link in Southeast Asia
Prior to Marawi, analysts and watchers (including myself) warned that the southern Philippines is the weak link in the counter-terrorism chain in Southeast Asia. Such is its vulnerability, the region is being talked about as a possible “wilayah” or province of the Islamic State. If anything, the Marawi siege has all but confirmed these observations.
Unless serious efforts--both nationally and in cooperation with regional and international partners--are taken by the Philippine government to strengthen the security, legislative, social, and economic tools at its disposal, the problems of militancy and terrorism in its southern islands are going to get worse before we catch any glimpse of a light at the end of the tunnel.
[Joseph Chinyong Liow is a professor of comparative and international politics and dean at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.]