Fighting jihadists in Mindanao: Simon Gray suggests that defeating the Islamic State in the Philippines requires more than military muscle.

AuthorGray, Simon

The threat posed to the Philippines by Islamic militants invoking the concept of jihad to condone the use of political violence, including terrorism/extremism, was profound in 2017. This was clear when local affiliates of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIL/ISIS/Daesh) extremist group known as the Islamic State-Eastern Region (ISER) took control of Marawi city on the southern, Muslim-majority island of Mindanao. This triggered a deadly five month-long siege--the largest battle in the Philippines since the Second World War--that eventually resulted in the Philippines' armed forces regaining control of the city in October. President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi 'liberated' and the ISER defeated.

Although representing an unprecedented level of penetration by the Islamic State into the Philippines, as well as wider Southeast Asia, the ISER is the latest in, and is linked to, a long line of Islamic militant groups to have emerged in that state since independence. Extremism in the Philippines is inherent as a result of a range of enduring societal events and conditions that underpinned the rise of the ISER, which survives despite being defeated militarily in Marawi. In the aftermath of Marawi, the ISER presents an enduring threat that will likely regenerate and/or morph if countermeasures fail to stem key generators of radicalisation in Mindanao. This article will oudine key developments linked to the rise of the ISER and its enduring threat post-Marawi, as well as challenges ahead, and suggest an effective course of action to counter its ability to successfully regenerate and/or morph.

ISER rising

In 2016 a faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) militants merged with the so-called Maute Group (also known as the Islamic State of Lanao) and breakaway fighters from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), as well as a number of Islamic State fighters who had fought in Iraq and Syria, to establish the ISER. All of these groups shared a common extremist worldview manifest in their respective jihadist ideologies. Their origins, and hence that of the ISER, are rooted in successive phases of radicalisation linked to peace talks concerning an Islamic state in Mindanao which date back to the 1970s.

The process was triggered when the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) signed the Tripoli Agreement in 1976. This laid the framework for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, signed into law by Philippines President Cory C. Aquino in 1989. However, elements within the MNLF that held more radical views and rejected the agreement broke away to form the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 1977. The MILF carried out political violence, including terrorism, and established links with Osama bin Laden in 1980, sending some 700 fighters to join his mujahedin forces during the Afghan-Jihad' (1979-89) against the Soviets. (1)

After some twenty years of conflict, the MILF entered into peace talks with Manila in 1997, though these were on and off and violence continued. However, in 2011 the MILF abandoned its objective of an independent Muslim state, instead favouring greater autonomy through the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, as well as the implementation of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. As a result, extremist elements within the group split from the MILF, which they viewed as having abandoned the jihad for an Islamic state. This triggered the formation of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, while others formed the Maute Group in 2012. Founded by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, the Maute Group established an Islamic sub-state entity known as the Islamic State of Lanao in the remote Municipality of Butig on Mindanao, where the group conducted a protection racketeering scheme and clashed with the Philippines military forces.

Simultaneously, an increasingly extremist faction led by Isnilon Hapilon achieved dominance within the Abu Sayyaf Group. It, too, had been closely...

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