On 23 May, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao following the Maute Group’s brazen siege of Marawi, a city of 200,000. Eighty percent of the population fled and the conflict has continued. It remains a severe humanitarian challenge.
The declaration of martial law has provoked concerns from human rights activists, civil society, and opposition politicians who have documented the sharp reversals to the rule of law since Duterte’s May 2016 election, most notably the extrajudicial killing of more than 8,000 in his war on drugs. The security situation has clearly been devolving in the southern Philippines since 2015, though it has accelerated under Duterte.
The siege raises five interconnected questions which require a closer look. First, who is behind the siege and what threats do they pose? Second, what is the role of foreign fighters? Third, is the Philippine military up to the task? Fourth, is martial law a panacea, as Duterte at times appears to be suggesting, and will it lead to improve security situation in the Philippines? And lastly, does Duterte have a strategy to deal with the myriad of interconnected threats in Mindanao?
The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria revitalized terrorist networks in Southeast Asia. The Abu Sayyaf’s Isnilon Hapilon was the first to declare allegiance, followed by several splinters and cells in Indonesia, notably the Mujahideen Indonesia Timur (MIT). Late 2014-15 saw a steady proliferation of “black flag groups,” including Ansharaut al-Khalifa-Philippines (AKP) and the Maute Group. It was not until January 2016 that IS recognized any Southeast Asian grouping, perhaps out of preoccupation or perhaps hoping to see which Southeast Asian group emerged on top.
In the end, IS recognized Isnilon Hapilon as the leader and called on other groups to serve as “battalions.” Hapilon recently fled his base area in Basilan and took up with the Maute group, which has been growing steadily. Hapilon in some ways is constrained by being linked to the Abu Sayyaf, most of which has been involved in kidnap for ransoms widely deemed as un-Islamic.
Militants in the Philippines and the region have turned to the AKP and Maute as bonafide jihadists. They have launched several important jail breaks, which IS media have taken credit for, and in September 2016 bombed Davao, Duterte’s home town, killing 14 and wounding 70. They were implicated in an attempted bombing near the U.S. embassy in Manila in November 28. Ominously, in February 2016, the Maute group emulated IS, by beheading two orange-suited captives, on camera.
But they also have a history of sieging towns and cities, including a 10 day siege in Lanao del Sur that displaced 30,000. On November 30, 2016, the Maute group raided Butig city, staging a five day siege, before being driven out.
In the current siege, they were able to amass several hundred fighters, according to the Philippine military. Some 90 were reportedly killed after more than a week of fighting. Central IS media has taken credit for the attack.
In terrorism literature, there is a concept termed “outbidding,” whereby small rival cells and groups in competition for recruits, attention, and resources engage in a cycle of escalatory attacks. Only by causing mass casualties will small fringe groups get the attention of large groups like the Islamic State, and at the same time win over supporters who see such attacks, not as acts of barbarism, but of empowerment and strength. Right now, the Maute group is surging because they have proven themselves to be the most consistently lethal group in the region, able to challenge the Philippine state. But even still, there is evidence that they bolster their ranks with the use of child soldiers.
The Role of Foreign Fighters
The Philippine Solicitor-General Jose Calida said that the unrest in Mindanao has “transmogrified into invasion by foreign terrorists who heeded the clarion call of the Islamic State to go to the Philippines if they find difficulty in going to Iraq and Syria.” Indeed, it was in part this “invasion” that the Duterte administration used to constitutionally justify martial law.
Yes, there are foreign fighters. But no, this is not an invasion.
As of June 1, the Philippine military claims that some eight foreign fighters have been killed in the fighting, including two Malaysians, two Indonesians, two Saudis, a Yemeni, and a Chechen, and they claim that there are many more. Recently a Moroccan was killed with the Hapilon’s men in Basilan, and two Bangladeshis were arrested in Malaysia en route to the southern Philippines. The pipeline is open.
The vast ungoverned spaces of the southern Philippines has long attracted foreign fighters, first from Al Qaeda and its regional affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah, and now from IS-affiliates. Unlike any other IS-linked groups and cells in Malaysia or Indonesia, Maute, the ASG, AKP, and other Moro groups control territory. Not only is this space to train and regroup, this is a proto-state. You can’t be a wiliyat, a province of the Islamic State, unless you physically control territory. So for IS militants, Mindanao will continue to be a draw. And what is clear is that the southern Philippines is once again a regional security threat.
Owing to a surge in Abu Sayyaf maritime kidnappings, 19 since March 2016, that has resulted in the capture of 70 sailors and fishermen from six countries, and the death of five more. Indonesian, Malaysia, and the Philippines signed a trilateral maritime policing agreement in August 2016. For a number of reasons, including the weak maritime capabilities of Indonesia and the Philippines, territorial disputes, and a lingering sense of mistrust, the agreement has still not been implemented. Yet it would help in controlling the flow of militants in and out of the southern Philippines.
The Philippine Military
After weeks of fighting, the Philippine military has been unable to dislodge the Maute Group from Malawi, a relatively small city. Though they claim Maute had amassed 500 fighters, there is little evidence of this from any reporters on the ground. To be fair, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has very little experience in urban warfare, and street to street fighting is very hard. But there is ample reason to be critical of the AFP’s performance.
First, the whole siege began with a botched raid; and there is compelling evidence that the Maute Group set a very effective ambush for them.
Second, the AFP cannot claim to have been taken by surprise. The Maute group has sieged towns and cities twice in 2016. This is part of their playbook.
Third, they have used artillery and “dumb” gravity aerial munitions on an urban environment inhabited by civilians. Indeed, a tragic air attack on June 1 led to the death of 10 AFP in a friendly fire incident; seven more were wounded. Friendly fire incidents are a fact of war, but the lack of training is very apparent. As former Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) commander Col. Dave Maxwell (Ret) put it in his blog, “Training is perishable and if it is not sustained you will have incidents like this.” The AFP made a big show of deploying some of their new F-50 jet fighters to Malawi, but the lack of resources for training almost ensures that more civilians and soldiers are in the line of fire.
Fourth, the AFP has received ample training and an average $50 million in assistance from the United States in counter-terrorism since 2002. Australia and other donors have likewise provided training and assistance. Though the United States disbanded the joint special operations task force, a skeleton crew remains providing intelligence. Duterte had called for their removal, but has walked that demand back, owing to pressure from his own military.
The responsibility for the AFP’s poor performance falls on Duterte, who has made his war on drugs his priority issue, rather than domestic security, despite ample evidence of a rapidly deteriorating situation. He has spoken of giving the AFP a constabulary role to support the police in their brutal campaign of extra-judicial killings. This diverts scarce resources from the mission.
The Limits of Martial Law
The Philippine solicitor general said that “given the above clear and present dangers and atrocities happening in Mindanao, especially in Marawi City, it is the President’s constitutional duty to unsheathe the Republic’s sword of martial law to crush the rebellion that threatens to divide our country.” But is martial law a panacea and will it lead to improve security situation in the Philippines?
No, and in fact the AFP, itself, did not request it and has done much to distance itself from it. Aware of its very tarnished reputation from the Marcos era, the AFP has pledged to respect the rule of law and human rights.
The AFP is also all too aware of its own limited capabilities. Since the early 1970s, it has proven unable to defeat any Moro force, with or without martial law. They are aware that the suspension of habeas corpus does not give them substantially new powers and is ripe for abuse. And peace advocate Benny Bacani has warned that in the context of past human rights abuses, it will most likely be counter-productive in Mindanao, despite broader national support.
And with Duterte hinting that he could extend the open-ended martial law decree to the Visayas and possibly nationally, this could be an enormous setback to the Philippines some 31 years after the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown. That Congress has abdicated its oversight responsibilities has only empowered Duterte who has spoken about imposing martial law for two years now, and glorified the Marcos family dictatorship.
There is no military solution to this problem, and certainly not within the 60-day period of martial law. At the end of the day, insurgency is about governance. And martial law only compounds sharp declines in the rule of law and governance that have already taken place under Duterte.
Martial law could be counterproductive in another way. Although Duterte has conspicuously reached out to Russia and China to provide the Philippines with weaponry, it is highly unlikely that they will be able or willing to supplant the United States. Already one US Senator has put a hold on the sale of small arms to the Philippines National Police due to their involvement in extrajudicial killings in the war on drugs, infuriating Duterte. With the declaration of martial law will the Leahy Amendment kick in, jeopardizing a critical part of the AFP’s logistics?
The Strategy Question
When declaring martial law, Duterte insisted that it was so that he could “fix all of Mindanao’s problems.” This is typical thoughtless bravado from Duterte. The problems in Mindanao are deep and interconnected. There are multiple armed groups with differing goals and objectives. He declared martial law without a strategy. This is counterproductive and likely to make the situation worse.
Since the assault on Malawi, Duterte has reached out to the MILF, who has both remained committed to the peace process and has assisted in establishing a refugee corridor. Though the MILF is not involved in the siege of Marawi, they are central to any solution.
The MILF’s historic peace agreement with the government, reached in 2014, has been in legislative purgatory since the government’s botched raid in Mamasapano, left 44 police dead. Congressional hearings on the implementing legislation, the Bangsamoro Basic Law, stopped and were replaced by hearings on MILF culpability. Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, did not have or did not use his political capital to push through the legislation, especially in an election year, that saw four key senators campaigning for president. Even watered-down bills were not voted on. While both sides remain nominally committed to the peace process, skepticism and angst are growing.
Duterte is from Mindanao, and he does know that the Moros have been systematically mistreated by Manila. He has empathy, but he doesn’t have a strategy.
I have written highly skeptically about his commitment to peace with the MILF here. While he has nominally remained committed to the peace process, there are five key impediments. First, his inner circle of aids and advisors — Christian politicians from Mindanao — have been against the peace process. Second, he has not been willing to make the peace process a legislative priority, instead focusing his energies on his barbaric war on drugs and the restoration of the death penalty. Third he even tried to sidestep it, instead pushing for a constitutional amendment to establish federalism. This provoked a harsh backlash from the MILF, and he has since walked back his plan to scrap the Bangsamoro Basic Law. Duterte further complicated the situation by reaching out to his old friend, the former chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front, Nur Misuari, suspending his warrant for unrest for insurrection, and beginning a parallel peace process. This is unworkable and counter-productive. Even if he submits a bill to congress, it will be a watered down version of the 2014 bill, which will not go down well with the MILF.
The leaders of Maute and AKP emerged from MILF ranks or came from MILF families. The Philippine military has acknowledged that they have effectively recruited from disaffected members of the MILF, frustrated with the stalled peace process, and angry that none of the expected peace dividends have fallen their way. Duterte’s unwillingness to prioritize the BBL, plays into the hardline narrative that the Philippine government can never be trusted to negotiate honestly with the Muslim population, and that they can only achieve their goal through violence.
While the MILF leadership is publicly pledging support for the peace process, the reality is that until they see moves towards the implementation of their peace agreement, they have no incentive to act as a responsible stakeholder and police their territory. The proliferation of black flag groups in 2015 and 2016 in Southeast Asia was not so much the result of the spread of IS in Iraq and Syria as it was due the collapse of the peace process with the MILF, and the anger and mistrust towards the Philippine government that it engendered. If one looks at incidents of terrorism, political violence, and crime in Mindanao, they only declined when the peace process offered hope.
The AFP’s Western Mindanao Command was quick to publicly say that the martial law decree would not impact the peace process, which they remain committed to. Indeed, the poorly trained and ill-equipped AFP can ill afford broadening the conflict.
But the reality is that the AKP and other black flag groups operate in territory contiguous to or controlled by the MILF. More importantly, future AFP raids on the Maute group or AKP could pit them against MILF combatants, as what happened in the January 2015 Mamasapano raid.
In May 2016, the MILF’s top military commander in the Malawi region, Abdullah Macapagar (aka Commander Bravo), gave unprecedented interview to a French TV crew. He acknowledged the proliferation of IS groups in his territory and made it very clear that he was the key to their elimination. While filmed in front of an MILF flag, and still in MILF uniform, he sent a very clear signal to the government that any improvement in the security situation entailed a durable peace with the MILF.
There is no indication that Duterte was listening. And that has profound implications for the security not just of the Philippines, but of all Southeast Asia as well.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College and the author of Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation (2016). The views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect the position of the Department of Defense or National War College.