As fighting in the southern Philippine City of Marawi recedes, there is much to take stock of. The six week siege of the city by the Islamic State pledged Maute Group and a faction of the Abu Sayyaf tested the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and it has led to a regional concern that Mindanao is, once again, a black hole in regional security. The toll was high: 70 members of the military and police, 27 civilians, and 290 militants were killed according to recent estimates, and more bodies are being recovered as security forces comb through the rubble. Over 246,000 civilians were displaced. The city is in ruins.
There is much to write about Marawi: the intelligence failure; the fact that the Maute Group had conducted a similar siege in Butig in November 2016; President Rodrigo Duterte’s single-minded attention on the war on drugs rather than the growing threat by terrorist groups. We can question Duterte’s decision and justification for declaring martial law. We can debate whether the decision to drawdown the U.S. Special Forces contingent in 2014 was the right one, or whether, if they had stayed, the AFP would have conducted itself better or more professionally. And we can analyze the rift between the AFP and Duterte over U.S. assistance and provision of intelligence.
But here I want to ask just one question: is another Marawi-style siege likely? And, relatedly, what this mean for the United States?
The answer to the first question is a definitive yes, and for five interrelated reasons:
1. The Militant Leadership is Largely in Tact
On June 22 the AFP acknowledged that the Isnilon Hapilon, the Maute brothers, and Mahmud Ahmad, the leading Malaysian militant had all fled the city. This is despite the fact that there are only three roads in and out of Marawi. So while the AFP claims that the militants suffered nearly 300 casualties, the charismatic leadership is able to regroup and plot anew. Leadership matters. Their success, in tying down the AFP for some six weeks, will attract followers and new recruits. They have every reason to be confident. They sieged cities on two occasions. They have proven themselves as committed jihadists, willing to take the fight to the Philippine government. And as will be discussed below, the pool of recruits is large and growing.
2. The Draw for Foreign Militants
While there is still a debate over the number of foreign militants who were involved in the fighting, there is no doubt they were there. The Philippine military claims that two Malaysians, two Indonesians, two Saudis, and a Yemeni and Chechen have been confirmed killed. The pipeline for militants is there. The Philippine military, without offering evidence, has suggested that as many as 89 combatants were foreign fighters. Indonesia estimates some 40 pro-Islamic State militants are currently engaged in fighting in the southern Philippines. Malaysia has estimated the number of its nationals in the 20s.
As the fortunes and territory of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) dwindle, more militants from Southeast Asia and Bangladesh will make their way to Mindanao. In a 2015 video, Southeast Asian militants based in Syria, implored their brethren to do just that, if they were unable to get to Iraq or Syria. And I think that it is very clear that the jihadist pendulum between focusing on the near and far enemy, is clearly swinging back to the former. I anticipate that militants across Southeast Asia will renew their focus on issues close to home, such as Mindanao and the plight of the Rohingya.
Moreover, Mindanao will continue to attract foreign fighters for one other critical reason: they control territory. Since the demise of the Mujahideen Indonesia Timur (MIT) in Mindanao, not a single al-Qaeda or ISIS-affiliated group in Southeast Asia outside of the southern Philippines controls physical space. At an operational level, a secure space is essential, to regroup, train, and plan attacks. Ungoverned space is key for the growth of militant groups. But it is more important at the strategic level: these groups aspire to be recognized as a province of the caliphate; and one cannot achieve that without physically controlling space. Only in the Philippines is this seemingly achievable in the near term.
Though trilateral maritime patrols have commenced in the Sulu Sea, the capabilities and resources of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines remain weak, and the borders remain very porous. It is a good start, but no panacea.
3. The MILF Peace Process
The leaders likely got away across Lake Lanao. And what lies there? The Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF) 102nd Base Command, led by Abdullah Macapagar, aka Commander Bravo.
Bravo is bellweather figure, whose comments and actions are worth studying. In 2007 and 2008, when the cabinet of President Arroyo rejected the draft peace agreement (MOA-AD) and the Supreme Court found it to be unconstitutional, a number of MILF base commanders began attacking Christian communities. Macapagar was one of them. Several others broke from the MILF leadership, and established the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which continues to fight the government to this day. Macapagar is the most influential of the Maranao constituents, and his base command is one of the most secure. He was critical of the peace process, but still supported the MILF’s 2014 peace accord. There were no signs that he was planning to defect or join forces with the BIFF.
In January 2015, the Philippine police conducted a botched counter-terrorism operation, that led to the death of 44 of their men. The backlash from that put the entire peace process on hold, at a time when the Philippine Congress was deliberating the implementing legislation, the Bangsamoro Basic Law. Since then, the peace process has been on hold.
In February 2016, Macapagar gave an unprecedented interview to a French TV crew. The imagery was very important. He was filmed in front of an MILF flag, with MILF insignia on his uniform. He acknowledged the spread of IS militants throughout his base command, and yet called them “brothers.” He was making it very clear the problem was bad, was going to get worse, and that he could police his territory were he to have sufficient reason to do so. The Maute’s November 2016 siege of Butig town and their filmed ISIS-style execution of two Christian “spies” were all done in the MILF’s heartland.
Whether the MILF’s provision of sanctuary to the Maute group is active or passive, remains up to dispute. The AFP, acknowledged during the Butig crisis, that the Maute group, at the very least was “taking advantage of the peace process,” aware that the government would not enter MILF territory. Duterte at the time, saw a complicit relationship and demanded that Macapagar be eliminated.
In the midst of the Marawi siege, Macapagar released a pre-recorded 17 minute video statement, calling the Maute group “misguided” — but not wrong — for engaging in jihad (legitimate) but endangering civilians (not legitimate). In it he called the Maute and Abu Sayyaf, “our younger brethren” and asked them to leave the city. His communications, somewhat full of bluster, somewhat garbled, are nonetheless very deliberate.
The MILF remains key to any solution. It was Macapagar’s men who opened up the relief corridor into the city, to help trapped civilians flee. But the MILF made clear they don’t want to be in position of “negotiating” with the Maute and Abu Sayyaf on behalf of the government, for it could reopen an avenue of attack that they have sway over or coddle terrorists. The MILF is in an untenable position.
Without a peace process, the MILF have no reasonable or logical incentive to act as a responsible stakeholder and police their territory. The MILF leadership has publicly stated their commitment to the peace process, and even decommissioned heavier crew-serviced weaponry. But it is very clear that they have been able to recruit from the ranks of the MILF, who have grown disenchanted with the stalled peace process, and who have seen no peace dividend. There is a direct correlation between the spread of pro-IS groups and cells in the Philippines with the collapse of the MILF peace process, following the Mamasapano incident in January 2015. How much longer can the MILF leadership maintain effective command and control?
A draft Bangsamoro Basic Law has been renegotiated by an enlarged Bangsamoro Transition Commission. It will soon be submitted to Duterte’s office. It’s transmission to Malacanang was immediately delayed. Even if you assume that Malacanang isn’t going to water it down, there is no guarantee that Duterte will make it a legislative priority, will spend the political capital to get the bill passed in Congress. Even if Duterte has promised a Bangsamoro homeland in three years, why should we expect Congress, in the aftermath of Marawi, to be willing to pass the law, when it wouldn’t pass it in 2015?
And then we need to consider the fact that Duterte is pursuing a separate agreement with the former MNLF chairman Nur Misuari, as well as trying to push through his signature campaign issue, amending the constitution to turn the Philippines into a federal system, with significant political and economic autonomy. These three goals are contradictory. You cannot have all three. And the MILF is very ambivalent towards federalism.
Militancy is about exclusion and until Moro youth feel that they have a reason to stop fighting, they will take up arms. If you were a Moro youth, and you saw the patent Islamaphobia in the congressional investigations over the Mamasapano clash in 2015, or viewed the government’s unwillingness to make the stalled peace talks a priority, or saw the AFP use artillery and gravity bombs on a civilian population, or hear President Duterte “joke” that it was alright for his soldiers rape women in Marawi or to engage in combat even if there were civilians, you might not feel that there was much space for you in the Philippine nation.
4. Duterte Himself
The next reason that Marawi is likely to happen again lies with Duterte himself. In trademark bluster, he recently warned: “The objective of ISIS is to kill and destroy. I will also kill and destroy!” But this was not the enemy he wanted or was ready for.
Let us be clear, Duterte is not going to defeat the militants through force, but that is exactly what he is opting for. His campaign of 8,000 extrajudicial killings did not end the sale of drugs on the streets, but he shows no sign of reversing course. Indeed, one of his cabinet officials dismissed the Maute’s ideological goals, and linked the siege to the desire to control the drug trade. His campaign against the Abu Sayyaf have not ended the group’s spate of kidnappings.
This is just his temperament.
Insurgencies flourish because of weak governance. Duterte’s contempt for the rule of law and democratic norms, his authoritarian tendencies, his campaign of extrajudicial killings, jailing of political opponents, routine threats to extend martial law beyond Mindanao, will collectively weaken the hardwood rule of law, governance and system of checks and balances that the Philippines has achieved in the past 30 years.
The Maute and Abu Sayyaf Group militants are likely to retreat and regroup to the mountainous hinterland that straddles Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao provinces, long the MILF heartland. If the AFP is tasked with going in hot pursuit of the militants, they almost definitely encounter MILF forces. And there is every reason to fear another Mamasapano-style “tragic encounter” that caused the peace process to collapse in 2015.
5. The Philippine Military’s Limited Capabilities
Even if Duterte thinks he can shoot his way out of this, the AFP is all too aware that it has neither the manpower nor resources to cope with the host of threats that it faces. The AFP was sorely tested and resources and manpower were stretched very thin in Marawi. Yes, urban combat is very hard and it is new for them.
In the midst of the Marawi siege, the BIFF staged a siege of a school in neighboring Maguindanao province. Were other fronts to open, the BIFF, the Ansuar al-Khalifa Philippines (AKP), a spate of ASG kidnappings, or should talks with the NPA break down, the AFP would be overwhelmed. There is too much space, and the AFP has such limited capabilities that similar attacks are inevitable.
Implications for U.S. Policy
There is no military solution to this conflict. It requires a holistic strategy. Sadly, there is none evidenced from Duterte. The next siege or spectacular attack is not a matter of if, but when. And that has grave implications, not just for Philippine, but regional security.
Some have argued that the Marawi conflict is drawing the United States and the Philippines back together, after Duterte’s lurch to China, and public distancing of ties to it treaty ally.
The United States provided significant amount of weapons during the siege, not to mention intelligence, including the deployment of P3s and drones. Could the United States continue to supply more weaponry? Perhaps. Duterte’s war on drugs have already led to one Senator putting a hold on the export of small arms to the Philippines. At what point does the deflation of martial law invoke Leahy Amendment sanctions?
The United States could offer training and assistance, but it should do so only with some very open eyes. After 14 years of a relatively successful mission, the security situation is worse than it ever was. And isn’t that the yardstick we need to measure such assistance by? Moreover, it’s very clear that Duterte himself does not welcome such assistance and training, preferring Chinese assistance, even though it pales in comparison with US aid.
And there are many reforms that the AFP is in dire need of, that, no matter how much U.S. assistance Washington provides, will need to be addressed: the nine to ten month tenure in armed forces chiefs, endemic corruption, and chronic under-investment in their military.
Until Duterte comes up with a holistic strategy, the United States should hold back on assistance. Washington is really good at “mowing the lawn” when it comes to jihadist groups around the world. But 16 years into the Global War on Terror, the field is growing, and mowing has proved to be an insufficient strategy, for both the United States and the Philippines.