Until the recent crisis began, Marawi was not on many people’s radar. Marawi is a small town in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines. Seemingly out of nowhere, a few months ago the city was taken by extremist militants and declared the regional headquarters of ISIS in Southeast Asia. Marawi has subsequently been besieged by Philippine government troops aiming to destroy the militants, and martial law has been declared across the whole of Mindanao. The abruptness of Marawi’s entry into the regional policy spotlight has blindsided many policymakers.
In the media storm that has followed the Marawi crisis since it began in May, one question that really hasn’t received enough attention is: Why Marawi? In recent years, most of the major Salafi jihadist action in Southeast Asia has occurred in Indonesia and Malaysia, not the Philippines. Indeed, it’s likely that when Filipino Abu-Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon was dubbed by ISIS’ head Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi as Emir of the Southeast Asian wilayat (a province of the caliphate), many Indonesian jihadis would surely have been disappointed that they were overlooked. Until the crisis began, most regional security pundits would have been paying less attention to the southern Philippines than they were to groups like Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia. And since Hapilon himself mostly operates out of his headquarters in Basilan, it makes sense that Marawi would not have necessarily been on the radar for many analysts.
So how did this small university town in rural Mindanao become the center of ISIS activity in Southeast Asia? The best way to answer this question is to look at the actors involved and their motives and capabilities. The militant group behind the Marawi Crisis is composed primarily of members of the Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf. The Maute Group is led by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, members of the powerful local Maute clan, which is based around Lake Lanao, near Marawi City. Abu Sayyaf is an extremist group that has been operating in the nearby Sulu archipelago, engaging in piracy, extortion, bombings, and assassination since 1991. The group is led by Isnilon Hapilon, who cut his teeth with the Moro National Liberation Front in the 1980s and 1990s. As previously mentioned, Abu Sayyaf doesn’t appear to have had a strong, direct prior connection with Marawi city. However, prior to the crisis the Maute Group was already operating there.
The Mautes are a strong local political family, and the mother of the Maute Brothers is an influential matriarch. The broader Maute clan is reported to have been engaged in a Rido (blood-feud) with the Mayor of Butig over a local government contract not being awarded to them. Butig is about a 2-hour drive south of Marawi city, and backs onto Lake Lanao – which is also adjacent to Marawi. The Maute brothers had also been raising revenue by conducting a protection racket in Butig. They conducted the October 2016 Davao City bombing. A few months later the group took control of several major public buildings in Butig, including the town hall, madrasa, and national high school. They were quickly pushed out of the city by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
It seems that shortly after this, they linked up with Isnilon Hapilon (the leader of Abu Sayyaf), who brought a new level of paramilitary expertise and resources to their cause through his ISIS affiliation. The combined grouping was subsequently able to capture and hold Marawi city for several months. Marawi may also have been an attractive target to ISIS leadership, including Hapilon for symbolic reasons; Marawi’s official designation is “The Islamic City of Marawi” – the only officially recognized Islamic city in the Philippines.
How Did It Get So Bad?
Through Hapilon, ISIS has provided an influx of supplies, ammunition, high-tech communications equipment and foreign fighters from the Middle East and Chechnya. These foreign fighters have brought a much higher level of know-how and experience in conducting urban guerrilla warfare, and have used this expertise to good effect in showing the Filipino militants how to resist the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
By contrast, the AFP is poorly equipped and inexperienced in conducting urban counterinsurgency operations. The AFP’s prior counterinsurgency work has mostly, though not exclusively been against communist rebels engaging in jungle warfare. For this reason among others, many say the AFP doesn’t have the technical expertise to target insurgents in an urban environment without destroying densely-packed infrastructure. The result has been a protracted siege that has effectively flattened Marawi city – resulting in a massive and ongoing humanitarian crisis.
The Humanitarian Crisis — Frustration and Radicalization
More than 200,000 people are now internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Mindanao because of the Marawi crisis. Martial law has been in place since May. Frustration is high and mounting amongst the IDPs from Marawi. Local sources indicate they are mostly scattered across the country and staying with friends and relatives. Because martial law was declared so suddenly, most of these people had to leave their personal possessions and identification documents in their homes, many of which have now been destroyed by the AFP’s indiscriminate airstrike campaign. This makes it much harder to keep track of them and to provide aid to them.
Lack of aid, ongoing internal displacement, and the destruction of homes is likely to further play into the narratives used by terrorist recruiters looking to radicalize young people in the Philippines. Estimates of civilian casualties vary, but go as high as 300, and many of these will have been parents. This indicates the protracted crisis could pay dividends for terrorists and terrorist recruiters for years to come.
Additionally, not all of the militants have been killed. Recent reports indicate roughly 40 are still alive and operating in Marawi, and some have been captured and imprisoned by the AFP. If these militants are turned over to the Philippine justice system they will likely be placed in prisons in the Philippines. The Philippine prison system is notoriously overcrowded and under-resourced. Studies by the Australian National University’s Dr. Clarke Jones and others indicate that overcrowded, poorly resourced prisons in the Philippines and Indonesia can serve as recruiting grounds for the spread of violent radicalism.
What Can Be Done to Minimize the Damage?
Many parties in the Philippines and internationally have an interest in minimizing the damage caused by the Marawi crisis and associated humanitarian disaster. From a purely humanitarian perspective, there is an ethical imperative to minimize the damage and help the displaced inhabitants of Marawi to return to their homes as soon as possible and resume normal life. From a regional security perspective, there is the same imperative. The longer the crisis continues, and the longer that the associated humanitarian problems continue, the more that public dissatisfaction will grow, increasing the chances of young people being radicalized.
So what can be done to contribute to the securing and rebuilding of Marawi, and a return to normalcy for the local people? Fast and effective aid and rehabilitation assistance is critical in minimizing the social and economic damage that has been caused by the crisis. But this assistance must be appropriately tailored to the specific needs and cultural context of the people of Marawi, otherwise it runs the risk of being ineffective or even counterproductive. For the famously proud and independent Bangsamoro people, martial law has been going on far too long, and signals a loss of control and autonomy. The battle needs to be won and the city cleared quickly. The aid, rebuilding, and rehabilitation effort needs to commence as soon as possible, and to be conducted in a way that consults and prioritizes the interests of local residents.
Rory MacNeil is currently completing his MA thesis in International Relations at the Australian National University (ANU). His research focus is on petro-politics in the Asia Pacific region. He also works as a Research Assistant at the ANU Philippines Project.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said Abus Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon’s headquarters was in Jolo, it is in Basilan; a rival Abu Sayyaf faction is headquartered in Jolo.