The so-called liberation of Marawi — now running past 100 days — is entering its final stage, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is about to wage its “one big battle” to neutralize the remaining Islamic State-inspired militants holed up in the battered city. According to the AFP, there are still 50-60 terrorists left and close quarters combat is already confined to 500 square meters within the city. Meanwhile, the Philippine Air Force (PAF) FA-50 planes continue to provide air support to the advancing troops by bombing high-rise defensive positions. To prevent further influx of local and foreign militants, the AFP is intensifying its interception operations over land and sea: members of the Philippine Army (PA) were able to arrest suspected militants who were en route to reinforce their beleaguered comrades while the Philippine Navy (PN), working hand-in-hand with its Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts, officially launched the trilateral agreement on joint patrols to disrupt the flow of armed elements along the country’s porous southern borders.
Arguably, the tide of war is turning in favor of the Philippine security forces, albeit at a high human and material cost. Based on reports by Philippine authorities, 136 soldiers and 620 enemies were killed on the eve of Eid al-Adha. Furthermore, more than 400,000 people have been displaced since the eruption of the conflict. The NDRRMC Operations Center reported that 5,055 families (27,335 persons) stay in 89 evacuation centers while 98,846 families (442,981 persons) live with relatives and friends. Among these, Department of Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial said that 40 home-based Marawi evacuees already died. Department of National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also said that the war has already bled Php 3 billion ($58.8 million) from government coffers.
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Notwithstanding the Philippine military’s widely anticipated Pyrrhic victory over the ISIS-inspired militants, darker clouds could be seen on the horizon. The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) disclosed that there are still 20 active terror cells in the country working closely with the Maute-Abu Sayyaf-Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) tripartite alliance in Marawi together with one more ISIS-linked group, the Ansarul Khilafah Philippines (AKP). Given the tightened security around Marawi, members of these terror cells may opt to capture other nearby vulnerable cities and villages in Mindanao or launch terror attacks (i.e. bombing of government and/or commercial establishments) in distant megacities such as Metro Manila, Cebu, or Davao to break the concentration of forces and undermine the morale of troops in Marawi as well as sow fear and discord among the general public.
Furthermore, formal counterterrorism cooperation between the Philippines and the United States, through Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTFP) has remained deactivated since 2015. This paved way to a shift — or in other words, a downscaling — in U.S. involvement with counterterrorism operations in the Philippines from advising and assisting Filipino troops down to the tactical level to merely providing advice and assistance at the operational and strategic levels of command. In addition, President Rodrigo Duterte’s ambivalence toward the United States in pursuit of closer trade, commercial, and defense ties with China and Russia continues to cast doubt over the strategic utility of the annual Balikatan Exercises in the overall counterterrorism thrust given the heightened risk of further reduction of American (and other foreign allied) troops assisting the Filipino forces. Furthermore, Oliver Ward reports that U.S. Non-Proliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining and Related Programs (NADR) funding for Philippine counterinsurgency operations shrank from $6.1 million in 2015 to $3.6 million in 2017. Unless the JSOTFP is reactivated, the Balikatan Exercises re-expanded, and U.S. NADR funding increased, the overall extent of Washington’s (as well as Japan’s and Australia’s) provision of material, financial, technical, logistical, and intelligence support to Manila’s counterterrorism efforts will remain limited at a critical juncture when ISIS is eyeing at Mindanao as its primary operational base in Southeast Asia.
The proliferation of ISIS terror cells beyond the country’s borders is a cause of serious concern as well: TNI Chief Gatot Nurmantyo admitted that there are already ISIS sleeper cells in all Indonesian provinces, except Papua. Malaysian Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar discovered the presence of a new ISIS extremist cell that intended to transform Sabah into a transit point for sending more ISIS members to the Philippines. Then another cell of ISIS militants based in the state of Kelantan has been found to be smuggling weapons from southern Thailand into Malaysia to prepare for terror attacks in Malaysia and abroad. Lastly, Malaysian police counterterrorism division head Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told reporters that Myanmar is likely to be the target of ISIS terror attack (and possibly, even the new incubator for ISIS militancy) in light of the alleged persecution of Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine state. Worryingly, these sporadic ISIS terror cells are likely to exploit the constellation of factors, namely growing traffic of returning battle-hardened jihadists from Iraq and Syria, domestic political turmoil, weak regulative mechanisms in cyberspace, and obscurity of anti-terror laws in host countries, in order to boost their regional presence and influence, improve their coordination, and enhance their guerrilla strategies and tactics in modern urban warfare.
Toward Comprehensive Security
While it is laudable for the Philippine defense and security establishment to devote its energies to quelling the remaining ISIS-inspired terrorists in Marawi, it is equally important for it to take a more proactive approach in crippling the terror network, infrastructure, and lifeline of other militant groups before they conduct another Marawi-style territorial occupation or launch other terroristic activities. With the Philippine military’s latest anti-terror campaign plan, the Development Support and Security Plan (DSSP) Kapayapaan, already in effect, the AFP ought to effectively carry out a full-spectrum counterterrorism response, which includes: enhancement of intelligence-gathering operations, disruption of flow of funds and ammunition, interception of suspected terrorists, countering of ISIS online propaganda, and sustainment of surgical strikes in order to deny the terrorists safe haven in Mindanao with the least possible civilian casualties and property damages.
In order to facilitate the implementation such actions, the Duterte administration should prioritize the passage of the proposed National Security Act. This shall empower the Philippine president through the National Security Council (NSC) and aided by the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) to gain more effective command and control over the AFP as well as other law enforcement agencies, i.e. Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in the fight against terrorism, and bestow upon him greater flexibility and autonomy to forge defense and security agreements with government and non-government stakeholders both locally and internationally.
In addition, given that the AFP has been extensively engaged in jungle warfare and is relatively new to ISIS-style modern urban warfare, it is imperative for the Philippine military to strengthen its defense ties with countries that have relatively well-established doctrines, operational concepts, strategies, tactics, and facilities for that purpose. Hence, it may opt to reactivate the JSOTFP and re-expand the Balikatan Exercises in order for the U.S. as well as Japanese and Australian governments to be able to provide more extensive material, technical, logistical, and intelligence support to Filipino troops on tactical, operational, and strategic levels of command. To facilitate institutional learning in modern urban warfare against ISIS-inspired militants, the AFP may also opt to consider entering into formal cooperation with other countries with relatively rich corpus of knowledge and experience in counterterrorism, such as Singapore and Israel.
Furthermore, the proliferation of multinational ISIS terror cells within the Philippines’ borders and across its neighboring countries in Southeast Asia necessitates the Philippine government to carefully reexamine Article XVIII Section 25 of the 1987 Constitution — which imposes legal and constitutional restrictions to the entry of foreign troops — and adopt needed adjustments for the future Federal Constitution. In line with this, the Philippine government should openly discuss with its ASEAN counterparts the possibility of putting more flesh to the bones of ASEAN commitment to comprehensive security by reviewing the 2001 ASEAN Declaration on Joint Action to Counter Terrorism framework as well as liberalizing the interpretation of “non-interference” — the fifth principle in the ASEAN Charter, which could well become a legal, political and normative obstacle to regionalizing the ISIS terror threat and adopting a more coordinated, effective, and expedient counterterrorist response at the regional level. These radical steps will then enable special units of the AFP as well as the PNP and PCG to upgrade their mode of conducting anti-terror operations with fellow ASEAN militaries and law enforcement agencies from mere intelligence sharing and joint maritime patrols to joint combat operations through the creation and deployment of a fully capable joint multinational force upon formal request of the Philippine government or any other ASEAN member-state in distress.
Resolving the Bangsamoro Question
From a strategic perspective, the AFP should not lose sight of the deeper security, governance, and development issues that are likely to perpetuate conditions for another territorial takeover or terror attack by ISIS-inspired militants in the Philippines. Given that the ISIS threat in Mindanao is deeply intertwined with the Moro Question and the ongoing contestation for the future social, political, and economic order of the Bangsamoro, the AFP should fully support the painstaking efforts of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the two largest Moro insurgent groups in Mindanao, to harmonize their respective peace agreements — the 1976 Tripoli Peace Agreement, the 1996 Jakarta Peace Agreement, and the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro — within the framework of the Bangsamoro Coordination Forum (BCF).
Most importantly, the AFP should fully support the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) deemed as the enduring political solution to the decades-old Moro insurgency. Working hand-in-hand with other government agencies, business community, civil society groups, and other stakeholders in accordance with the Peace and Development Roadmap of the Duterte Administration, the AFP should assist in establishing peace and order, building strong institutions of governance, and bringing opportunities for socio-economic empowerment in the region. By addressing the structural causes of radicalization and violent extremism in Mindanao, one could delegitimize Islamic State’s distorted vision of an Islamic Caliphate, deny ISIS-inspired militants a rallying cause, and hence, prevent another city or village from descending into another Marawi.
Mark Davis Madarang Pablo is Senior Research Associate, Security and East Asia Affairs Program at Stratbase – Albert del Rosario Institute, an independent strategic research organization based in Makati City, Philippines.