A Year After Marawi, What’s Left of ISIS in the Philippines?

Recent Features

Features | Security | Southeast Asia

A Year After Marawi, What’s Left of ISIS in the Philippines?

What became of the ISIS-linked groups in Mindanao after the Marawi siege?

A Year After Marawi, What’s Left of ISIS in the Philippines?

Philippine troops on deployment in Marawi city in southern Philippines after almost five months of siege by pro-Islamic State group militants (Oct. 17, 2017).

Credit: AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

October 23 marked one year since the Philippine armed forces declared an end to combat operations in Marawi, bringing a brutal five-month urban siege that pitted government troops against radical Islamic State-linked militants to a close. The conflict devastated the city, cost more than 1,000 lives, and prompted more than 300,000 terrified residents to flee their homes. Many are yet to return, while the large Muslim-majority southern island of Mindanao – on which the historic Islamic city of Marawi sits on the shores of Lake Lanao in the northwest – has remained under a state of martial law ever since.

A year on, the rebuilding of Marawi’s central Banggolo district – which bore the brunt of the fighting – is about to begin, with an initial ground-breaking ceremony due to be held on October 31. But what became of the radical militants who wreaked such carnage on behalf of the Islamic State (ISIS)? Those who fought in the siege came primarily from four ISIS-aligned groups based in the region: the Mautes, Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Ansar Khalifah Philippines (AKP). What fate befell these groups after the fighting in Marawi subsided? And could a similar siege happen again?

ISIS-Aligned Groups’ Combined Assault on Marawi

To better understand the trajectories of these groups over the past year, it is first essential to retrace what happened in Marawi. In the mid-afternoon of May 23, 2017, a contingent of Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) troops moved into the center of Marawi in an attempt to capture one of Southeast Asia’s most wanted militants – notorious Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon. The army was acting upon intelligence reports that he was hiding out along with a small cohort of followers. The troops were met with a response far greater than anticipated, as hundreds of militants emerged from the shadows to overrun the city, take hostages, and raise the black flag of the Islamic State. The initial clashes soon escalated into intractable urban warfare, prompting the mass evacuation of residents.

Fierce fighting ensued for five long months. The siege was characterized by gun battles on the streets, troops coming under enemy sniper fire, and government air attacks that flattened much of the city. The combined Islamic State forces – made up mostly of Maute and Abu Sayyaf militants, supported by the BIFF and AKP – were stronger and better resourced than expected, taking the military by surprise. After more than 160 troops, 900 militants, and 50 civilians perished, the jihadis were finally dislodged last October, just days after security forces killed senior militant leader Omar Maute – and the target of their initial raid, Isnilon Hapilon – during the final throes of battle. The uprising organized by these men – which aimed to carve out a Middle Eastern-style Islamic caliphate in Southeast Asia – was over. What now remains of their followers who survived the siege, and do they still harbor such ambitions?

Maute Remnants Looking to Regroup in Lanao del Sur

The Maute group – chief architects of the siege – incurred heavy losses in Marawi. Most of its fighters died during battle and the organization disintegrated as the majority of its senior leaders – including brothers Abdullah and Omar – were killed. While the Mautes led the onslaught, they have since been the least active of the groups which took part. Maute remnants have lain low in the province of Lanao del Sur, while intelligence reports have suggested the group is attempting to recruit young men from impoverished communities to slowly rebuild its ranks.

The Mautes have engaged in shootouts with government troops on several occasions in the past year, indicating the group retains a limited fighting capacity. Small-scale clashes and attacks, resulting in a handful of deaths, have occurred in the Lanao del Sur towns of Marantao, Masiu, Piagapo, and Tubaran. Violence has also erupted in the Lanao del Norte towns of Pantar and Tagoloan. Yet no major clashes have sparked and the group is thought to have less than 100 members, who are loosely affiliated rather than operating under a centralized leadership.

However, the Mautes should not be written off entirely. The group could yet regain strength and re-emerge under new leader Abu Dar, who the army has described as Islamic State’s new chief in Southeast Asia.

Abu Sayyaf’s Declining Influence in Mindanao

Like the Mautes, their co-conspirators Abu Sayyaf also suffered heavy losses in the siege. The group’s long-time leader Isnilon Hapilon was killed and his powerful Basilan-based faction wiped out. After the conflict, Abu Sayyaf retreated to its traditional bases on the outlying islands of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi. Abu Sayyaf is no longer active on the main island of Mindanao, as it had been in the build up to the siege. The group has splintered and its capacity to act as a coherent fighting unit outside of its remote strongholds has been damaged.

A leadership void emerged at the top of the organization after Hapilon’s death. The group’s remaining factions are now led loosely by Furuji Indama in Basilan and Radullan Sahiron in Sulu. Indama’s followers are still thought to support ISIS, yet the group has largely reverted to operating more as a criminal enterprise rather than being motivated by Salafist ideology. Evidencing this reversion to its former mindset, Abu Sayyaf has recently kidnapped locals in its island strongholds and has attempted to launch more ambitious piracy attacks in the Sulu Sea in the hope of securing lucrative ransom payments. The success of this campaign has been limited under martial law.

Since the Marawi fiasco ended, the military has pounded Abu Sayyaf’s isolated hideouts and forced the group onto the back foot. Despite facing rising pressure on the battlefield, some elements within Abu Sayyaf have held on to their ideological links with ISIS and have attempted to stage high-profile attacks. On July 31, a suicide bomber detonated his device at a military checkpoint on the outskirts of Lamitan city, on the island of Basilan. The attack – which killed 11 people – was later revealed to have been carried out by a Moroccan national with ties to Abu Sayyaf, and was also claimed by Islamic State’s official Amaq news agency, indicating that links between the two groups still endure. The fact the attack was perpetrated by a non-Filipino also raises questions as to whether foreign fighters may be waging jihad alongside the group. Despite the concerns arising from this attack, it appears to have been a one-off and the government maintains Abu Sayyaf’s capabilities have been drastically reduced since Marawi. In late August, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana estimated the group to have less than 150 fighters.

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters’ Campaign of Terror

While the two chief protagonists of the Marawi siege suffered heavy losses, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) escaped relatively unscathed, as only a limited number of its members fought in the siege. The BIFF has been by far the most active of the Philippines’ ISIS-aligned groups over the past year, having regularly clashed with the military in the provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato, and Sultan Kudarat. These clashes have often involved AFP airstrikes and intense gun battles lasting several days – making them substantially larger in scale than clashes involving the Maute group or Abu Sayyaf. The BIFF is split into at least three factions and is commanded by ISIS-linked jihadi Abu Toraife.

Despite multiple offensives the army has been unable to halt the BIFF’s campaign of terror, which has escalated after a series of high-profile bombings striking the town of Isulan, in Sultan Kudarat province. On August 28, a bomb detonated at a street festival, killing three people and leaving 34 injured. On September 2, a second device exploded outside an internet café in the town, leaving another two dead and 15 wounded. These incidents followed a succession of smaller-scale bomb attacks, heightening the atmosphere of fear among civilians in areas where the BIFF operates. The government claims the attacks are a sign of desperation as the group turns to guerrilla tactics under the strain of martial law. Yet the attacks demonstrate the capability of the BIFF to grab attention and inflict significant damage. The group’s bomb-making skills are a particular worry for the authorities, as the BIFF is thought to be harboring jihadists from Indonesia and Malaysia highly-skilled in making explosive devices. The BIFF is now the group of choice for foreign militants, placing it at the forefront of Islamic State’s efforts in the region.

Ansar Khalifah Philippines’ Resurgent Activities

Ansar Khalifah Philippines (AKP) – the smallest of the groups that participated in the Marawi siege – has also experienced something of a resurgence in recent months, after maintaining a low profile for much of the last year. The army blamed AKP for a bomb attack in General Santos city on September 16, which injured seven civilians. Members of the group have also sporadically clashed with government troops in the provinces of Sarangani and South Cotabato. Despite this uptick in activity, AKP’s fighting capability, manpower, and resources remain limited compared to Mindanao’s other ISIS-linked groups.

Could an ISIS-Inspired, Marawi-Style Siege Happen Again?

The Marawi siege occurred in the aftermath of alleged intelligence failures on the part of the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP). The security forces failed to detect the extent of jihadi infiltration in western Mindanao, as militants from neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia traversed the isolated waterways of the Sulu and Celebes Seas to join up with the Mautes and Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines. The authorities are determined to ensure this does not happen again. Trilateral naval and air patrols carried out jointly by the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia are regularly being held in the region’s historically underpoliced seas, while Mindanao remains under martial law as the AFP looks to keep ISIS-aligned groups on the back foot.

Yet even this has arguably not been enough to eliminate the risk of a Marawi-style siege happening again. Amid the recent spike in clashes and bomb attacks, President Rodrigo Duterte is now considering extending martial law beyond its current expiry date of December 31, 2018. Duterte has said he is waiting on advice from senior army generals before deciding whether an extension is needed. National police chief Oscar Albayalde has already voiced his support.

Despite the clear desire of ISIS-aligned groups to bolster recruitment and rebound, under the current climate of heightened vigilance a repeat of the Marawi siege appears to be highly unlikely. The ongoing military crackdown means that ISIS-linked groups now have to operate via stealth, breaking up into ever smaller sub-units of fighters in remote jungle settings. The four main ISIS-aligned groups are now geographically isolated from one another to a far greater extent than they were prior to the Marawi siege, when Abu Sayyaf and the Mautes were able to effectively join forces and pool their resources. It is now far more difficult for jihadist fighters to move around without detection and for the leaders of these groups to communicate face-to-face. Funding from the central ISIS organization based in the Middle East has also likely dried up, with the group in the past year having lost its major strongholds in Syria and Iraq. Amid a global military crackdown on Islamist terrorism fronted by a multi-nation U.S.-led coalition, Islamic State’s main leadership is now finding it harder to finance and instruct its regional affiliates.

While at present the threat of a repeat Marawi-type siege in the southern Philippines has receded, in the long term the picture is more uncertain. Duterte has invested much time and effort in securing peace with the more moderate rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has waged an insurgency in Mindanao for decades. The even-older Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) is also largely on board, despite not having participated in the recently finalized negotiations to create a new Muslim autonomous region. Convincing the extremist ISIS-affiliated groups to accept the deal appears to be a lost cause: all four groups continue to engage in violence and have voiced their firm opposition to the peace process. This means the army will continue its crackdown, possibly aided by another extension of martial law. If these groups are further weakened by military offensives and the peace deal holds firm in the coming years, then the lingering ambitions of ISIS-aligned groups in the Philippines – which just over a year ago wrought havoc in Marawi – may yet be dealt a knockout blow.

Michael Hart is a freelance writer and researcher focusing on civil conflict and terrorism in Southeast Asia.