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Bombing Revives Fears of Islamist Militancy in the Philippines

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Bombing Revives Fears of Islamist Militancy in the Philippines

The December 3 bombing of a Catholic mass in Marawi City was an ominous warning as the Bangsamoro peace process approaches a crucial juncture.

Bombing Revives Fears of Islamist Militancy in the Philippines

Law enforcement officers investigate the scene of an explosion that occurred during a Catholic Mass in a gymnasium at Mindanao State University in Marawi, Philippines, December 3, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/Provincial Government of Lanao Del Sur

Three weeks on from an explosion that killed four people at a Catholic mass on a university campus in Marawi City in the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines, revelers are returning to church for Christmas on the island. The blast, claimed by the Islamic State, sent shock waves across the Muslim-majority Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, where memories of past instability remain raw.

I visited Marawi City just weeks before the attack. Scars remain of a five-month siege in 2017, in which hundreds of local jihadist militants that coalesced around a local outfit known as the Maute Group took control of the city with the support of foreign fighters, acting in the name of the Islamic State. Subsequent combat with the Philippine military razed chunks of Marawi to the ground.

Six years on, a new stadium and reconstructed mosques stand next to crumbled high-rises and abandoned houses, home to tens of thousands of people that still haven’t been able to return to their former neighborhoods. After their crushing defeat, the Salafi-jihadist outfit, also known as Dawlah Islamiyah (the Arabic term for Islamic State) tried to regroup and rebuild in and around Marawi. But military operations, loss of leaders, demoralization, and the surrender of fighters weakened it and other jihadist groups.

Despite some hushed talk of the Maute remnants, estimated to now number only 40 members, recruiting and allegedly holding gatherings in Lanao del Sur province (of which Marawi is the capital), when I visited, the likelihood of an imminent attack felt slim. Instead, locals spoke with concern about those that have been unable to recover their homes or livelihoods since the 2017 siege, and discussed the crisis in the Middle East, brandishing Palestinian flags from their homes and shop fronts. But the December 3 blast has come as a grim reminder that the risk of jihadist violence remains very real.

Jihadist militancy in Mindanao should be understood against the backdrop of the 40-year Moro separatist conflict, which formally ended in 2014, when the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed a peace deal. At the time of the 2017 Marawi crisis, a number of armed groups, including jihadist factions, opposed the talks, leveraging local Moro Muslim grievances and frustrations related to a stalled peace process, recruiting disillusioned youth and frustrated MILF members.

Since 2019, the ex-rebels have been leading the transition through an interim administration that will formally come to an end with parliamentary elections in 2025. The transition has not been entirely peaceful, but before the attacks, upward trends in violence related to political tensions, clan conflict, and elections in certain pockets of Mindanao stood in contrast to the waning influence of Islamist  militancy.

Following the Marawi blast, which came just five months after the neutralization of Dawlah-leader Abu Zacharia, the Islamic State’s designated regional emir, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was quick to refer to “foreign terrorist” involvement. While it is not impossible that some foreign militants are still present in Mindanao, it is unlikely their presence in Marawi City could long go undetected. For his part, the Philippine military chief pointed to a series of encounters between the military and Dawlah militants in the days prior, suggesting that the blast may have been retaliatory in nature. It is noteworthy, however, that the church bombers targeted civilians rather than security forces, indicating a more sectarian background to the attack.  Detonated remotely through a basic, improvised explosive device with a 60 mm mortar round, such an attack would not be too difficult to pull off elsewhere.

Since the blast, the military has launched operations against Dawlah militants in marshy parts of Maguindanao, a historical hotspot for jihadist groups around 200 kilometers south of Marawi City. More than 5,000 people have been displaced by clashes between the MILF and jihadists after MILF fighters were killed in retaliation for support the former rebels gave to government forces during the operation. The IS-inspired militants later uploaded a video of one of the killings, showing the gruesome death of a MILF guerrilla accused of being a spy.

It is, however, possible that these clashes may be the result of intra-Moro hostilities, with Dawlah fighters retaliating against perceived injustices inflicted upon them by the MILF – particularly in light of recent allegations from militants themselves of MILF commanders having recently grabbed their land and resources.

To understand the broader impact of the bombing, two questions are crucial to answer. First, to what extent are the IS-inspired factions across the Bangsamoro coordinating their operations? Second, what is the reason behind IS central’s increased interest in claiming incidents in the Philippines?

The jihadist momentum in Mindanao largely depends on the ability of local groups to come together under centralized leadership. Without coordination, various outfits will continue to pose only a localized threat, and will therefore be easier for government forces to target. For now, there is hardly any evidence to suggest substantial cooperation between the various pro-IS militant factions. Even in Maguindanao, a historical hotspot for jihadist lairs, it is not clear who is leading the militants and how many factions there actually are. But there is once again talk on the ground about money reaching the militants from outside the country and also circulating within Mindanao, suggesting a degree of organization.

The relative increase of IS claims for incidents in Mindanao over the last months is also puzzling. While some claims are clearly misleading, it is noteworthy that these claims spread quickly on various online platforms. This suggests either a strategic interest from IS in the Philippines for propaganda purposes or an effort from local actors to generate funding and attention from abroad by feeding information to externals. A few days after the December 3 blast, the Islamic State published an editorial about the Philippines in its weekly newsletter Al Naba. The article, which describes the MILF as a renegade “apostate militia,” argues that Mindanao remains a battlefield between “Muslims” and “Crusaders,” inciting local and by extension foreign fighters to carry on the struggle.

Encouragingly, there has been little buy-in from Bangsamoro’s Muslim communities for more extreme beliefs. However, delays to the peace process and the failure of both Manila and the regional administration to address local grievances and conflicts, as well as the emotional impact of the Gaza war on some young Moros, could stir frustrations, leading to further recruitment and violence. For the estimated 80,000 people still displaced from the 2017 Marawi siege, unresolved property claims from their destroyed houses and lack of proper access to water around the former battlefield continue to fuel resentment.

The blast on December 3 has revealed cracks that will be crucial to address if authorities are to keep the risks of militancy at bay in the newly autonomous Bangsamoro. First, the security sector needs to do more to improve intelligence collection, analysis, and sharing. Having received warnings days before the blast, authorities failed to react with Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. later acknowledging a “failure to appreciate intelligence.”

Second, two of the blast suspects had surrendered in 2018, making it vital to understand why they relapsed and to examine the effectiveness of the current demobilization initiatives. A monitoring and evaluation component, including a case management system, and better learning from past experiences in regard to the reintegration of former fighters, will be essential to avoid future recidivism.

Third, the Bangsamoro government should accelerate the rehabilitation of Marawi and do more to settle land disputes and improve basic services in far-flung areas, which often lie at the core of the community grievances that militants exploit.

The Marawi bombing and its aftermath do not mean that militants will once again engulf the region in violence. But it is an important reminder that all actors should redouble their efforts to make the Bangsamoro peace process a success before the specter of jihadism once again comes to haunt Mindanao.