The Philippines is going through a very dark period. First the attack by members of the Islamist Maute Group on Marawi City in Lanao del Sur, Mindanao. The latest death toll from that conflict is 175 – 19 of whom were innocent citizens. Among the 36 Philippine Army troop fatalities are 11 soldiers who died from aerial bombing in a ‘friendly-fire’ incident earlier this week.
Then, in the early hours of Friday morning, the terrible news broke of the horrific fire at the Resort World Manila casino in Pasay City in the Philippine capital. In that 37 innocent people lost their lives and many more suffered injuries. All that was caused by a man who’d gone to the casino to stage a robbery. He set fire to the gaming tables creating palls of acrid smoke leaving 24 guests and 13 members of the casino staff to die of asphyxiation.
Both these tragedies, though very different in many ways, have something in common – they were both caused by people who put their own self-interest ahead of any other consideration – including the lives of the innocent. These are acts of brutal disregard for human life committed by those who have lost all sense of humanity. They are the acts of barbarians.
Up until the Maute Group swarmed into Marawi, a dozen days ago now, this was a peaceful place. Sitting on the shore of Lake Lanao, the second largest lake in the Philippines and one of the world’s 15 ‘ancient lakes’ – meaning there’s been a body of water there for more than 1 million years – this city was a place where people of all faiths lived in harmony.
Today it’s a war zone and bears all the ugly characteristics of one – bombed-out buildings, blood on the streets, torched houses, the smell of death and tens of thousands of people displaced from their homes.
Resort World Manila – the first integrated resort in Metro Manila – opened in August 2009. It was built as a fun palace; a place where people could enjoy themselves in plush surroundings and a convivial atmosphere. It was a place of dreams.
Guests had gone there two nights ago for a relaxing night out at the gaming tables. The casino staff enjoyed their jobs, working in one of the capital’s premier nightspots. Then a lone gunman went in there to rob the place; pouring gasoline on the tables, igniting it and turning Resort World Manila’s gay interior into an inferno and a crematorium.
This is a very bad chapter for the Philippines and it needs to be closed soon. For relatives and friends of all those who lost their lives in Marawi and Manila, of course, that chapter can never be fully closed. And our prayers are with them and those they lost.
Whatever their faith, we pray for the souls of those departed and we pray for comfort for those who mourn.
But while this is a time for prayer, it’s also a time for clear thinking. Making wild assertions that what happened at the casino in Manila was somehow linked to Islamic terrorism, therefore, is not just unhelpful, it raises the credit of the terror groups.
If these facts are true – that the gunman at Resorts World Manila didn’t shoot-and-kill a single person, including uniformed security guards; if he went to a store room on the gaming floor and filled his rucksack with casino betting chips; if he made no cry of “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) as he lit the tables he’d doused with gasoline, and left no other message of jihadist intent – there is no way that this could be perceived as an act of terrorism by a lone wolf of the Islamic State (IS).
Whenever that organisation strikes they let it be known; their purpose is to maximise their credit for such atrocities. They would not commit an act of terror and make it look like a bungled robbery – but they would seize on a bungled robbery and claim it as an act of terror committed by a follower of its creed. They’ve done it in the past, they’ve done it here, and they’ll do it in the future.
All the conjecture over a terror-link will go away once the body found in Room 510 – that of death No. 38, the gunman who’d shot and set fire to himself – has been identified. It would seem he’s a local; that he arrived possibly by taxi; that he acted alone, certainly within the hotel. Plainly, theft would seem to be the motive; plainly, too, his plan was ill-conceived and flawed in every way. He may have been a disturbed individual or a lifetime crook but he was no master criminal.
What can be correctly said about Resorts World Manila in a terrorism context is that the casino complex – and others like it – are perfect targets for IS and their affiliates. They’re full of people with the promise of a high kill rate; they’re places of gambling which is prohibited by Islam – according to the Quran, the Muslim holy book, gambling is “a grave sin” and an “abomination of Satan’s handiwork”. People drink there which is also prohibited under Islamic law. In short they’re glaring symbols of the West’s ‘decadence’ which IS has vowed to overthrow.
And also in a terrorism context, there are lessons to be learned from the Manila tragedy.
We agree with Pantaleon Alvarez, the speaker of the lower house of Congress. He said this: “We must draw up a clear and better plan to secure Metro Manila and other urban centres from IS-linked groups that we already know will attempt to kill and maim in pursuit of their jihadist ideology. Our authorities should get their act together and put in place the highest level of security measures to prevent this to happen again, here or elsewhere in the country. This incident should be a wake-up call for the police and the military to cooperate closely in making the seat of government and our financial and business centre safe from any terrorist attack.”
He’s absolutely correct. Right now, the capital – and the heart of it – is woefully unprepared to withstand a major terrorist incident. Security is cursory or non-existent; there’s precious little CCTV coverage of the city; there are few barriers to protect government and other vulnerable buildings. Urban security in these areas needs to be vastly heightened.
Anti-terrorism training by the police also needs to be considerably stepped up; response times to incidents need to be faster; cohesion between fire, ambulance and all elements of law-enforcement services need to be tighter drilled; chains of command need to be better defined.
As things are at the moment, Manila and every other urban centre in the country beckons like an open goal mouth to those who want to do the country harm. For the likes of Islamic State these places present little challenge. And so Alvarez is right when he urges this should be taken as “a wake-up call”.
The time to act is now – and that means act, not deliberate interminably in Congress or in the halls of the Supreme Court. The Philippines is already at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the terror threat and those institutions shouldn’t be allowed to handicap it further. If they can’t support the effort, they should be sidelined; the safety of the people and the security of the country is far more important than any political platform.
Footnote. It would also be good if we could be spared the sort of facile analysis made by VP-Senior Credit Officer, Sovereign Risk Group at Moody’s rating agency, Christian de Guzman, who revealed in an interview with Bloomberg that the casino attack and the terrorists events in Mindanao could “put a dampener” on the Philippine tourism sector. No kidding! Good to see he’s putting his economics degree to such good use by drawing such an insightful conclusion but we’re fairly sure investors could work that out for themselves. We certainly hope they could.