Government News Analysis

End of the beginning

Isnilon Hapilon, leader of ISIS affiliated terrorist group, Maute Group, in Mindanao
Isnilon Hapilon, leader of ISIS affiliated terrorist group, Maute Group, in Mindanao

The question is, what comes next? Once the Philippine military has relieved Marawi City in Lanao del Sur on the southern island of Mindanao; mopped up the remaining resistance of the Maute Group that went in there nine days ago and turned this scenic lakeshore city into a killing zone, what will follow? This was a battle – and a serious one – but the war continues.

The military will certainly be hoping to get their hands on Isnilon Hapilon (photo, centre) the architect of the Islamic State’s project in the southern Philippines. He’s most likely still in Marawi City and needs to be taken dead or alive. Originally, the armed forces went to the city to arrest him. Now they’ll be happy to take him either way; in handcuffs or in a body bag.

But he remains the main target of the military effort for if he’s captured or killed the fledgling Islamic State infrastructure in Mindanao will suffer severe disruption. Hapilon – nom de guerre, Abu Abdullah al-Filipini – has been proclaimed the Emir of Islamic State Forces in the Philippines. And erecting the entire infrastructure of the IS effort to create a wilayat or province of Islamic State in Mindanao rests with him. There is no identifiable No.2 right now. He is the sole leadership and has been the galvanising force for uniting the smaller Filipino Islamist groups.

Consequently, taking him out of the picture will deliver a devastating body blow not just to the logistics of maintaining and building a cohesive warrior force, it will also shatter morale among the groups he’s so far managed to bring on board the IS train. His personal involvement is what’s brought about this cohesion; he’s revered and trusted.

This doesn’t mean that the Maute, the Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsomoro Freedom Fighters, the Ansar al-Khalifa in the Philippines (AKP) and a number of other smaller rebel bands – such as the Ansar al-Shari’ah Brigade, Philippines and Katibat Marakah al Ansar – are going to hang up their guns and start carpentry workshops or breeding fighting cocks; they’re not. They’re going to carrying on killing and kidnapping and extorting money wherever they can. They’re still gong to fly their black flags; they’re still going to pursue the path of jihad.

It doesn’t mean also that they’re going to relinquish their affiliations to IS or renounce their Salafist ideology. Under Hapilon, Abu Sayyaf has been rebranded as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Philippines Province, following the pattern of ISIL – Sinai Province; ISIL – Yemen Province; ISIL – Algeria Province; ISIL – Caucasus Province, and so on.

Similarly, the Maute Group is variously known as Islamic State of Lanao; Dawlah Islamiya or Islamic State in Southern Philippines, Islamic State East Asia, IS-Ranao, Lions of IS Ranao, while AKP translates as “Supporters of the Caliphate in the Philippines”. These titles aren’t affectations; they’re statements of intent. And that’s why the war will go on.

And while we persistently hear that IS has not officially backed these groups, the picture above, shows Hapilon along with leaders and representatives of other Filipino jihadist groups pledging loyalty to IS in a jungle clearing somewhere in the Sulu region in January last year. It was released by the terrorist organisation’s Al Furat Media.

This wasn’t uploaded and broadcasted because it was a slow news day for IS; this was another strong statement of intent. Let’s spell it out: IS was publicising to a global audience its new Southeast Asian venture, a project that would start in Mindanao and build out across the maritime region – its proposed Southeast Asian Caliphate. And the ultimate defeat of the Maute Group in Marawi City won’t make an iota of difference to those plans. That could just be the end of the beginning as far as Islamic State is concerned.

So what the capture or killing of Hapilon will achieve for the Philippine army is a brief halt in the fusion of Islamist groups in the Philippines south. The umbilical chord between them and the Islamic State in Syria will have been severed. But the word “brief” is worth stressing. There’s a great deal at stake here and the IS high command are not likely to be sitting on their hands for too long. They will want to install a new leader very quickly and pick up the project from where it left off. Make no mistake, Mindanao is integral to the organisation’s future plans.

It was no coincidence that two expert bomb makers, both high-ranking IS operatives – arrested in Manila in April – had spend three months in the country. They weren’t there for R&R or to see the sights; they’d been deployed to the Philippines for a special mission. IS simply doesn’t send people of this calibre to places on spec.

Let’s not get confused or sidetracked here. The Maute City horror isn’t part of some historic struggle for a Muslim homeland; it’s part and parcel of establishing a bridgehead for local and foreign Islamist forces to mount attacks within the Philippines and connect up with other terror groups across the chain of countries that form Southeast Asia.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his military advisers must be well aware of this and so it’s unlikely that the martial-law provisions which Duterte put in place last week will be lifted – in fact there’s a good chance they’ll be extended beyond the 60-day limit set by the Constitution. And they need to be. As we’ve said this was just a battle that took part in Marawi City and a small episode – horrific as it’s been – of a much broader war.

Thus, short-sighted arguments for ending martial rule in Mindanao – and, no doubt, we’ll be hearing plenty of those from Duterte’s opponents in Congress, the human-rights industry and the media – must be resisted. No one should be in any doubt any longer about just how tough and determined the Maute fighters are. Thus, the government and the army need to press their advantage and prevent any repeat of the conflagration that turned that once-pretty city into a smouldering shell; it’s street into a butcher’s yard.

And they has plenty of local support. The around 85,000 residents who fled the fighting, many of whom will have lost their homes or had them ransacked, or who lost friends in the conflict, will not be supporting the armed groups and giving them protection and cover; the two large Moro (Muslim) organisations – the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – have already offered troop support for the government effort to put down the Maute insurrection. Both offers have been accepted.

MNLF leader, Nur Misauri, has made available 5,000 combatants to quell the uprising in Mindanao. In a letter to the president he said that the events in Marawi have provided an opportunity for his group to show their determination to help the president and restore peace in the island region.

MILF vice chairman, Ghazali Jaafar, has offered help from his forces to create a “peace corridor” through which to evacuate civilians still trapped in the city and too terrified to move. “We offered our help to our beloved president to help facilitate the coming out of civilians from their residences and the good president granted our request,” he said.

These two organisations know probably better than any – certainly better than anyone in the politics-addicted Duterte-opposition camp – just how volatile and deadly the situation is right now in this region. These are extremely unusual offers for extremely unusual times and they should provide a fairly accurate barometer for measuring the pressure under which Mindanao is now operating.

What the final death count of civilians, army personnel and terrorists will be in Marawi City we won’t know definitely for some time – yesterday Malacañang Palace put it at 104; other sources have it at 129. We fear it will be quite a bit higher given that there’s still around 30% of the city – according to reports – to still subdue. We hope we’re wrong but this incident, once the rebels had called-in reinforcements, was always planned as a “spectacular” – an event that would be splashed around the world and which would raise the Maute Group’s currency with IS. This was a battle in which it hoped to win its IS spurs.

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