Government News Analysis

Mautes perish; Marawi lives

Marawi Liberated

The Maute Group – the Islamist militants who stormed and seized Marawi City in Lanao del Sur on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao a week short of five months ago – have been all but wiped out; certainly its high command, the Maute brothers, have perished. The last of these died in the rubble they created in a city they’d turned from a lakeside idyll into a bloody kill zone while driving some 350,000 citizens from their homes in the city and surrounding countryside.

And with the last brother, in a hail of bullets, has gone the figurehead of Islamic State (IS) barbarism in the Philippines, Isnilon Hapilon, a leader in the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang turned IS ideologue – a man who had a bounty on his head of US$5 million.

Proclaimed the Emir of Islamic State Forces in the Philippines, Hapilon had been galvanising small terror groups in Mindanao to bring them into the IS fold. He was preparing the way for IS fighters to relocate there from Iraq and Syria where the mother organisation, too, has now been all but destroyed. Its capital city of Raqqa in Syria is teetering on the verge of complete collapse.

So, oddly – as if by providence – Marawi and Raqqa, two cities taken by IS and IS-affiliated jihadis; two cities claimed by Islamists as their capitals; two cities that have endured a brutal onslaught to free them; two cities that mirror each other in a number of ugly ways, now share their liberation at the same time.

Yesterday, in Marawi, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte passed by the rubble to address his troops (photo). This is what he said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from the terrorist influence. That marks the beginning of [the] rehabilitation of the city”.

Meanwhile, 8,500 miles and five time zones away, a spokesman for the US military in Baghdad, declared that Raqqa was close to being fully liberated. In both places, all that now remains are a few small pockets of futile resistance. Basically, it’s down to the mopping up; bomb disposal teams to sweep both cities to remove booby traps and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Manufacturing IEDs was a skill the Maute’s picked up from IS manuals. There’ll be some of those still in Marawi.

Marawi City is the place where the Maute brothers grew up; a place where they terrorised minority Christians in their youth – and where they died. But it’s unlikely to be their last resting place. The city is to be rebuilt from the ashes of battle to which it’s been reduced. It will have a new beginning; one in which the Maute family has no presence; no right to be – unless there’s plans for a Museum of the Macabre, in which case they’ll take pride of place.

Most likely their bodies will be consigned to an unmarked grave in an unknown location to prevent it becoming a shrine, a place of pilgrimage and a rallying point for any who would follow in their steps. It’s why Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, killed in a US Navy Seal operation in Pakistan in 2011, was buried somewhere in the Arabian Sea. His body, in a weighted bag, was slipped from the deck of the aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson. There’s no record of the location or the depth of his grave.

The fact is, it’s only once the city rises again, that the final page of this dark chapter of Philippine history – those 144 days in 2017 – can be turned. Maranos, citizens of Marawi, will want to forget as much as they can the horror, the indignity and the loss they were subjected to when a thousand fighters carrying black flags and bristling with guns took over their peaceful community. They’ll want to erase from their memories the terror the clansmen wreaked on their neighbourhoods and the strict Salafist brand of Islam they sought to impose.

This, then, would seem to be the end of the Maute clan – a family of brutal killers which reveled in death and destruction. There’ll be little mourning for them in the Islamic City of Marawi which they stormed three days before the start of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

The news of Hapilon’s death and that of key siege architect, Omar Maute – who described himself on his Facebook page as a “walking time bomb” – was announced to the media by the Philippine military on Sunday.

They now join Omar’s brothers, Abdullah, Maddie and Mohammad “Otto”, who died during airstrikes on Marawi conducted by the Philippine military sometime reportedly between 14 and 26 August – and their father, Cayamora Maute, who was taken to his death by high blood pressure in a government hospital on 27 August, two months after his arrest in Davao City.

The family’s matriarch, the powerfully connected Ominta Romato Maute (aka, Farhana Maute) – believed to have been heavily involved in financing, logistics and recruitment for the group – is unlikely to see Marawi City again either. Or, for that matter Butig – her home town on the opposite shore of Lanao Lake, which the Maute group treated as its fiefdom.

Farhana Maute was arrested in the town of Masiu in Lanao del Sur on 9 June. Five days later she was charged with rebellion and is being kept under maximum security at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig, Metro Manila. Under the Revised Penal Code, rebellion carries a penalty of life imprisonment. She wanted to reach out to Duterte; maybe make a deal. She was wasting her time. The time for deals had long passed.

More than 800 Maute members have been killed in the conflict; now only around two score remain. But among those are thought to be a handful of foreign fighters – Indonesians and Malaysians – and the man who’s believed to have channeled US$600,000 from Syria to the Philippines to bankroll the Marawi siege.

His name is Dr Mahmud Ahmad. A Malaysian – his doctorate is in religious studies – he’s considered the Islamic State’s No.2 man in the Philippines after Hapilon. Ahmad attended training at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s and has been on Malaysia’s Most Wanted List since 2014. He’s the last loose end in this wretched saga and the army will be seeking to take him dead or alive. And they’re unlikely to have a preference.

Meanwhile, the cost of rebuilding the city has been put at US$1.1 billion (PHP56.49 billion) – though in reality it’s likely to greatly exceed that. Funding will come from a number of sources. The government plans to sell PHP30 billion worth of bonds before the end of the year; it may also ask Congress for an additional PHP10 billion to be tagged onto the 2017 nation budget.

Additional funding, is likely to come from overseas donors. Money received to date – though part of it to assist relief operations – includes: PHP1 billion from Australia; PHP730 million from the US; PHP100 million each from Japan and Thailand; PHP85 million from China; PHP45 million from the European Union.

But large donations are likely to come from the Middle East – from the states of the United Arab Emirates and, more particularly, from Saudi Arabia with which Marawi has a deep connection.

Up until the 1970s there was no Islamic City of Marawi, there was just Marawi; that had been its name since 1956. Prior to that, and going back all the way to 1639 when the Marano community living by the shore of Lake Lanao was first discovered by the Spanish colonisers, its name was Dansalan.

The 1970s name change, effected by a Parliamentary Bill signed by former president, Ferdinand Marcos, is understood to have been done to attract funds from the Middle East. And it did; King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the former monarch of Saudi Arabia paid for the construction of the mosque which bears his name, the King Faisal Mosque, the largest of all Marawi’s mosques.

Saudi funds poured into the city to promote expansion of the Arabic language – largely though the language faculty of the Mindanao State University on whose campus the King Faisal Mosque stands. Today, in this 90% Muslim city Arabic is commonly spoken and written.

Historical ties, then, are one reason why the Saudi Government would want to support Marawi’s reconstruction, but there’s another – to wipe away all traces of IS. For although it’s known that some wealthy Saudis sent large donations to the group and some 2,500 young Saudis went to Syria to fight for its cause, the Saudi Government – an IS target – has supported every effort to rid the world of this menace.

In 2014, when IS declared its caliphate in Iraq and the Levant, Riyadh was quick to join the US-led coalition formed to defeat it. It put at the US disposal bases to train moderate Syrian fighters. It even forged an agreement with its sworn enemy, Iran, to cooperate in efforts to drive out Islamic State. And so the Saudis would likely welcome the opportunity to sweep away all traces of IS from Marawi.

Finding money to rebuild the city, however, won’t be the biggest challenge. Money will come. What’s needed is to build and maintain the peace and that may be more difficult. The Mautes may have been wiped out, but militant Islam has a habit of re-coalescing. And in a region like western Mindanao, with its long history of Muslim insurgency, the chances are – sadly – that pattern will be repeated.

As one military commander has already remarked: “This is a big setback for IS but there is a lot of work there to do to make sure they don’t regroup and come back stronger. It’s not the total endgame. [The] BIFF [Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters; another IS-linked group] is still running around Mindanao. Between them and other Islamist militants, militancy isn’t going to end any time soon. We’re not out of the woods yet”.

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