POSTSCRIPT:  Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group: Violent extremism enters a new phase (1)

1st of three parts

As the ten-part series on the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) was being published in MindaNews (May 20 – 29 2017), the news broke out about the fighting that started on May 23 in the Islamic City of Marawi.  As reported, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)  had received intelligence reports that Isnilon Hapilon, chieftain of the ASG forces in Basilan and the designated Amir of Islamic State-affiliated groups in the Philippines, was hiding out in Marawi City, and an operation was launched to arrest him.  Unfortunately, in the process, the forces protecting Hapilon, which consisted principally of ASG and Maute Group fighters, fought back and the unfortunate occupation of parts of the city, now on its fourth week, began.

As everyone knows, this prompted the declaration of martial law throughout Mindanao by President Duterte, who at the time was on an Official Visit to Russia with officials of his Administration to include the top officials of the security sector.  The outbreak of fighting and the declaration of martial law led to President Duterte cutting short his visit in order to return to the Philippines and attend to the problem.

As of this writing (June 15), the fighting is on its 24th day.  Newspaper reports indicate that around 10% of the city is still under the control of the militants, 58 soldiers and policemen have died in the operations while around 297 have been wounded, it is estimated that 200 or so militants have been killed (difficult to make an exact body count here) and around 30 civilians have likewise been killed (again difficult to confirm, a higher count is likely).

Practically the entire population of the city, placed at over 200,000, have evacuated except for several hundred who are trapped in the areas still being contested by the government forces and the militants.  In fact one newspaper report (Inquirer, June 15) indicates that over 300,000 persons have evacuated if one includes residents of villages and towns adjacent to Marawi.

It is inevitable that the government forces will eventually be able to prevail, killing and/or driving away the militant fighters.  But that will not mean that victory will have been achieved.  Whatever the outcome, the militants will have made their point.  They have been able to demonstrate their ability to undertake an audacious plan as well as an ability to withstand for an extended period of time the onslaught of a superior military force.  Whether we like it or not, this incident will earn for them prestige in militant circles both within the country and abroad.  Certainly, this will not be the last that we will hear from them and others who share the same outlook or ideology.  We can expect that plans will be drawn up for other such unexpected incidents.

How did things reach this point?

Transformation of Islamic Militancy 

Although prominent attention has been given to the Maute Group (Daulatul Islamiyah or IS Ranao) with regard to the current Marawi crisis, it should be remembered that this situation started, as mentioned above, with the operations launched for the capture or killing of Isnilon Hapilon of the ASG and simultaneously Amir of the IS-affiliated groups in the Philippines.

These groups consist of the ASG (going by its formal name Al-Harakatul al-Islamiyah), the Maute Group (MG), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), AKP (Ansarul Khilafa Philippines), and a host of other less known and smaller groups like the Ansar al-Shariah, the Marakah al-Ansar (supposedly from Sulu), Abu Dujana Battalion, Abu Khubaib Battalion, Jundallah Battalion and the Abu Sadr Battalion.  These various groups at one time or another all pledged allegiance and loyalty to the Islamic State and its self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  Isnilon Hapilon has been designated by the IS as the overall leader of these groups.  But given the fact that the present battles are being carried out on the home grounds of the Maute Group and that the MG are likely providing the bulk of the fighters in these battles – although it has been reported that the BIFF and AKP are likewise involved – it is understandable that greater focus has been given to the MG.

It will be recalled that the ASG started out in the early 1990s as an intransigent, violent terrorist group, given to assassinations, indiscriminate bombings, extortion activities, a raid on a sizable town (Ipil, population around 45,000 in 1995) and its hallmark kidnapping for ransom.  Its declared objective was the establishment of an Islamic state to be governed under Shariah law.  While it had links with foreign organizations – funding from Al Qaeda in the early to mid-1990s, links with the Jemaah Islamiyah from Indonesia, translated into joint trainings and bombing operations – its sights were essentially inwardly focused, i.e., setting up an Islamic state in Mindanao.

But with the rise of the Islamic State (Dawlat al-Islamiyah) in the Middle East and the proclamation of the establishment of the Caliphate on June 29, 2014 with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the Caliph, all in fulfillment of the prophetic vision of the resurrection of the Caliphate, harking back to the time of the Prophet (PBUH), following the final battle to end all battles which was prophesied to take place in al-Sham or present-day Syria, things have changed radically.  The concept of the Caliphate seems to have captured the imagination of a segment of the global Muslim population, wishing to right what they view as the historical injustice and oppression that has been visited upon Islam and Muslims worldwide and wishing to regain the past glory of the Islamic world.  And while the concept of the Ummah, the Community of Believers regardless of nationality and territorial boundaries, has always been there, this willingness and even eagerness to wage Jihad fi-Sabilillah, Fighting and Dying in the Service or the Path of Allah, is a relatively new impetus pushing many adherents of the Islamic State worldwide.  Its modern-day roots can be traced to the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s.

For militant groups in the Philippines, their struggle is now seen within the context of this global Caliphate.  Moreover, given the exhortation of the IS, expressed in a video issued by the Al-Furat Media arm of the IS in June of 2016, that its adherents in the Southeast Asia region should go to fight in the Philippines rather than Iraq or Syria, Mindanao has acquired a new and prized position in the Islamic militant world.

Taking a broader view, Prof. Miriam Coronel-Ferrer described it very well recently when she compared the qualitative difference between these IS-inspired militants and the liberation movements of the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF):

“If the older generation of rebels struggled for the right to self-determination and self-government of the Moro people, the new militant groups want an Islamic state that is part and parcel of a global caliphate.

“The former fought the Armed Forces of the Philippines for the recognition of Bangsamoro as an ethnopolitical identity; the latter is mounting a violent, intolerant, hegemonic religious jihad against nonbelievers.

“Unlike their elders, the 21st century Islamists have no patience for a long drawn-out guerrilla war. Rather, they want quick, explosive results achieved through indiscriminate acts of violence like bombings, kidnappings and beheadings. Unabashedly, they raise funds through criminal activities.

“Born in the age of information and communication technology, these militants are social media-savvy. They are networked with global jihadist movements whose modus is to operate as a conglomerate of self-sustained, self-radicalized,  decentralized cells.”  (Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, “Losing the Peace?  Jihadists rise in Mindanao”,  Inquirer.Net, June 8, 2017.)

Clearly, the Republic is facing a new kind of enemy.

A Larger Plan Thwarted?

Information emerging from the battlefront in Marawi now seems to indicate that what at first was considered a failed attempt by the military to capture or kill Isnilon Hapilon in fact resulted in thwarting the militants’ intentions of launching a larger plan to take over all of Marawi and declare it as the base of the IS in this region.  A video showing Hapilon, the Maute brothers and others sitting around a table working out this plan was discovered in a cellphone which had been left behind in the house that was raided by the military on May 23.

Moreover, the intensity of the resistance of the militant forces and the discovery of caches of weapons and ammunition, food supplies and money as the military has taken over enemy positions has led the authorities to conclude that in fact this takeover had been planned for some time and that preparations had been well underway.

Furthermore, the discovery of non-Filipinos among the slain militants would seem to indicate that the call of the IS for fighters to come to the Philippines as part of the struggle to establish a global Caliphate is being heeded.  One report stated that the bodies of two Indonesians, two Malaysians, two Saudis, a Yemeni and a Chechen were discovered among those killed in the fighting.  Another intelligence report claimed that as many as forty foreigners are among the militants fighting in Marawi.

As this is being written, news reports are being aired in the media about the possible infiltration of suspected Maute Group members into Iligan City.  The reports indicate that these MG members blended in with the evacuees from Marawi by cutting their hair and shaving off their beards.  While so far no confirmation has been publicly aired, this is a very real possibility because Iligan would be a logical second front for the war, being practically next door to Marawi, and would serve to split Government forces, thus allowing those fighters still in Marawi to likewise escape.  There are also reports of about 300 gunmen massing in a town outside Marawi.

The resolution of the crisis, currently in Marawi but with the potential of spreading to other areas, should not be expected anytime soon.

What should be expected is that the President will need to ask for authority from Congress for the extension of Martial Law beyond the initial 60-day period provided under the Constitution, before this initial period lapses.

TOMORROW: Addressing the Crisis 

[Vic M. Taylor, originally from Cebu, has been involved in various peace and development activities in Mindanao, particularly in Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi (BaSulTa) in the different positions he has held in government and the private sector over the last 50 years.
He started as an instructor at the Notre Dame of Jolo College after his graduation from the Ateneo de Manila University in the late 1960s.  Subsequently, he oversaw the Rehabilitation and Development Program for Muslim Mindanao during the early years of martial law under the Office of the President.
Within the last 16 years and upon the request of the families of some kidnap victims, Mr. Taylor assisted these families to help secure the safe release of five victims from the ASG.
Recently, he has been working with a private group that is assisting a community of the Moro National Liberation Front in the Zamboanga peninsula in bringing development projects to their area]