Poverty drove Meranaos to join ISIS

BUTIG, Lanao del Sur (MindaNews / 2 Aug) – Poverty drove many residents here to join the Dawlah Islamiyah, or how ISIS is referred to in Lanao, in 2016.

Army soldiers bring seedlings for distribution to residents of Sultan Dumalundong on Sunday (28 July 2019) in the military’s “from arms to farms” campaign to combat the spread of ISIS in Lanao del Sur. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

Many of them, like 20-year-old Nappy Magondacan, joined ISIS when the Maute brothers Omar and Abdullah invited him in 2016.

“I joined the ISIS when the Maute brothers promised to pay me P20,000 every month,” Magondacan narrated.

Before joining Maute, Magondacan said he worked in the rice fields around Butig during harvests and got a small share of rice as salary.

To augment his meager income, he and other farm workers invested their hard-earned money to buy a small second-hand rice thresher for their additional money.

“It was not enough for my wife and two children,” Magondacan told MindaNews.

Sudanen Macauyag, 36, father of two young boys, said they got attracted to the ISIS teachings when the Maute brothers invited Butig residents to attend their meetings in their compound.

Macauyag said that to attract residents, the Maute brothers would slaughter a cow to feed them as they discussed their brand of Islam.

“When we went home, they sometimes gave us a sack of rice and some money. They told us the rice and money is their zakat to us,” Macauyag said.

Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam. Muslims are supposed to donate some money to charity every year.

Capt. Ron Villarosa, civil military officer of the Joint Task Force Tabang, said the Maute brothers and the Dawlah Islamiyah Lanao took advantage of the economic plight of residents in Butig town and nearby villages.

“The Mautes recruited seventy percent of their fighters from farmers of these village. It was not the students in Marawi that became their fighters. It was the farmers from Butig,” Villarosa said.

Peace Crops volunteer Ray Anthony Anacleto (in blue shirt) demonstrates to ISIS returnees and their families how to plant vegetables. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

“Take down poverty and the ISIS will lose their relevance here,” he added.

From its peak strength of 1,000 fighters when they took over Marawi City in 2017, the Dawlah Islamiyah Lanao is now down to around 50 fighters operating in the forests south of Butig, the military said.

A little known leader known as Zacharia has reportedly taken over the leadership after the death of its leader, Obwaydah Marohombsar alias Abu Dar, in a battle with government troops in March 14, 2019.

Abu Dar took over the command after the Maute brothers Omar and Abdullah, along with Isnilon Hapilon, were killed in Marawi during the siege in 2017.

Villarosa said the military does not want the Islamist insurgents to regain its strength.

He said the Army’s 103rd Infantry Brigade have partnered with the Peace Crops, an NGO made up of young agriculture specialists to help them implement their “Arms to Farms” program to stop the ISIS recruitment in Butig town.

Villarosa said their efforts are focused on the 165 ISIS fighters who have surrendered, their families and the community who have supported the extremists in the past.

About a hundred former Maute-ISIS members and their supporters turned up in the village of Sultan Dumalondong as a Philippine military contingent arrived last Sunday bringing vegetable seedlings and a small farm hand tractor.

The agriculturists, he said, are teaching the former Maute-ISIS members and their families how to plant vegetables in 90 hectares of land in Butig.

Residents of Sultan Dumalondong town itend to their garden. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

“I think we need more seedlings,” Peace Crops volunteer Rey Anthony Anacleto said as the crowd gathered around them.

Anacleto and government soldiers are teaching the former rebels how to plant cabbage, okra, and eggplant in rows.

Villarosa also demonstrated how to use the small hand tractors to plow small agricultural plots.

Anacleto said there is a lack of support from government agencies in the effort to help turn the tide against ISIS recruitment in Butig town.

He said most efforts and donations made by the government and non-government organizations are concentrated in Marawi City.

“I hope in the future that would change because the real fight against extremism starts here in the farms,” Anacleto said.

The military is hoping that their “arms to farms” program will succeed because all around Butig town and nearby villages the evidence of how hard fought the war against ISIS is still evident.

A bullet-riddled elementary school still stands unrepaired in the outskirts of Butig.

The town itself remains a “ghost town” except on Sundays when its town market will be filled with vendors and residents buying supplies.

On Sundays, a group of men is seen playing the “Sipa sa Lama,” a local game similar to “Sepak takraw,” a foot volleyball sport native to Southeast Asia.

The old Butig town hall has now become the headquarters of the Army’s 49th Infantry Battalion.

The flagpole where the Dawlah Islamiyah Lanao raised its black flag, is flying a Philippine flag now.

Security is still tight though. Heavily armed soldiers still patrol the deserted streets of the town day and night.

The Maute-ISIS insurgents took over the town of Butig and nearby villages in 2016 before they made a big push to seize the provincial capital of Marawi in 2017.

The government regained control of Butig after several months of fighting in 2017.

But many of its residents, Villarosa noted, still support the Maute-ISIS group because some were relatives or family friends. Family relationships like that could spark the ISIS recruitment unless government press on the needed changes, he added. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)