Delays to Rebuilding Marawi Threaten a Fragile Peace in the Bangsamoro

Three years after the siege, more than 120,000 residents of Marawi remain displaced across the provinces of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur. (Image Source: Philippine Information Agency)

Three years ago, the siege of Marawi was in full-swing. A failed attempt by Philippine troops to capture Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, on 23 May 2017, had prompted a militant uprising which would last until October. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) soldiers were pitted against ISIS-affiliated jihadis led by Hapilon and his co-conspirators – the Maute brothers – in fierce street-to-street urban warfare.

By the time the battles ended, 1,200 – including 920 militants and 168 AFP soldiers – had been killed. 350,000 residents had fled their homes, unable to return to a city left in a state of ruin. Near-daily IED blasts and government airstrikes had flattened the central Banggolo district, where AFP bomb-disposal experts have since been working to clear debris and safely locate and detonate unexploded ordnance.

The last-known bomb was destroyed in October. Yet construction work has been slow to pick-up pace, even as 126,000 evacuees still reside in transitory shelters or with relatives across the Lanao provinces. Rebuilding Marawi, known as the ‘Islamic city’ with its symbolic Grand Mosque and majority-Maranao Muslim population, will be key to peace in a region afflicted by separatist conflict since the mid-1970s.

Last year, a peace accord was finalized between Manila and the region’s largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), ending hostilities and forging a new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The inauguration of the region last March signalled the arrival of self-governance, and a chance to address the grievances of western Mindanao’s Moro Muslim population.

Since then, violence perpetrated by the ISIS-aligned groups whom laid siege to Marawi has dwindled. Yet amid the perceived slow pace of reconstruction, further delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, local frustrations are rising. A ‘growing sense of despair’ fuelled by a ‘lack of urgency’ in rebuilding the city is now raising fears of a fertile recruitment pool for jihadi groups intent on spoiling the peace process.

Reconstruction efforts directed by Manila

Manila has dismissed such criticism. In the aftermath of the siege, President Rodrigo Duterte created Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBM), headed by Housing Secretary and former AFP general Eduardo del Rosario, to oversee rehabilitation efforts. A lengthy operation to clear unexploded ordnance from the former ‘Main Battle Area’ got underway in 2018 and was completed late last year, paving the way for the reconstruction of the worst-hit Banggolo district. The area was the city’s bustling commercial hub.

But from the start, plans have faltered. The initial plan, to give the entire task of rebuilding Marawi to a Chinese-led consortium, collapsed amid a political tussle over future visions for the city. Instead, the work was split into multiple projects, with government departments responsible for public works and highways, energy, health and education to award separate contracts to firms to build roads, electricity infrastructure, communications networks and drainage systems, as well as new hospitals and schools.

The role of TFBM to co-ordinate the projects within an overarching plan is inevitably a mammoth task. The task force aims to fully rebuild all public infrastructure and utilities by late-2021 before residents are permitted to return to Banggolo; although in some areas people have been able to start repairing damaged homes. Residents must obtain a building permit, by providing proof-of-ownership alongside a design plan, yet many are concerned that in undocumented cases their homes might be demolished.

COVID-19 setback compounds past delays

The government-led rebuilding of Banggolo looked set to pick-up pace earlier this year, but movement restrictions imposed to contain COVID-19 have delayed work by several months. From 20 March, cities and provinces in the BARMM began to be placed under ‘enhanced community quarantine’, before the whole region transitioned to ‘general community quarantine’ on 1 May. Yet lockdown measures were eased on 16 May after the BARMM was declared ‘low-risk’. The BARMM has seen 100 cases and four deaths from COVID-19 – far fewer than other parts of the Philippines, despite its weak health system.

Bombing of Marawi City
The five-month siege, in 2017, destroyed the central Banggolo district, which witnessed airstrikes and daily gun battles between AFP troops and ISIS-linked militants. (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

While noting the impact of COVID-19 in restricting the movement of labour and materials, TFBM chief Eduardo del Rosario revealed early in June that preparatory work has continued, allowing firms to ‘go full blast’ in July. He said in a press release that TFBM remains committed to the 31 December 2021 deadline, and has urged project contractors to ‘work 12 hours a day’, or ‘double time’ if necessary. In further comments, del Rosario said he aims to ‘prove government critics wrong’, and labelled a claim of ‘inaction and neglect’ alleged in May by vice-President Leni Robredo as ‘very inaccurate and unfair’.

TFBM has highlighted the reconstruction of the Mapandi Bridge – a key entry-point into the city centre that witnessed fierce clashes at the height of the siege – and work to repair the 18.97km transcentral Marawi road as evidence that progress is being made. Government support for 25,300 still-displaced families is also seen via the provision of rice, cash assistance, livelihood training and tractors for local farming co-operatives. Yet despite the help available, displaced residents living in cramped conditions in transitory shelters, vulnerable to the threat of COVID-19, are increasingly desperate to return home.

Frustration rising among long-term evacuees

Anger among evacuees though, pre-dates the untimely arrival COVID-19. Back in November, Marawi Reconstruction Conflict Watch (MRCW), a civil society organization founded to monitor the rebuilding of the city, issued a strongly-worded statement after attending a public Congressional hearing on the issue. MRCW criticized a lack of transparency and accountability in the Manila-led rebuilding process, labelling it a ‘total mess’. Aside from lamenting the slow-pace of construction work, MRCW criticized the delayed passage of a compensation bill, alleging that Maranaos are being ‘treated as second class citizens’ and were blamed by the authorities for the incursion of ISIS that led to the five-month siege. The group also asked Duterte to reverse a controversial decision to build a new AFP camp in Marawi.

Dissenting voices have also emerged from those in power, at the local and national level. Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, interim Chief Minister of the BARMM and former head of the MILF, who in his position must tread a fine line between BARMM citizens and Manila, has sought to reassure Maranao Muslims that the government remains committed to the project while acknowledging that the job is ‘far from over’. Other BARMM lawmakers have been more vocal and called for TFBM’s leadership to be overhauled. Mindanaoan politician Amihilda Sangcopan has asked the agency to hold a ‘State of Marawi Address’ to tell evacuees when they can ‘go home to their beloved city’, while detained opposition senator Leila de Lima has lamented the ‘suffering, worsening poverty and dispossession’ of Marawi’s ex-residents.

ISIS recruitment and the BARMM peace process

The effort to re-start construction following the COVID-19 disruption comes a year into the three-year BARMM transition period; designed to implement the peace deal and secure a lasting peace in Moro-majority western Mindanao. The MILF is currently disarming its 30,000 fighters, while ordinary citizens have placed their hopes on the new autonomous region to end decades of large-scale armed conflict.

Marawi, known as the Philippines’ Islamic city, is of high symbolic importance to Moro Muslims. Rebuilding mosques destroyed during the siege will assist peace efforts. (Image Source: Suhayla)

Yet radical groups – born out of the Moro separatist rebellion and later inspired by ISIS ideology – are still active and aim to upend the peace process. Abu Sayyaf pose a risk in the Sulu islands to the west, while the Maute Group and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters remain present in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao. Further delay in rebuilding Marawi could assist in their recruitment. A U.S. diplomatic cable, released in February, noted that ‘public anger at the Philippine government’s extended delays in providing for the reconstruction of Marawi has allowed extremist elements to re-gain a foothold in the city’, warning that a negative public perception of efforts to rehabilitate the city had likely ‘reinforced extremist anti-government narratives and contributed to terrorist recruitment’.

The AFP has reported recruitment by the Maute group in towns around Lake Lanao, on which Marawi sits, in the three years since the siege, with the militants offering a financial incentive for young men to join-up. Although the strength of militant groups has undoubtedly declined since the height of the siege, when the Mautes and their allies deployed 1,000 fighters in the city, such reports drive concern that a failure to rebuild swiftly could create an atmosphere conducive to the terrorists’ bolstering their ranks – by targeting displaced residents seeking a way out of homelessness, joblessness and poverty.

‘I want to finish the projects during my time’

The BARMM, in which the hopes of Mindanao’s Moro Muslims are invested, has little control over the reconstruction of Marawi. The fate of the city lies with the central government in Manila. Earlier this year, after releasing funds for construction in the Banggolo district to begin, Duterte remarked: ‘I want to finish the projects during my time’. Despite confirming he would go ahead with plans to build a new army base in the city, he said ‘I am not after the Maranao’, arguing it is necessary to prevent a repeat of the siege. Duterte’s term ends in 2022, around six months after TFBM’s deadline to rebuild the city.

If the deadline is not met and reconstruction efforts drag on for years, Marawi risks becoming another ‘open wound’ driving recruitment to rebel groups unsatisfied with the peace process. Former chief of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) – the failed predecessor to the BARMM – Mujiv Hataman, has warned that a failure to rebuild in good time could lead Marawi to become the modern equivalent to the 1968 Jabidah massacre, which drove recruitment for the old Moro separatist groups. In the current context, as ISIS allies look to rebound, such a scenario would pose a huge security risk.

With the BARMM in place and the MILF disarming, Manila could not have a bigger incentive to deliver on its promise to rebuild Marawi – and ensure the peace gains made since the siege are not reversed.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

After Duterte Scraps VFA, What Next for the US-Philippine Security Alliance?

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin sent the US formal notice of Duterte’s decision to terminate the VFA on 11 February. (Image Source: US Marine Corps, Chanelcherie K. DeMello)

On 11 February, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte provided formal notice to the US of his decision to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) – a bilateral treaty inked in 1998 to facilitate the presence of US troops in the country. Duterte’s Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin had voiced his concerns over the risks of cancelling the agreement in a Senate hearing the previous week, warning the move could result in the ‘severe curtailment’ of America’s long-standing defence obligations to its former colony.

Many observers have questioned the sense in Duterte terminating an agreement that has for the past 22 years underpinned what is arguably Washington’s most strategically important security alliance in Asia. The immediate trigger appears to be the US decision in January to rescind a visa for Ronald dela Rosa – a senator and close political ally of Duterte, who in his former role as national police chief led Duterte’s violent anti-drug campaign; roundly criticized in the West over alleged extra-judicial killings.

The visa revocation drew an angry response from Duterte, who immediately threatened to cancel the VFA and barred members of his cabinet from travelling to the US. Yet the visa issue may have provided a convenient excuse for Duterte, who has executed a pivot away from the US and toward China, since his shock election win in 2016. Duterte has routinely denounced US influence and criticized US foreign policy, claiming it has treated his nation ‘like a dog on a leash’ since the end of American rule in 1946.

Immediate and practical impacts of VFA termination

The termination of the VFA will take effect after 180 days, meaning the status-quo will be maintained until mid-August when the agreement is scheduled to expire. However, US-Philippine defence ties will not cease to exist when the six-month deadline is reached, as the two countries have two additional defence agreements, which are set to remain in place. A Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT), signed in 1951, commits the US to come to the Philippines’ aid in the event of an attack by a foreign power; while the 2014 Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement (EDCA), penned during the Obama administration, introduced new provisions for troop rotations, the use of military bases and the positioning of assets.

While these two agreements are important in their own right, the VFA is vital to their implementation. It provides a legal framework for US troops to enter and exit the country without needing a passport or visa, and provides clear procedures for handling issues and disputes which may arise as a result of American presence. Above all, the VFA is a crucial tool in facilitating regular joint exercises between the two militaries. Around 390 such exercises are planned for 2020, the largest of which – referred to as Balikatan, meaning ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ in the local Tagalog language – is due to be held in May.

The continuation of these drills after the 180-day period ends would be uncertain in the absence of a replacement for the VFA. After Duterte’s decision, US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Clarke Cooper, said joint operations would be ‘put at risk’, emphasizing that ‘all engagements’ require a facilitating legal mechanism to be in place. Foreign Secretary Locsin said as much during the Senate hearing on 6 February, noting that the VFA was the ‘substance’ that made the MDT effective.

Long-term strategic implications of terminating the VFA

Beyond these logistical issues, terminating the VFA has two significant implications for the Philippines’ national security – which may also impact regional security and wider US interests in the Asia-Pacific.

Firstly, a permanent US military presence in the Philippines, enabled by the VFA, serves as a deterrent to Chinese maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea – labelled the West Philippine Sea by Manila. Over the past decade, Beijing has reclaimed land and built military installations on contested islands in the region, where control of various portions of the sea and its features is disputed between China and five other claimant states. The area serves as a vital route for global shipping and seaborne trade.

The VFA – which facilitates the presence of US troops in the Philippines – was signed in 1998. The two nations also have a Mutual Defence Treaty dating back to the 1950s. (Image Source: US DoD)

The US has sought to push-back against Chinese maritime expansionism, for fear Beijing could assert full dominance and displace the US as the foremost naval power in the Asia-Pacific. In this sense, the Philippines is ideally located – on the sea’s eastern perimeter – as a staging post to guard against this perceived threat. The VFA, in allowing the permanent presence of US troops, has ensured a base from which the US can project power and launch freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. While the US does have close ties with other claimant states – such as Vietnam, on the sea’s western fringe – the relationship with the Philippines is long-established and it is considered a crucial partner. Terminating the VFA may give China the green light to continue its activities in the sea unchallenged.

Secondly, the VFA has enabled two decades of counter-terrorism co-operation between US forces and the Philippine military on the troubled southern island of Mindanao, where extreme Islamist groups, such as the notorious Abu Sayyaf, operate. The area is also home to a number of other hardline groups linked to the Islamic State, including the Maute Group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US deployed 600 soldiers to the region to help stem the tide of militancy, and around 100 remain stationed in Mindanao on a rotating basis. Although they don’t participate in active combat, US personnel provide intelligence and reconnaissance support, which played a key role in ending the 2017 siege of Marawi, when Philippine forces battled Islamist militants for five months.

The US has also provided equipment, financial assistance and urban-warfare training, helping to boost the capacity of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to tackle rapidly-evolving terrorist threats in Mindanao. Several senior Filipino politicians now fear that by scrapping the VFA, the desire of the US to provide such assistance may decrease, risking worsening instability in the insurgency-prone south. Foreign Secretary Locsin stated last month that the VFA ‘allows for continued support for addressing non-traditional security threats’, adding that US forces had been ‘instrumental’ in not only combating terrorism, but also in helping to confront ‘trafficking in persons, cyber-attacks…and illegal narcotics’. Security issues aside, US humanitarian support and disaster response has also been aided by the VFA.

A shared interest in renegotiating the VFA?

Despite senior figures in his administration voicing their concerns, Duterte appears intent on sticking with his decision. He has pushed back against those ‘trying to save’ the VFA, voicing a desire to ‘rely on ourselves’ in the defence sphere. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump responded to reporters with apparent indifference when asked about the move, remarking ‘I really don’t mind…we’ll save a lot of money’. Despite these assertions, some Filipino politicians have stated a preference for the VFA to be reviewed rather than scrapped, and the 180-day notice period may afford time for negotiations.

It is in the interests of both parties to maintain the kind of co-operation that the VFA facilitated, even if the agreement must now be revived in a different form and under a different name. A renegotiation of aspects of the VFA as part of a new deal, acceptable to both Duterte and Trump, may be possible if both men opt to put the shared security interests of their respective countries ahead of political gain in the domestic sphere – where their populist bases are largely supportive of an isolationist approach to foreign policy. Longer-term, the future of the US-Philippine security alliance will be passed into the hands of new leaders: Duterte’s single six-year term ends in 2022, while Trump is seeking re-election in November. A US-friendly leader in Manila, or a Democratic president in the US, would likely lead to a return to the more engaged Obama-era relationship between the US and its Southeast Asian allies: centred on strengthening security partnerships, and opposing Chinese actions in the maritime realm.

Yet with Duterte and Trump at the helm, the US-Philippine security alliance appears to be weakening; and with the VFA set to be terminated, the defence establishments of both countries will hope for no lasting damage.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Is Duterte’s Latest Peace Overture to the NPA Another False Dawn?

In December, President Rodrigo Duterte called on CPP leader Jose Maria Sison to return home to the Philippines from exile in the Netherlands, for a one-on-one meeting. (Image Source: PCOO)

Late last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte indicated a willingness to reverse his prior decision to terminate the peace process with the New People’s Army (NPA) – a communist rebel group at odds with Manila since the 1960s. On 26 December, Duterte appealed to Jose Maria Sison – the exiled head of the NPA’s political wing, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) – to return home from exile in the Netherlands for one-on-one talks in an attempt to revive the peace process. Sison replied that while he was open to dialogue, he would only be prepared to meet Duterte in a neighbouring country.

This initial positive exchange was followed by a sense of growing momentum, when a 16-day ‘holiday truce’ agreed by the NPA and the Philippine military – covering the Christmas and New Year period – largely held firm despite several reported violations. In the early weeks of 2020, informal discussions have taken place and the government’s former chief negotiator, Silvestre Bello III, has even suggested Sison could return to Manila to sign an interim peace accord ahead of the resumption of formal talks. Duterte has sought to allay Sison’s fears over returning, stating on 11 January: ‘I guarantee his safety’.

Yet despite these steps forward, the window of opportunity for peace talks to resume may be limited. At the start of Duterte’s administration, talks with the NPA appeared to be moving forward until the peace process collapsed in early-2017 amid a dispute over a prisoner amnesty. All attempts to restart dialogue have since proven fruitless amid an atmosphere of rising hostility between the government and the CPP, typified by repeated tirades of insults exchanged in public between Duterte and Sison. This chequered history suggests the current receding of tensions may turn out only to be temporary.

A history of failed talks

The NPA and CPP have been led by Sison since he founded the rebel movement in the late-1960s. For five decades, the NPA has fought government troops in rural areas across the country, with the stated aim of overthrowing the Philippine state and replacing it with a political system predicated on Maoist ideology. While the insurgency reached its height in the 1980s during the dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos, the rebel movement has since held peace talks with six successive democratic-era presidents.

The National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) – the negotiating body of the NPA and CPP – participated in failed talks during the administrations of Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino III before entering dialogue with Duterte upon his election in 2016. Talks initially progressed well, with a ceasefire being declared and four rounds of dialogue being held in Amsterdam, Oslo and Rome. Yet the peace process collapsed in 2017 amid Duterte’s refusal to release political prisoners and renewed rebel attacks. NPA activity has since rebounded in rural central and southern areas of the Philippines.

In 2018, several months of back-channel talks proved fruitless after the NPA refused to meet Duterte’s pre-conditions for the resumption of formal dialogue, which included an end to rebel attacks, an end to extortion and a political commitment from the CPP not to seek to form a coalition government. Last March, Duterte announced the peace process was ‘permanently terminated’ during his presidency – due to expire in 2022 – and disbanded his negotiating panel, which had been led by Silvestre Bello III. In its place, Duterte proposed localized talks with NPA commanders, bypassing the senior leadership.

Barriers to renewed dialogue

Duterte has rowed back on his decision, offering an olive branch in the form of a face-to-face meeting with Sison. Given this change in tone, what is the likelihood of formal national-level talks between the government and NDFP restarting, and ultimately succeeding, during the remainder of Duterte’s term?

Since peace talks failed in 2017, AFP troops have fought the NPA on a near-daily basis. Violence has centered on Eastern Mindanao, Samar and Negros Island. (Image Source: Matthew Hulett)

Meaningful progress is unlikely for several reasons. First, Sison’s reluctance to return to the Philippines represents a firm barrier to dialogue. Duterte has long insisted that any future talks must be hosted in the Philippines, which Sison has described as ‘totally unacceptable’, arguing in December that agreeing to return would ‘put the NDFP and the entire peace negotiations in the pocket of the Duterte regime’. Alternatively, Sison has proposed holding informal talks in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, ahead of the resumption of formal negotiations in a third-party country – most likely Norway, which has served as a mediator between the two sides in the past. The Philippine government is unlikely to allow the CPP to dictate the timing or location of negotiations, leaving both sides at odds over their desired venue.

Second, the core areas of disagreement that have scuppered talks in recent years, remain unresolved. The government still requires the rebel movement to meet six pre-conditions, first proposed in 2018, before the peace process can resume. These conditions include an end to attacks, extortion and arson in addition to the encampment of rebel fighters, the signing of a bilateral ceasefire and an end to NPA recruitment. Given Sison’s lack of control over NPA commanders on the ground, from his base in the Netherlands, it is difficult to foresee these conditions being met, even if Sison and his advisors agreed. Sison also continues to call for ‘the release of political prisoners on humanitarian grounds’ as his own pre-condition for formal talks resuming. It is unlikely the government will deviate from its past stance.

Third, a lack of trust exists on both sides, with each suspicious of the other’s real intentions in seeking fresh talks. The CPP fears Duterte’s offer for Sison to return to partake in negotiations is a pre-text for his arrest. Despite Duterte’s reassurances, a court in Manila issued an arrest warrant for Sison just last August over his alleged role in the 1985 Inopacan massacre, while in September the Philippine police asked INTERPOL to issue a ‘red notice’ for the detention of Sison. These developments came after the arrest of several NDFP negotiators since 2017 and many previous threats from Duterte to detain Sison. Equally, the government is also suspicious of the CPP’s true intentions, having criticized NPA violations of past ceasefires and accused the group of using past peace negotiations as a cover for recruitment.

These suspicions have not been helped by an ongoing war-of-words between Duterte and Sison since the peace process first collapsed in 2017, typified by increasingly heated rhetoric and personal insults. After back-channel talks failed in 2018, Duterte derided NPA rebels as ‘robots’ fighting for a ‘bankrupt mind’ in reference to Sison, while the CPP leader retorted that Duterte was ‘very capable of violence’, labelling him as a ‘crazy guy in power’. Duterte has openly criticized CPP ideology as ‘outdated’, while the CPP has condemned Duterte’s authoritarian leadership style and argues he seeks to crush dissent. Tensions have been raised by the alleged ‘red-tagging’ of left-wing advocacy groups in recent months.

Fourth, even if the peace process resumes, the likelihood of a final peace accord being signed is slim, given that both sides have opposing visions of its end point. The CPP’s stated aim remains to replace the Philippines’ system of government with a socialist-style system lead by the working classes. Sison’s ideology, first outlined in 1974, argues this must be achieved through a prolonged guerrilla-style war, leaving little room for political negotiation. Many suspect that even in the event of a deal being signed, the NPA would refuse to disarm, with a spokesperson for Duterte’s peace process advisor arguing on 17 January that ‘never has it been the rebels’ intention to demobilize their armed wing, even if both parties sign a final peace agreement’. The Duterte administration, in line with the view of past Manila administrations, foresees a solution in line with the Philippine constitution and democratic processes. In such a case, no parallel armed forces would be permitted and the NPA would be required to disarm.

Another false dawn?

Despite Duterte’s latest peace overture being accompanied by more positive rhetoric by both parties, recent history suggests that events could spiral downhill quickly if disagreement on the core stumbling blocks persists. Since talks first collapsed in 2017, relations between the government and the CPP have been characterized by rising hostility and distrust. Even amid the recent détente, on 5 January the new chief-of-staff of the Philippine armed forces, Lt. Gen. Felimon Santos, vowed to crush the NPA before the end of Duterte’s term in 2022 – a threat which Duterte himself his repeated on multiple occasions.

Such mixed-messaging and Duterte’s unpredictable, shifting stance on his approach toward the CPP, may dissuade the CPP from returning to the negotiating table and leave Sison to conclude the risk of returning to Manila is too high. Unless a formal summit is agreed during this rare moment of calm, the revival of the peace process may – as Duterte stated last March – have to wait ‘for the next president’.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

After Martial Law, Could the Islamic State Rebound in the Philippines?

President Duterte has opted not to extend Martial Law in Mindanao beyond 31 December 2019. The emergency measure had been in place for more than three years (Image Source: PCOO)

On 10 December, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced the end of martial law in Mindanao after opting against an extension, on the advice of military and police chiefs. The emergency measure, which was first imposed in the restive region in response to an ISIS-led siege of Marawi city in May 2017, had previously been extended three times and is now set to expire on 31 December. Two years after ISIS were defeated in Marawi, the jihadist threat has been reduced to a more manageable scale.

The ISIS-affiliated groups which led the siege have been pushed back and many of their leaders killed, leading Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to declare his preference for lifting martial law entirely in November. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP) chiefs initially suggested extending the measure only in ‘selective areas’ where extremist groups still operate. The provinces of Maguindanao and Sulu have both experienced attacks by ISIS-affiliated groups this year.

With martial law lifted, what level of threat do ISIS’ surviving local affiliates represent in Mindanao? And despite ISIS’ declining global influence, after territorial losses in the Middle East and the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a US raid in Syria, could its followers in the Philippines rebound?

ISIS remnants in Mindanao

The Maute Group, accused of planning the assault on Marawi in an attempt to carve out a Southeast Asian ISIS caliphate, are severely depleted after AFP operations in Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur. While the group was 1,000-strong ahead of the siege, it is now thought to have fewer than 25 active members. Its founders, brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute, were killed during the final gun battles in Marawi in October 2017; while its new leader, Abu Dar, was shot dead during a military operation in Tubaran on 14 March, leaving the Mautes without a main figurehead. After Abu Dar’s killing, the AFP said the Mautes were no longer capable of launching a Marawi-style raid, yet military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner warned that the group was still trying to recruit and remains a national security risk.

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which played a minor supporting role in the Marawi siege, emerged relatively unscathed and posed a larger threat in its aftermath. In 2018, they regularly fought government troops and carried-out a string of bombings, maiming civilians in restaurants and shopping malls, in the provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. However, AFP airstrikes and ground operations targeting BIFF hideouts in the rural Liguasan Marsh area of central Maguindanao have dented the group’s capabilities in 2019. In April, regional military commander Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said the three BIFF factions – the most powerful of which is led by ISIS-affiliated militant Abu Toraife – had been forced into a tactical alliance and resorted to guerrilla-style tactics to survive while under growing pressure. In recent months, the group’s remaining fighters have lain low.

A smaller ISIS-aligned group, Ansar Khalifah Philippines (AKP), also remains active further south, in the provinces of Sarangani and South Cotabato. However, since its leader Mohammad Jaafar Maguid was killed in a firefight with police in 2017, AKP has been regarded by the authorities as more of a criminal nuisance than a transnational terror threat, having engaged only in a series of small-scale gun battles.

The threat from Abu Sayyaf

The Philippines oldest known jihadi group, Abu Sayyaf, which was formed in the early-1990s, currently represent the gravest threat of all Mindanao’s ISIS affiliates. After playing a leading role in the Marawi siege alongside the Mautes, Abu Sayyaf retreated from mainland Mindanao to their former maritime hideouts on the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. After regrouping and replenishing its ranks, Abu Sayyaf has rebounded in 2019. The most extreme faction, led by ISIS supporter Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, has perpetrated a wave of high-profile suicide bombings in Sulu this year. On 27 January, two militants detonated themselves inside a crowded cathedral in Jolo, leaving 22 worshippers dead and 81 wounded. A second double suicide attack killed eight people at a military base in Indanan on 28 June, while a fifth bomber blew themselves up at an AFP camp in the same town on 8 September.

Abu Sayyaf laid siege to the city of Marawi for five months in 2017, as part of a coalition of four local militant groups with links to the Islamic State (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

The bombings were all claimed by ISIS via official statements. Several of the suspected bombers were revealed to be Indonesian and Moroccan nationals, adding to concerns that Abu Sayyaf is harbouring foreign fighters trained in bomb-making and willing to volunteer themselves for suicide missions. Back in July, Maj. Gen. Sobejana had warned that seven foreign terrorists were training Filipino militants in IED construction while another 42 suspected foreign fighters were being monitored by the authorities. He said many of these suspects were likely ‘embedded’ with Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF. On 5 November, government soldiers shot dead two Egyptian militants at a checkpoint in Jolo, confirming these fears.

Abu Sayyaf has around 400 fighters and continues to fight the army under the command of Sawadjaan in Sulu, while another ISIS-linked faction led by Furuji Indama remains active in Basilan. Smaller cells are active in the Tawi-Tawi islands, while Abu Sayyaf activity has been reported in Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah and along the coast of mainland Mindanao’s Zamboanga peninsula. Abu Sayyaf is also notorious for launching piracy attacks and kidnappings-at-sea, several of which have occurred in 2019.

Guarding against an ISIS resurgence

Although degraded post-Marawi, and contained to the remote southwest of the country, ISIS-aligned groups are still active and intent on forging a regional caliphate centred on the southern Philippines.

There is growing concern that the BIFF and Mautes may look to replenish their ranks by targeting the 66,000 residents still displaced from Marawi city, more than two years since the end of the siege. The government has been criticized by its opponents for the slow pace of rehabilitation, with the central Banggolo district still in ruin and needing to be cleared of unexploded ordnance before building work can begin. It is feared that young men with limited economic opportunities and their livelihoods placed on hold due to the ISIS-led siege, may ironically become prime targets for recruitment by jihadi groups. Tensions are rising, with the government’s 2021 target for rebuilding the city unlikely to be achieved.

An extension to martial law in Abu Sayyaf and BIFF strongholds would have helped the AFP maintain pressure on ISIS remnants; but the military and intelligence agencies will maintain vigilance regardless. The AFP will likely continue launching airstrikes and undertaking ground offensives in the ISIS hotspots of Sulu and Maguindanao; while also holding regular trilateral naval patrols alongside Indonesian and Malaysian forces in the Sulu Sea, to deter kidnappings and prevent the movement of foreign fighters. Guarding against the transition of Abu Sayyaf to mainland Mindanao is crucial in preventing a repeat of Marawi, when the Philippines’ four ISIS-linked groups were able to join forces to take-over the city.

Hopes are also invested in a peace deal signed between the government and an older, more moderate Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The accord, ratified in a referendum in western Mindanao earlier this year, will see former rebels govern a new Muslim autonomous region, encompassing the core territories where ISIS-linked groups remain active. If the deal brings economic development and enhances livelihoods, then ISIS – known to prey upon unstable and poverty-stricken regions to reinvigorate itself – may be denied a climate conducive to its resurgence in the Philippines.

An earlier version of this article, written before it was announced that martial law would not be extended beyond December 2019, is published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Liguasan Marsh Clashes Expose the Latent Threat from ISIS in the Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 amid the continued threat posed by IS-linked groups (Image Source: PCOO)

Shortly before dawn on 10 June, government airstrikes pounded militant hideouts in towns dotted around the edge of Liguasan Marsh. This sprawling wetland – straddling two provinces in the remote interior of the Philippines’ conflict-wracked southern island of Mindanao – has become just the latest front in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) in Southeast Asia, after militants allied to the notorious jihadi group laid siege to the city of Marawi – located 120km further north – for five months last year.

The initial aerial attack by government forces in Liguasan Marsh was followed by a ground offensive lasting several days, which resulted in the death of at least 26 militants but prompted 15,000 residents to flee their homes. The deceased militants belonged to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) – an IS-aligned group which has clashed repeatedly with the military since the turn of the year.

Meanwhile the radical Maute group – chief architects of the Marawi siege – have also risen their head in Mindanao in recent weeks after several months of inactivity. On 17 June, the Mautes – commanded by IS’ new leader in the Philippines, Abu Dar – clashed with government troops in the Lanao del Sur town of Tubaran, leaving five militants dead and 11,700 people from 2,200 families displaced. Military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner said around 30 Maute fighters were able to flee the area unharmed.

More than a year since the uprising in Marawi, does the intensified violence witnessed in June indicate that IS-linked groups – considerably depleted after the siege – are rebounding in western Mindanao?

While the Mautes were dealt a near-knockout blow after sustaining vast losses in Marawi, only a small cohort of BIFF members participated in the siege. The BIFF fighters who did not travel to Marawi have now picked up the IS mantle. Thought to number several-hundred jihadis, the BIFF remain embedded in small pockets of rural territory across three provinces in western Mindanao: Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The group is split into at least three sub-factions, with Esmael Abdulmalik serving as its main figurehead and de-facto leader. Since Marawi, the BIFF have regularly clashed with the security forces, launched a wave of IED attacks and rampaged through civilian towns.

Encounters between the BIFF and the military have increased in both scale and intensity. On 11 March, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reported it had killed 44 militants and wounded 26 during three days of intense clashes in Datu Saudi town. Fighting again erupted in mid-April, before June’s latest military onslaught targeted the group in Liguasan Marsh. Despite suffering heavy casualties, the BIFF have proven unexpectedly resilient, well-resourced and difficult to dislodge. The group have hit back by ambushing soldiers using IEDs. Bomb blasts have also targeted civilians, with an explosion outside a bar in Tacurong causing 14 casualties on New Year’s Eve. More recently, the BIFF bombed a cathedral in Koronadal city in late-April and detonated a device outside a school in Midsayap in May.

IS-linked militants laid siege to Marawi city for five months from May-October 2017. The conflict left more than 1,000 people dead, most of whom were militants (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

The AFP have reported seeing foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia fighting alongside the BIFF, providing a possible explanation for their confounding level of strength. It is thought that a number of these non-Filipino combatants managed to escape from Marawi during the siege and linked-up with the BIFF, while others are rumoured to have entered Mindanao later by crossing porous sea borders. Senior army commander Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana says the AFP is verifying reports that Indonesians and Singaporeans were among those killed recently at Liguasan Marsh, while Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has previously warned of the illicit entry of terrorists from neighbouring countries. The AFP has vowed to keep a ‘tight watch’ along Mindanao’s heavily-indented coast but policing it round-the-clock is a monumental challenge, and inevitably some are able to slip through the net undetected. Some of these new recruits are battle-hardened and trained in bomb-making skills acquired abroad.

As the BIFF has proceeded with its campaign of terror, the Maute group – destroyed as a hierarchical and organized fighting force in Marawi – has been slowly rebuilding beneath the surface. The clashes that erupted in Tubaran in June were the first involving the group since the early months of the year, when sporadic gun battles with government soldiers erupted in the towns of Masui, Pagayawan and Pantar. The latest violence indicates the Mautes are still very much alive under new leader Abu Dar.

Reports of Maute recruitment in Lanao del Sur province have emerged, with the army claiming the terrorists are using cash, gold and jewellery looted from Marawi to lure impoverished young men into their ranks in villages surrounding the ruins of the now-destroyed Islamic city on the shores of Lake Lanao. In February, the AFP’s Col. Romeo Brawner estimated the Mautes had replenished their ranks with around 200 fighters from Lanao del Sur and said the group ‘had not abandoned their objective to create a caliphate’. The military’s commanding general Rolando Bautista recently warned another Marawi-style urban siege was becoming a ‘big possibility’. Police have also arrested Maute members and sympathizers further afield in central and northern areas of the country, while Manila’s police director Oscar Albayalde has placed officers on ‘full alert’ for potential Maute attacks in the capital.

Alarmist rhetoric aside, on the surface the threat from radical Islamists appears to have reduced since the Marawi siege ended. A military crackdown facilitated by Martial Law has kept up the pressure on the jihadists, while a long-delayed peace process with the region’s larger and more moderate Muslim rebel groups is inching towards a conclusion. The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is set to be passed next month, paving the way for the creation of a new autonomously-governed region for Muslim majority areas in Mindanao. It is hoped the landmark deal will forge a lasting peace between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – which has already laid down its arms – while at the same time reducing grievances among the Muslim population and tackling the core long-term drivers of terrorist recruitment in western Mindanao, which have sustained more radical groups for decades.

Since the Marawi siege ended, Philippine troops have been battling the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and remnants of the Maute group in Mindanao (Image Source: PIA)

Yet the current generation of extremist groups present in the region – spearheaded by the IS-aligned BIFF and the rapidly-regrouping Maute remnants – appear unlikely to give up their fight. If the peace process fails to live up to its promise of bringing greater autonomy and development, there is a danger these elements may be able to garner enough support to once again revive Mindanao’s six-decade Islamist separatist struggle – but this time entwined with the warped ideology of transnational jihad and the brutal tactics which have become the trademark of IS’ global brand. Just last month, senior BIFF spokesperson Abu Misri Mama warned the group does not recognize the BBL-led peace process and chillingly said ‘‘we are not in favour of autonomy…the BIFF will continue to fight for independence; the island will not see peace even after this BBL is passed’’. President Rodrigo Duterte has also voiced fears of such a scenario, warning earlier this year of ‘‘war in Mindanao’’ if the peace process collapses.

For as long as their flame still burns, the IS-linked jihadists of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Mautes will represent the greatest barrier to a lasting peace in the Philippines’ troubled south.

Almost a Year on from ISIS, Marawi’s Displaced Residents Face a Long Wait to Return Home

Many of Marawi’s former residents remain displaced across Mindanao. The city’s central Banggolo area remains off-limits while the military works to clear unexploded bombs and war materials left behind from the conflict. (Image Source: Philippine Information Agency)

Five months since President Duterte declared Marawi city ‘liberated from terrorist influence’ after the slaying of militant leaders Isnilon Haplion and Omar Maute during the final throes of battle, the vast majority of the city’s war-weary former residents have not yet been able to return to their homes.

More than 200,000 of Marawi’s inhabitants remain displaced and are at the epicentre of what has become a prolonged humanitarian crisis, which is beginning to foster an atmosphere of hopelessness and despair among the resilient but increasingly forlorn community of Marawian evacuees.

The exiled are desperate to resume their lives and begin the slow process of rebuilding everything they have lost, yet the path ahead appears uncertain, dangerous and littered with obstacles.

The government says the full reconstruction and rehabilitation of Marawi could take up to four years to complete, whilst the flattened streets of the city centre remain littered with unexploded ordnance. The scale of devastation across the war-ravaged city makes a return to normality a distant prospect.

In the interim, the prolonged marginalization and disenfranchisement of Marawi’s exiled community could create fertile ground for recruitment by ISIS in the areas of western Mindanao worst-affected by the displacement crisis. Should the government be doing more?

The scale of the humanitarian crisis is huge. More than 353,000 people from around 77,000 families were displaced by the five-month war which pitted government forces against jihadists from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups. The vast majority fled during the early days of the conflict after militants took the authorities by surprise and over-ran the city on 23 May last year, leaving only around 2,000 civilians stranded in areas of heavy fighting. Several-hundred were taken hostage by the Mautes.

Most internally-displaced persons (IDPs) sought refuge in the nearby provinces of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte, with smaller numbers residing in Misamis Oriental and South Cotabato. The majority of those who fled have stayed with friends or relatives, yet tens-of-thousands more have been forced to seek shelter in cramped conditions in hastily-established state-run temporary evacuation centres.

The military initially hoped to defeat the jihadists within a few weeks, but as residents anxiously waited for news the conflict ran-on for five long months as the city was reduced to rubble through intense ground battles and sustained aerial bombardment. The scale of devastation was immense, as security forces engaged in some of the heaviest fighting witnessed in the Philippines since World War Two.

Whilst the small number of civilians trapped in the conflict zone endured a desperate daily battle for survival, dodging bullets and launching daring attempts to escape from their captors, those who had already managed to flee to safety were confronted with a new set of dire challenges.

In overcrowded evacuation centres, health became a major concern as cases of fever, diarrhoea and respiratory illnesses soared. Inadequate sanitation facilities increased the risk of waterborne diseases, whilst safe drinking water was in short supply. Dwindling food supplies led to a rise in malnutrition among the elderly and young children, many of whom remain out of education as twenty of Marawi’s 69 schools were totally destroyed. Most other schools suffered extensive damage and remain closed.

The sheer extent of the unfolding humanitarian emergency overwhelmed local authorities, who were ill-prepared to cope with the burgeoning crisis. The siege of Marawi not only destroyed homes but also jobs, livelihoods and entire communities, prompting a sudden exodus with little prior warning.

Some families from the outer-regions of the city were able to return home in the weeks immediately following the ‘termination of military operations’ in the city by the armed forces in late-October. A few thousand others have been moved to temporary resettlement villages built by the government, the largest of which is in Sagonsongan and will eventually be able to accommodate 4,600 families.

Bombing of Marawi City
ISIS-linked militants from the radical Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups laid siege to Marawi on 23 May 2017. The authorities were initially taken aback at the scale of the assault, and it took almost five months for the Philippine military to retake the city. (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

Yet the majority of Marawians remain displaced. According to the latest figures released by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) only 87,306 individuals from 16,930 families have returned to Marawi so-far, leaving another 266,615 residents from 53,323 families still without a home.

Contamination of the main battle area with IEDs planted by the militants and unexploded ordnance (UXO) from military air raids presents the most immediate barrier to return. Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBN), the multi-agency group set-up by the government to co-ordinate the rehabilitation effort, is currently working alongside military engineers to clear the hard-hit central Banggolo area.

As of the end of December, TFBN said 30% of the area had been cleared with the army having removed 2,853 items of UXO and 415 IEDs from the ruins. Military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner says clearing operations in the area, which covers 24 of the city’s 96 villages, are scheduled to be completed by mid-April. Even then it will not be safe for residents to return permanently, only to pay a fleeting visit.

The government estimates that full reconstruction and rehabilitation of the city will take up to four years and cost PHP50bn, yet some have predicted the final bill will surpass PHP150bn. International organizations such as the World Bank and foreign governments including Australia, China, Japan and the US have all pledged financial support, whilst President Duterte has allocated an initial PHP10bn for the rehabilitation of Marawi in this year’s budget. Despite these commitments, little can be done to speed up recovery and get residents home sooner.

More however could be done to support Marawi’s displaced inhabitants while they are living in a state of flux. Nine months after the siege began host families are still struggling with the burden of care, whilst the basic needs of many IDPs staying in evacuation centres are still not being met. It is now clear that most evacuees will not be able to return home for years, prompting calls for greater support.

In the present void, resentment and anger are rising. This could play directly into the hands of the very people who drove Marawi’s residents from their homes. The Philippine military has already voiced concerns over radicalization in the provinces surrounding Marawi, warning that ISIS-linked groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and remnants of the Maute group are actively seeking to recruit new fighters, first targeting young men from the most marginalized communities.

Marawi’s residents are eager to return home, but their city has been reduced to rubble and large parts of it will remain uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. The conflict will leave lasting scars not only on the landscape, but also in the minds of those who witnessed the horrors inflicted by ISIS and those who have lived through its aftermath in desperate conditions.

By extending Martial Law until the end of 2018 and looking to bolster the military’s presence in Mindanao, as well as reaffirming his commitment to pass a law creating a new autonomous Muslim region in the south, President Duterte is at least attempting to ensure that the siege of Marawi is not repeated elsewhere in the region whilst concurrently dealing a blow to ISIS’ recruitment ambitions.

Yet with an eye on securing peace for the future, Duterte’s administration is arguably not doing enough in the present to help Marawi’s displaced residents recover and get their shattered lives back on track. Despite starting the process of rebuilding the city and providing various means of assistance to IDPs, the state’s response has been criticized in some quarters as being too slow and inequitable.

The void is being filled by NGOs and the charitable nature of victims’ friends and families. Yet as time passes and funding dries-up, these additional resources will likely wear thin. Duterte must hope that radical groups are not able to also fill part of the void and take advantage of the situation.

Just like the siege itself, the path home for Marawi’s displaced inhabitants is set to be long, arduous and fraught with setbacks.

A version of this article is also published on Eurasia Review.

What Underlies the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters’ Campaign of Terror in Western Mindanao?

Since the end of the Marawi siege in October, Philippine troops have been redeployed to take on the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Image Source: Philippines Information Agency)

In the three months since the jihadists of the ISIS-linked Maute group were routed by Philippine troops in Marawi, another radical band of Islamists have risen from the shadows to take their place as the vanguard of ISIS in western Mindanao. Since the five-month siege of Marawi ended in late-October, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) have launched a wave of IED attacks and regularly clashed with security forces, whilst their de-facto leader Esmael Abdulmalik has been touted as a possible replacement for slain Abu Sayyaf militant Isnilon Hapilon as ISIS’ new emir in Southeast Asia.

In the post-Marawi climate of heightened threat awareness, the BIFF’s recent spike in activity has garnered an increased amount of attention not only in the Philippines, but across the wider region. Yet the group has been around for almost a decade and has been involved in high-profile incidents before, notably the Mamasapano clash of January 2015 which left 44 special forces soldiers dead and sent shockwaves throughout the country. The BIFF has also claimed responsibility for bomb attacks in the past, whilst a small cohort of its fighters are thought to have taken part in last year’s Marawi siege.

What underlies the BIFF’s intensified campaign of terror? And how has this previously little-known militant group emerged from being a mere footnote in Mindanao’s long-running armed Islamist insurgency to positioning itself as the last bastion of ISIS’ ambitions to carve out a regional caliphate?

The BIFF has its roots in the decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency which has been fought on the Philippines’ conflict-plagued southern island of Mindanao since the early 1970s. In its initial stages, the insurgency was fought by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founded by Nur Misuari, and later by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) founded by Hashim Salamat, which broke-off from the MNLF in 1981. Both organizations enjoyed support from large sections of the Muslim population in the Mindanao region, which has long suffered from underdevelopment and high rates of poverty in comparison to other parts of the majority-Catholic country, leaving its residents feeling marginalized.

The MNLF and the MILF both started out fighting for a fully-independent state for the Muslim-majority Moro population in the south, leading to a protracted conflict which has caused more than 100,000 deaths. Yet in recent decades their stance has softened as both groups have turned their attention away from armed struggle and towards peace talks with the government, aimed at securing greater autonomy in the south rather than independence. This shift angered hardline elements within the separatist movement, resulting in the formation of several radical groups to revive the campaign for a fully-independent Muslim state. A breakaway faction of the MNLF – Abu Sayyaf – emerged in 1990 and went on to gain global notoriety after launching a spate of kidnappings in the region and brutally beheading several Western hostages. Twenty years later, in 2010, a second splinter group emerged this time from within the ranks of the MILF, and called itself the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

The BIFF was formed by Ameril Umbra Kato, who was educated in Saudi Arabia and espoused a more radical brand of Islam based on Salafi-Wahhabi ideology, practiced more widely in the Middle East than in Southeast Asia. Frustrated with the MILF’s decision to accept autonomy at the expense of full independence, Kato led around 300 former MILF comrades in a campaign of attacks targeting the military and civilians in rural areas across the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato. The primary aim of the attacks was to disrupt the peace process between the government and the MILF.

Kato was succeeded as leader by Mohammad Ali Tambako after suffering a stroke in 2011, yet Tambako left to establish another militant group two years later. Kato died of natural causes in 2015 and the BIFF appointed Ismael Abubakar as its new figurehead, signalling a new era in which the group separated into factions and became more of a splintered guerrilla organization than a co-ordinated or hierarchical group. The BIFF remains loosely-structured today, and is not thought to have a defined leadership structure or central chain of command.

The BIFF has its roots in Mindanao’s long running Islamist separatist insurgency, but in recent years has fought under the banner of ISIS (Image Source: Keith Bacongco)

Amidst the uncertainty over its direction and leadership, the group had pledged allegiance to ISIS in late-2014. At the time, this was not viewed as a concern by the authorities and was seen as more of an attention-grabbing ploy aimed at aiding recruitment and boosting the group’s profile. This view changed suddenly when in May last year, militants from the ISIS-aligned Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups launched a brazen assault on the city of Marawi. The threat from ISIS had become visible, having materialized itself on a large scale in Southeast Asia for the first time. The Marawi crisis led the security forces in Mindanao to take pledges of allegiance to ISIS by smaller militant groups far more seriously.

The jihadists from the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf took five months to dislodge. In mid-October, the Philippine military announced the end of the siege after the deaths of militant leaders Omar Maute and Isnilon Hapilon in the main battle zone. More than 900 militants were killed in total, dealing a serious blow to Abu Sayyaf’s capabilities and virtually destroying the Maute group as a fighting force. Whilst a small number of the BIFF’s members were thought to be present in Marawi, many of the group’s fighters remained in its heartlands elsewhere in western Mindanao. These BIFF fighters now constitute the surviving remnants of ISIS in the southern Philippines, and have taken up the mantle vacated by the Mautes with a renewed sense of purpose and authority.

Since the end of the Marawi siege clashes between government forces and the BIFF have intensified in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato, where the group has its rural strongholds. Government airstrikes, ground offensives and gun battles resulted in the death of 28 BIFF members in the final three months of 2017, whilst two government troops were also killed. In December, the BIFF launched a series of attacks targeting the indigenous Teduray tribe whilst attempting to seize pockets of territory in rural villages in Maguindanao province, setting fire to houses and killing several tribe members whilst driving thousands more from their homes. The BIFF has also launched a spate of bomb attacks targeting police patrols, military bases and civilians. On New Year’s Eve, the militants detonated an IED outside a crowded bar in Tacurong city, killing two civilians and injuring twelve, having earlier in the day killed one and wounded five policemen in a bomb blast in Datu Hoffer town.

The BIFF remains split into at least three main factions, the largest and most active of which is led by Ismael Abdulmalik, also known by the alias Abu Turaife. In a particularly worrying development, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has reported seeing ‘foreign-looking’ gunmen fighting alongside BIFF militants in Maguindanao province, indicating that terrorist fighters from elsewhere in Southeast Asia may have joined-up with the group. It is possible that surviving Maute group members, including a number of Indonesians and Malaysians believed to have fought in Marawi, may have bolstered the BIFF’s ranks. At present, the BIFF appears to be the new group of choice for the region’s militants.

Local authorities have said they are monitoring the recruitment activities of jihadist groups in western Mindanao and are bracing themselves for another Marawi-style attack. Cotabato city has been muted as a possible second target. President Duterte has responded by extending Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 and has promised to destroy the BIFF, whilst recently-installed military chief Lt. Gen. Rey Leonardo Guerrero has vowed to redeploy resources from Marawi to tackle Islamist groups across the south. Mindanao’s civilian population remains on edge as its security forces maintain a heightened state of alert, having conducted several urban warfare training exercises in recent months to prepare for a repeat scenario. In Marawi last May, the authorities had been caught off guard.

Military operations against the BIFF have intensified in recent months in the group’s rural strongholds in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato (Image Source: AFP)

The rise to prominence of radical groups such as Maute, and now the BIFF, comes at a crucial stage in the southern Philippines’ drawn-out peace process with the MILF, which has laid down its weapons since a provisional peace deal with the government was signed in 2014. Currently, lawmakers are debating the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which would pave the way for a new autonomous region in the south to replace the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), constituting a final negotiated end to hostilities with the largest groups in the Moro rebel movement.

The bill is expected to be passed later this year. Yet after slow progress in getting even to this stage, concerns have been voiced that if the bill is delayed further, or in a worst-case scenario fails to pass through Congress, frustrations will grow and fertile ground for jihadist recruitment will be created. President Duterte and MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim have both warned of the radicalization risk. Duterte has talked repeatedly of the importance of correcting ‘historical injustices’ committed to the Moro people, whilst Ebrahim has described the BBL as being of ‘great importance for stability and security in Southeast Asia’. In a November interview with Channel News Asia, the MILF leader said ‘the longer this process takes, the more people are going to be radicalized’. Despite expressing his own frustration over the slow progress being made, Ebrahim has said the MILF remains firmly committed to the peace process and is staunchly opposed to radical groups such as the BIFF and Abu Sayyaf.

President Duterte has extended Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 to crack down on the BIFF and other militant groups active in the region (Image Source: Philippine Government)

Whilst the passage of the BBL may be an important step in quelling the long-running insurgency, it must be noted that previous peace agreements have not succeeded in ending the violence altogether. Despite the creation of the ARMM in 1989 and the signing of separate peace accords with the MNLF in 1996 and the MILF in 2014, several new groups have been spawned and the insurgency has evolved.

At present, it is the BIFF which pose the greatest concern going forward. Radical groups such as the BIFF will remain attractive to those who will never accept autonomy and maintain a desire to see a fully-independent Islamic state created in the southern Philippines. This is especially true for those living in the most impoverished areas of Mindanao, who may feel disenfranchised and excluded from the potential benefits that any political settlement may bring.

As long as the underlying conditions of instability remain present in Mindanao, transnational terror groups such as ISIS and aspiring militants from across the region will seek to take advantage of the situation. These links pose the biggest challenge to the ongoing peace process in the Philippines’ troubled south. Despite efforts on both sides to secure a lasting peace, the spread of ISIS’ global ideology to the region continues to aid recruitment, giving new meaning and impetus to the localized battles fought by formerly little-known militant groups such as the Mautes, Abu Sayyaf and now the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

How Marawi Pushed ASEAN Nations to Join Forces to Tackle Terrorism

Bombing of Marawi City
ISIS-linked militants laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi for five months last year, sparking Southeast Asia’s leaders into action (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

Despite parts of Southeast Asia experiencing the scourge of Islamist terrorism for decades, the ten member-states of ASEAN have in the past struggled to co-operate to tackle the jihadist threat. After a spate of attacks in the 2000s carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf bandits in the southern Philippines, the regional bloc made determined efforts to forge a region-wide response.

These well-intentioned moves to implement a multilateral counter-terrorism framework ended up amounting to little more than a set of non-binding protocols and agreements outlining desired outcomes and suggesting best practices for member-states to follow, rather than ushering in a new era of enhanced security co-operation between countries in the region.

Last year’s five-month siege of Marawi by ISIS-aligned militants however, proved to be a game-changer. The militants’ brazen attempt to take over a mid-sized city of more than 200,000 people and forge a Southeast Asian ISIS province centred on the Philippines’ war-ravaged southern island of Mindanao reignited the lingering threat, finally sparking the region’s authorities into action.

Southeast Asia has long been afflicted by the presence of local, regional and transnational terrorist groups. Mindanao has been the site of an intractable armed Islamist insurgency since the early-1970s, which started off as a separatist movement but later spawned radical groups such as Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Meanwhile Indonesia suffered a string of attacks at the hands of homegrown militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the 1990s and 2000s, supported by Al-Qaeda cells operational within the country. The presence of these groups also caused significant alarm in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore, whilst sparking fears in the wider region.

Terror groups were able to establish a home in the Southeast Asia’s maritime states, taking advantage of porous sea borders and areas of weak state presence to set up training camps and bases from which to plan and launch attacks. This was especially true for remote parts of the Indonesian archipelago and in the lawless chain of Philippine islands which divides the Sulu and Celebes seas. In 2002 more than 200 people were killed in suicide attacks by JI targeting nightclubs on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, before Abu Sayyaf bombed a packed passenger ferry in Manila Bay in 2004, killing 116 civilians.

These high-profile attacks in the post-9/11 era prompted ASEAN to introduce a raft of measures intended to combat terrorism. The most important of these was the 2007 ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism (ACCT), designed to ‘‘provide for the framework for regional co-operation to counter, prevent and supress terrorism in all its forms’’ and ‘‘deepen co-operation among law enforcement agencies’’. However, the convention was not ratified by all ten member-states until 2013, and remained merely a set of guidelines with no enforcement or compliance mechanism. Several other region-wide agreements including the 2009 ASEAN Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counter-Terrorism (CPACT) have only had a marginal influence.

The impact of these counter-terrorism measures has been limited for several reasons. ASEAN’s strict adherence to consensus-based decision-making and the principle of non-interference has faced criticism, whilst the bloc’s use of vague language and its lack of enforcement capabilities have prevented the introduction of concrete region-wide measures to tackle terrorism. The grouping has often been described as a forum for discussion rather than a powerful body willing to push its members into taking firm action.

The varied threat level across ASEAN and the differing military and financial capabilities of its ten member-states has also hindered co-operation. For example, the threat from Islamist terrorism may be high in countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, whilst their armed forces are also relatively well-resourced. In comparison, countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam face a far lower threat, and may not be prepared or equipped to contribute resources to the fight. The past reluctance of ASEAN nations to share intelligence or permit foreign troops to operate across national boundaries has also blocked greater co-operation in the field of counter-terrorism.

The heightened regional terrorism threat featured high-up on the agenda at the November 2017 ASEAN Summit held in Manila (Image Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office)

Historically, ASEAN’s ten member-states have displayed a preference for strengthening domestic legislation and signing bilateral level agreements to tackle terrorism, seeing the threats as national rather than regional or global in nature, and therefore not requiring a multilateral response.

That was until jihadists stormed the southern Philippine city of Marawi in May last year. The threat which had lain dormant beneath the surface since the decline of JI in the late 2000s had suddenly re-emerged in a form that was clearly regional in nature as ISIS announced their intention to carve out a Southeast Asian caliphate. Leaders quickly realised the need for closer co-operation to prevent the violence spreading, amid fears of further ISIS-inspired attacks and terrorist infiltration across borders.

Even before the Marawi siege ended in October, regional leaders gathered on several occasions to discuss responses to the evolving threat. Indonesian President Joko Widodo described Marawi as a ‘‘wake-up call’’ regarding the threat posed to Southeast Asia, whilst Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak reaffirmed his country’s commitment to tackle Islamist terror groups in the region. In September, security officials from all ten ASEAN states took part in a specially-convened meeting on the ‘Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism’ in the region, whilst terrorism also topped the agenda at November’s 31st ASEAN Summit hosted by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila.

The discussions sparked by the takeover of Marawi first resulted in strengthened bilateral and trilateral measures agreed between the states most affected. In June, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines began conducting naval patrols in the Sulu Sea to restrict the movement of jihadist fighters to-and-from Mindanao. These measures were later bolstered by the addition of co-ordinated air patrols to spot suspicious activity from the skies. Indonesia and the Philippines have also agreed to establish a hotline to alert one another about security threats along their shared maritime frontier.

More recently two multilateral regional counter-terror initiatives have been established, indicating that ASEAN nations now appear more willing to co-operate on a collective basis than in the past.

In mid-November, the Southeast Asian Counter-Terrorism Financing Working Group (SACTFWG) was established to crack down on the funding of terrorist groups linked to ISIS. The new regional grouping will include law enforcement agencies from across Southeast Asia, and will be led by the Philippines’ Anti-Money Laundering Council and Australia’s Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC).

Then in a landmark agreement on 25 January six ASEAN members – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – signed-up to a new intelligence-sharing pact labelled the ‘Our Eyes’ initiative. The agreement is expected to facilitate the most extensive counter-terrorism co-operation within ASEAN to-date. It will see senior defence officials from the participating nations meet twice a month, and will allow for the development of a new database of suspected militants which can be accessed by law enforcement agencies across the region.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have been conducting trilateral naval patrols in the Sulu Sea to prevent the movement of terror suspects across borders. In this photo, Philippine troops are seen participating in a training drill alongside US forces (Image Source: US Navy)

At its launch, Malaysia’s Deputy Defence Minister Mohd Johari Baharum said the initiative would be crucial in enabling a collective response to emerging security threats which are ‘‘complex and trans-boundary in nature’’. It is hoped that the four remaining ASEAN states will later join the group, as well as external actors with a stake in the region’s stability such as Australia, India, Japan and the US.

The crisis in Marawi certainly got the region’s leaders thinking about how to better pool resources to tackle the growing threat from Islamist terrorism; but it has not yet resulted in an all-encompassing strategy involving all ten of ASEAN’s member-nations. Such an aim will always be difficult to achieve, due to the huge variation in threat along with the differing capabilities and priorities of ASEAN states.

However, ad-hoc collaborative responses have emerged involving the countries most concerned, on a scale not witnessed previously in the region. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have looked to work with other interested parties to find workable and pragmatic multilateral solutions to the most pressing and immediate problems facing the region’s vulnerable maritime states.

With a series of overlapping bilateral, trilateral and multilateral mechanisms now in place, ASEAN integration in the sphere of counter-terrorism has been significantly upgraded. In the post-Marawi era of elevated risk, a set of guidelines which meant little in practice is rapidly being superseded by a more co-ordinated regional strategy, aimed at tackling the most critical threat facing Southeast Asia today.

A version of this article is also published on Asian Correspondent.

Philippines Communist Insurgency: Rhetoric Heats Up as Peace Negotiations Remain Stalled

President Duterte vowed when elected to pursue peace talks with the CPP-NPA, aimed at ending one of the world’s longest-running communist insurgencies (Image Source: PCOO)

This feature was first published on Asian Correspondent.

When Rodrigo Duterte was elected as president of the Philippines in May 2016, hopes were raised for a negotiated end to one of Asia’s longest-running Maoist insurgencies. On the campaign trail Duterte had vowed, if elected, to enter into ‘inclusive talks’ with rebels from the New People’s Army (NPA), the military wing of the once-outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Peace talks did indeed begin in Norway last August, and got off to a positive start with both sides declaring separate ceasefires and agreeing to further rounds of dialogue, which took place in Oslo in October and Rome in January. At the turn of the year, it appeared steady progress was being made.

Yet the peace process crashed to an abrupt halt in early February after a series of armed clashes led both parties to declare their separate ceasefires at an end. Talks were briefly revived in the Netherlands in April, before a fifth round of dialogue scheduled for May was cancelled by Duterte. Since the collapse of the peace process earlier this year, violence has spiralled and deadly attacks have become a frequent occurrence. September saw several high-profile incidents, with NPA rebels killing four government troops in an ambush in Nueva Vizcaya at the start of the month, whilst on 20 September, nine Maoist rebels were slain in a clash with the Philippine army in Carranglan.

After several attempts to restart negotiations failed, rhetoric on both sides has become increasingly heated in recent months. In August, President Duterte declared ‘war’ against the Maoists, stating ‘Let’s stop talking, start fighting’, before describing peace negotiations as a ‘waste of time’. The CPP responded by labelling Duterte’s administration as a ‘semi-colonial, anti-peasant regime’, whilst claiming ‘the people have no other recourse but to tread the path of militant struggle and collective action’. Amid the escalating war-of-words and with negotiations still stalled, this report examines the reasons why the peace talks faltered and assesses the prospects of future dialogue.

The history of the modern communist movement in the Philippines dates back to 1968 and the founding of the CPP by a former student activist, Jose Maria Sison, who still leads the organization from self-exile in the Netherlands. The party’s armed wing, the NPA, was established a year later with the aim of overthrowing the central government in Manila through a sustained campaign of armed resistance, referred to by the CPP-NPA as a ‘protracted people’s war’. The movement is rooted in Marxist-Leninist ideology and seeks to establish a political system led by the working classes, which would redistribute land to the poor and expel US influence from the Philippines.

The NPA reached the height of its powers in the early-1980s during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, when it attracted widespread public support and had more than 25,000 members. In the democratic era, the movement has declined in strength but still retains an operational presence in most provinces across the country, and now has around 4,800 active members. Clashes between NPA rebels and Philippine troops continue to occur sporadically as the insurgency approaches its sixth decade, despite repeated military crackdowns. The NPA remains especially strong in poorer rural areas where it enjoys widespread support and exercises de-facto control through the collection of ‘revolutionary taxes’; payments which Manila describes as extortion.

Peace negotiations have taken place intermittently in past decades between the National Democratic Front (NDF) – a political grouping which represents the CPP-NPA in formal talks – and successive governments led by Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino, yet to no avail. The election of Duterte last year signalled renewed hope for peace, and the first round of talks with the NDF in August 2016 produced a landmark result: the declaration of ceasefires by both sides. The commitment held and the parties convened again in Oslo two months later, before a third meeting in Rome this January. Yet at the beginning of February, months of careful diplomacy unravelled in a matter of days, whilst efforts to rekindle negotiations in the following months made little progress. Both sides blamed each other as clashes resumed between the army and rebels, leaving many wondering: why did the talks falter, and how did the ceasefire collapse so quickly?

Since the breakdown of peace negotiations earlier this year, NPA attacks against government troops have occurred more frequently (Image Source: Philippines Information Agency)

The trigger for the collapse was a result of the peace process reaching a major sticking-point over the release of political prisoners. As the dialogue moved forward, the CPP-NPA had made it clear that the release of imprisoned members was a pre-condition for the continuation of talks, whereas President Duterte maintained he would not release more prisoners until a formal joint ceasefire agreement had been signed. Tensions surrounding the issue were already boiling over before the NPA lifted its unilateral ceasefire on 1 February. Duterte followed-suit two days later after a series of NPA attacks on Philippine troops, immediately terminating the government’s ceasefire and accusing the ‘terrorist’ rebels of ‘wanting another fifty years of war’.

Whilst unsatisfied demands for a prisoner amnesty served as the trigger for the breakdown of talks earlier this year, there are several more deeply-rooted factors which contributed to the failure of dialogue and restrict the chances of ending the insurgency should talks resume.

First, the factional nature of the NPA – with armed units present in almost every province across the Philippines – and a lack of centralized operational leadership, makes it difficult for the largely symbolic figureheads of the CPP and NDF, responsible for negotiating with the government, to control the activities of their fighters. Whilst a ceasefire is imposed from above, realities on the ground make it easy for violent clashes to occur in a local context. This often leads to further attacks and retaliatory violence, dealing a hammer blow to peace talks at the national level.

Second, a lack of trust exists between both sides. This makes progress difficult to sustain as firmly opposed positions have been reinforced over five decades of conflict. For example, as soon as the talks collapsed in February, both the government and CPP-NPA quickly reverted from making careful diplomatic overtures and returned to using divisive language describing each other as the ‘enemy’. As the months have passed, heated rhetoric has replaced the co-operative tones voiced last year, indicating the fragility of progressive dialogue and the difficulty of reversing long-held suspicions.

President Duterte came to power in 2016 promising to negotiate an end to the Philippines’ long-running internal conflicts, yet conditions appear only to have deteriorated. The government is now firefighting on multiple fronts: the army is still battling ISIS-aligned militants in Marawi, whilst at the same time Congress is trying to finalize a long-awaited peace deal with Moro separatist groups. And now, a resurgent communist insurgency is threatening to inflict further bloodshed.

The only way of resolving the conflict without a peace accord being signed is to tackle the root causes of the insurgency, which would undermine recruitment and support for the NPA through improving the livelihoods of the Philippines’ rural poor. This approach alone however would take decades, and without an accompanying peace deal, may not end the violence in its entirety.

To prevent further internal strife, the government and the NPA have a strong imperative to return to the path of negotiation. Duterte is unpredictable, so his declaration that the peace process with the NPA is over does not necessarily signal the end of the road. If there is a lull in rebel attacks and conditions are deemed right, talks may be restarted in the near future.

After five decades of armed resistance, the cycle of conflict will be difficult to break; yet the revival of the peace process represents the only viable path forward. Unless momentum is regained soon, the Philippines’ long-running Maoist insurgency may prove intractable for another generation.