By Joseph Franco

For more than five months, the Battle for Marawi raged between Philippine security forces and militants linked to the Islamic State. The battle raised important questions as to how much foreign terrorist fighters influenced their Filipino counterparts.

Was Marawi the prelude to a systematic campaign to bring the so-called caliphate to Southeast Asia? On the face of it, the urban warfare seen in Marawi’s streets would appear to be a successful importation of tactics and strategy from Raqqa or Mosul.

In the aftermath of the battle, there were some concerns about how other cities in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao might be targeted next by remnants of the Maute Group or other Islamic State‐inspired terrorist groups. But these views ignored the socio-economic and historical context of Mindanao.

The battle for Marawi should be viewed instead as a proverbial perfect storm, with the Maute Group and its allies more correctly considered as opportunistic actors who exploited the violent milieu of the area.

Several factors made Marawi a setting conducive for the Maute Group to attempt a violent takeover. Insecurity in Marawi is linked to the emergence of a built environment that is distinct in the Philippines. Houses and establishments are built from reinforced concrete or what the locals term as buhos, which made it especially difficult for government forces to re-take the city.


Reuters / 達志影像

A bullet-riddled apartment house located in a residential area in Malutlut district, Marawi city on Oct.27, 2017, which was believed to have been rented by pro-Islamic State militant group leaders Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute before their battle in Marawi city.

The self‐help and clan‐centered nature of Marawi’s enclaves not only created physical structures and micro‐environments that aided the terrorists. Distrust and insecurity also led to a fragmented sense of community, which could have inoculated the Muslim population against the appeal of IS. The perennial siege mentality of the city’s residents meant that the military could not hope to rely on the community providing information on infiltrating militants. That same hardy, self‐reliant mindset which built the city’s physical infrastructure effectively walled‐off the population from the security services.

What lessons can we draw from this battle and how can we prevent another Marawi?

The need to resolve the roots of the conflict remains under-appreciated and points to a surprising reality. Although the Philippines has been facing multiple secession and terrorist threats in Mindanao for more than four decades, no presidency has yet come out with a strategy to counter violent extremism at the national level.

Preventing future "Marawis" cannot be premised on counter‐ideological approaches or be focused against IS narratives alone. Violent extremism in Mindanao is driven by largely material considerations, so counter‐ideological work such as promoting a state‐supported brand of Islam may only prove to be counterproductive and further alienate Filipino Muslims. It would also fail to address the material quality‐of‐life issues that underpin the conflict. A heavy‐handed ideological approach would further exacerbate identity-based divisions between Muslims, Christians and the indigenous peoples of Mindanao.

For the military, Marawi will serve as another reminder of the need to enhance its capabilities for future contingencies in urban terrain. The Armed Forces of the Philippines should incorporate the lessons of Marawi into military training curriculums. One lesson is that re-trained forces need the appropriate equipment to execute their expanded mission set. For instance, mechanisms which covered the emergency procurement of drones should be codified into better standard operating procedures.

In addition, Manila should foster its existing partnerships with foreign military forces. During the crisis, US special operations forces were immediately deployed to Marawi to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to their Philippine counterparts.

To prevent similar outbreaks of violence, broader initiatives should also be pursued in step with military efforts.


Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像

Fleeing residents wait for their turn to be inspected by police as they flee Marawi city Thursday, May 25, 2017 in southern Philippines.

First, President Rodrigo Duterte must follow through with the promise for political autonomy for the region, as outlined in the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro between the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The creation of an autonomous Bangsamoro ("Moro nation") homeland should take precedence over the hard push by Duterte’s allies to convert the Republic of the Philippines into a federal state. A shift to a federal form of government would render moot the comprehensive agreement and could likely lead to a flare‐up in violence.

Second, young people should be given particular attention in any Mindanao development programs. The Maute Group was able to recruit its fighters from disaffected youth in Lanao del Sur province with promises of financial rewards and economic mobility. For those who were educated and hailed from wealthy clans of the Maranao ethnic group, the Maute Group promised adventure and the fulfillment of a sense of duty to fight the "crusaders" from the Philippine military.

Much needs to be done, but there are reasons to be hopeful. In spite of decades of conflict in Mindanao, not one incident of a Filipino extremist killing himself in a suicide bombing or attack has ever been reported. The appeal of martyrdom (and rewards in the afterlife promised by jihadist propaganda) has meant little in the face of the real world financial inducements that prompt membership in organisations like the Maute Group.

Filipino militants appear to continue to be concerned with the here and now. This means that far from being intractable, the issues used to justify committing violence in Mindanao can be resolved by responsive governance.

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Joseph Franco is a Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security at RSIS in Singapore, specialising in countering violent extremism and counterinsurgency. This article is based on the authors’ paper in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies: Preventing Other “Marawis” in the Southern Philippines.’ All papers in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies are free to read and download.

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Policy Forum – Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis, opinion, debate, and discussion.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston