A month ago, hardly anybody outside the Philippines had ever heard of Marawi. Now it’s the latest front in the war against Islamic State. More evidence, if you needed it, that the terrorism associated with Islamic State will go on long after Mosul and Raqqa have been liberated and “Caliph Ibrahim” (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) has been killed or captured.
“We have actually preempted the establishment of a wilayat (a province of Islamic State),” said Ernesto Abella, the spokesperson of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, which is definitely overstating the case.
The response of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) was slow and clumsy, and government policy has been lax and inattentive.
It’s not even clear if the attempt by the Maute group of Islamist fighters to take over Marawi, an unimportant city of 200,000 people in the centre of Mindanao island in the southern Philippines, was actually a bid to create a “wilayat” of Islamic State. It is necessary to control some territory to declare a wilayat, so they had a motive, but this fight started almost accidentally.
The fighting broke out in the city after a failed attempt to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a leading figure in another, bigger Islamist group called Abu Sayyaf that has also pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Fighters from that outfit and others joined the Maute group that predominates in the Marawi area in a general uprising on May 23—and the AFP’s reaction was so hesitant that between 400 and 500 fighters were able to take over the city.
The insurgents weren’t numerous enough to hold the whole city once the army got its act together, but for the past month they have controlled between 10 and 20 percent of it. The government claims to have killed 280 militants for the loss of 69 AFP soldiers and 29 civilians and promises it will be over soon, but it has been a profoundly unimpressive performance.
Equally unimpressive has been the performance of the government led by “Rody” Duterte. Like every government before it, it has paid little attention to monitoring the seas around the Philippines, so it is easy for foreign militants to slip into the country.
It has been far worse than any previous government in its disregard for the law: Duterte’s “dirty war” against drugs has involved thousands of extra-judicial killings. It has been a major distraction (and a huge crime, of course), and it has effectively de-professionalised the police. Death squads do not do effective police work.
Above all, Duterte has failed to push for ratification of the 2014 peace agreement with the largest Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF is Islamic but not extreme Islamist, and the agreement granted it considerable autonomy in the area of central Mindanao under its control. However, the legislation to implement the deal stalled in Congress in 2015, and has never been put back on the agenda.
With nothing to show for its attempt to reach a peaceful compromise with the government, the MILF leadership has been unable to stop its more hard-line members from defecting to other, more radical groups that reject the agreement. Most of those groups are associated with Islamic State or at least share its ideology, so the situation in Mindanao is worse than it was when the peace deal was signed.
The siege of Marawi will be over in another week or so: the AFP claims there are only 100 fighters left in the city (although it isn’t very efficient at sealing off the city and stopping others from arriving). The larger problem of radicalization among discontented and disadvantaged Muslims in Mindanao will continue, and may well grow. The only thing that would stop it is good governance, and that is not offered under Duterte.
It’s an accident of history that this problem even exists. Islam was being spread east across the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines by Malay traders, and there were already several Muslim rulers in the Philippines when the Spanish arrived in 1570. But few of the common people had converted to Islam yet except in Mindanao, and under Spanish rule the rest of the Philippines was converted to Catholicism instead.
No cause for complaint there: history is full of accidents like that. But it is true that successive Filipino governments encouraged the emigration of Christians to Mindanao, and that Muslims have now fallen to 20 percent of the population even in Mindanao. Nationwide, only five percent of the population is Muslim.
The demand for a “Muslim homeland” in the Muslim-majority parts of Mindanao has been strong for decades, and a sensible Filipino government would have made the necessary compromises long ago. That’s not going to happen under Duterte, but the worst that can happen is an ugly local problem that need not concern the rest of the world.
That is more than can be said for next-door Indonesia, which is 90 percent Muslim and has two-and-a-half times the population of the Philippines. As General Gatot Nurmantyo, Indonesia’s military chief, said last week, there are Islamic State-affiliated sleeper cells “in almost every (Indonesian) province.”