Dismay, questions as Duterte SONA reduces Marawi terror siege to a drug issue

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte mentioned terrorism and the 2017 siege of Marawi City once in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 22, and it was to pitch to Congress the reinstatement of the death penalty for “heinous crimes related to drugs, as well as plunder.”

Duterte implied that it was the influence of drugs and money from its illegal trade that sparked and fueled the Marawi siege.

“Drug money killed 175 and wounded [2,101] of my soldiers and policemen in that 5-month battle,” Duterte said.

There was no further mention in the SONA of plans for rehabilitating the war-torn city, or of programs to curb terrorism, despite the recent emergence of suicide attacks in parts of Mindanao and the threat it presents to the rest of the country.

Nadismaya po kami sa SONA niya (We were dismayed at his SONA),” said Agakhan Sharief, a prominent religious leader and scholar from Marawi who had helped broker past ceasefires between the government and Muslim rebels.

Known by his moniker “Bin Laden” for his resemblance to the Al Qaeda leader, Sharief tried to set up negotiations between the government and the ISIS-linked Maute group during the siege to spare Marawi from further destruction. It was in vain, and he remains displaced from his home along with some 50,000 other residents.

Ang Pangulo, 'di niya kinayang banggitin ang rehabilitasyon ng Marawi. Bagkus, kanya pa itong minaliit, kesyo parang pinapalabas na lahat drug lord ang mga taga-Marawi,” Sharief told Rappler.

(The President, he didn’t manage to mention the rehabilitation of Marawi. Instead, he even belittled it, as though to imply that people from Marawi are all drug lords.)

The devastating siege of Marawi that lasted from May 23 to October 17, 2017, eliminated any doubts about the presence in the Philippines of the Islamic State (ISIS) through members of local terror groups taking orders and receiving support from it, and foreign extremists joining the cause of carving out a caliphate in Southeast Asia.

More than 1,000 people were killed in the 5-month battle that left the city’s central district in ruins. Two years on, this “most affected area” is still off-limits to residents yearning to return home. The military says it is still littered with unexploded bombs.

‘Festering cesspool’

Confusion over land titles and complications from parceling out government contracts to private builders have held back the city’s reconstruction.

“Bilyon-bilyon ang mga tulong na nagmula sa local at international community pero kaming taga-Marawi, 'di namin nararamdaman ang mga tulong na 'yan. Hanggang ngayon po, wala akong nakita naayos ng pamahalaan sa ground zero,” Sharief said.

(Billions worth of aid have poured in from the local and international communities, but we Marawi residents, we have not experienced any of that aid. Until now, I have not seen anything fixed by the government at ground zero.)

Many displaced residents still live in tents or temporary shelters where living conditions are difficult, if not squalid, with no guarantee that things will get any better.

“It’s a festering cesspool of potential terrorism,” said Jose Antonio Custodio, a security analyst and former consultant of the National Security Council, talking about how terror groups capitalize on people’s suffering and disillusionment with the established authority to recruit new members.

An episode of the documentary 60 Minutes Australia, published online on Sunday, July 21, featured interviews with two ISIS recruits in Marawi.

One of them, a 24-year-old man, said he was lured by ISIS 3 years ago with money, guns, and a monthly salary. He said he believes ISIS “tells God’s orders” and would lead him to paradise. If his leader ordered him, he said he would be “happy” to bring their fight to places beyond Marawi, including Manila.

The other ISIS recruit interviewed in the documentary, a 54-year-old man, said there are even more of them – easily 2,000 – willing to wage another attack.

The government said around 900 jihadists were behind the Marawi siege.

“I think everybody sees the failure to reconstruct Marawi as being a real danger point because it’s fertile ground for recruitment and there is a lot of resentment,” Sidney Jones, head of the Jakarta-based think tank Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, told 60 Minutes Australia.

‘Utak-pulbura’

Custodio believes Duterte knows better than to equate the terrorism problem with illegal drugs, but he did so in his SONA “to buttress his war on drugs, which is also his way to control Philippine society.”

Duterte’s rhetoric “ignores the dynamics of why there is extremism in this country. He knows that, that extremism is caused by other factors,” Custodio told Rappler.

However, “everything has to fit into that narrative that drugs is the number one threat in the Philippines,” he added.

The problem with such rhetoric, especially during the SONA in which Duterte spoke in his full capacity as President, is that many people, including members of the police and military, will take his view.

“It enables simpletons in the services, so instead of thinking more rationally about it, it encourages utak-pulbura (literally ‘gunpowder-brain,’ meaning ‘war freak’).

The lack of a clear policy guidance on handling terrorism and the “inefficiency” of Duterte’s leadership style, said Custodio, makes it uncertain whether “the people under him will be able to execute a coherent policy.”

“He leaves it to the people how to interpret everything. Kung walang policy guidance na matino, kanya-kanyang hirit na lang yan, ang nangyayari dito ay, baka malusutan sila ng terorista,” he added. (Without the proper policy guidance, everyone will just do things their way, and what happens here is, a terrorist might slip past them.)

Token mention

A day after the SONA, on July 23, the Armed Forces’ Western Mindanao Command said they were on the hunt for 7 “foreign terrorists” and monitoring 42 others who may also have terror links.

Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana, the unit’s commander, said the foreigners were likely “grooming new suicide bombers much like the one lately,” referring to the Filipino suicide bomber in the Indanan, Sulu, twin attack on July 28.

Sobejana said the foreign terrorists are likely from ISIS, yet again confirming what experts have been saying, that ISIS has its eyes set on Southeast Asia as it loses ground in the Middle East, and the loosely governed Southern Philippines is a relatively easy target.

The government’s foremost solution to unrest in Mindanao, the nascent Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim MIndanao (BARMM), got a token mention in Monday’s SONA.

“It is my hope that the Bangsamoro Transition will fast-track the establishment of regional government that will secure and comfortable life for Muslim brothers and sisters, and all indigenous communities in the Bangsamoro Regions,” Duterte said.

Sharief recently received government recognition for leading the rescue of 255 hostages from the Marawi battle zone through a ceasefire he brokered with the Maute group leaders. At the time, he warned that local armed groups would resort to suicide bombings – then unheard of among Filipinos – if the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fails or delays.

Now, Sharief laments the seeming lack of enthusiasm from Duterte with regard to the BARMM, which puts the MILF on the spot as it tries to establish its leadership over the expanded autonomous region.

“'Di batid ng pamahalaan na kapag 'di nakapag-implenta ang MILF dahil sa 'di pagtupad ng pamahalaan, ito’y magdudulot ng pagkadismaya ng mga tauhan ng MILF at sila ay sasapi sa mga terorista tulad ng ISIS-Abu Sayyaf, BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters), etc, na maghahasik ng lagim sa Pilipinas. At ang masakit, nasimulan na nila ang suicide bombing. God forbid,” he said.

(The government is unaware that if the MILF fails to implement [the BARMM] because of the government’s neglect, it will cause dismay among the people of the MILF and they will join terrorists like the ISIS-Abu Sayyaf, BIFF, etc., that will spread trouble in the Philippines. And the painful thing is they’ve started suicide bombing. God forbid.”)

Jones and Custodio both said terrorists will try to target Manila and other urban areas.

But Jones told 60 Minutes Australia, “I think there’s a bigger chance of a bomb attack in Manila than there is of another takeover of a city.” – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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