LANAO DEL SUR, Philippines – Recent developments in the jungles of Sulu are game changers that underscore the country’s continuing battle against armed groups linked to the Islamic State (ISIS) a year since they laid siege to Marawi City.
An ISIS black flag was recovered following clashes with a faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) previously confined to kidnap-for-ransom activities. The presence of at least two foreign fighters in the island is also being verified.
“We are able to validate that ISIS has footprints here. We need to analyze this. What is going to be its impact on our operations?” Brigadier General Cirilito Sobejana, the island commander, told Rappler in Filipino.
Sulu’s local bandits – notorious for beheading hostages – were previously believed to be uninterested in supporting the slain Isnilon Hapilon, ASG’s former leader in nearby Basilan who was named the emir of ISIS in Southeast Asia.
Sobejana said the faction of Hajan Sawadjaan defied Radullon Sahiron, the overall leader of the ASG in Sulu, who didn’t want anything to do with ISIS.
Sawadjaan is no ideologue. Sobejana believes he was only hoping to get money from ISIS as his funds were running dry due to the military’s no-ransom policy.
Notwithstanding his motivations, any link between the vicious bandits of Sulu with ISIS is a cause for concern. It was the unification of pro-ISIS armed groups – Isnilon’s ASG faction and the Maute Group – that led to the siege of Marawi last year.
“In rebel- or armed-group-influenced areas, the ISIS, Al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiah or any other foreign group would find groups willing to undertake operations on their behalf as long as there is the necessary financial support,” said Jose Antonio Custodio, military historian and analyst.
Zachary Abuza, Southeast Asia security expert at the National War College in the US, also warned of a scenario where foreign fighters could unite the rest of the country’s extremist groups.
“There are many pro-ISIS groups in the south, but they are geographically apart in a region with very poor infrastructure, or riddled with factionalism and egos. If they could ever coordinate their efforts, they could really spread the AFP thin,” he said.
Marawi a ‘propaganda victory ‘ for ISIS
In Marawi City, the former battle area serves as reminder of the havoc that pro-ISIS groups could bring to a city.
A sea of destruction engulfed 24 villages covering 250 hectares, including the once bustling city proper. At least 50,000 residents remain displaced.
The death of the top leaders of pro-ISIS groups and hundreds of well-trained supporters in Marawi City last year weakened the extremist groups. But the military cannot claim total victory for the 5-month-long clashes. (READ: The war in Marawi: 153 days and more)
Abuza said it was a “propaganda victory” for ISIS. “They held off a much larger, better resourced military force for 5 months. It is hard to put a good spin on that,” he said.
Custodio agreed. “This armed group could brag about going head on against what the best the Philippine military could throw at them during a span of 5 months,” he said.
The siege showed the military’s shortcomings in urban warfare. It doesn’t help that the Philippine military is fighting too many fronts.
“Between the NPA, the ASG, all the black-flag groups in Central Mindanao, to the threat of MILF commands breaking off and quitting the peace process, the AFP is simply over-taxed,” said Abuza.
“Even the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] units have to be monitored by the AFP and sometimes as in the past, previously dormant groups might suddenly attack as in the case of the MNLF in Zamboanga in 2013,” said Custodio.
Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Carlito Galvez Jr said the military is working double time.
“We cannot stay complacent but for us we are very confident [about] our level of counter-terrorism efforts,” said Galvez, who explained that the military has preempted attacks.
“It will take years for a Marawi incident to happen again,” Galvez said.
Recruitment continues, he confirmed. He said the government is “connecting” with the relatives of the Maute Group for talks.
Custodio said martial law, which remains enforced in Mindanao, is helping the military control the situation.
“The focus of Martial Law in Lanao has managed to prevent the Maute from recovering quickly as the military and police are keeping tight control over movements through a system of checkpoints as well as other proactive intelligence countermeasures and operations,” said he said.
Frontlines of the war
Threat of possible attacks in Marawi remain. Weeks before rehabilitation work is to begin in the former battle area, Galvez gathered ground commanders to prepare them for the tasks ahead.
“When the millions of pesos will be poured in for the rehabilitation, we have to make sure it will be unimpeded, it will be safe and our contractors will not be hampered by any threat of kidnapping or any aggressions from the Maute-ISIS,” Galvez said.
Assistant Secretary Felix Castro Jr, manager of the Task Force Bangon Marawi Field Office, said any disturbance risks losing investors.
But the fight against violent extremism is not in the battlefield alone. There are issues, like the slow rehabilitation of Marawi, that ISIS can exploit. (READ: Messy land ownership in Marawi complicates rehabilitation)
While the military is preventing remnants of the Maute-ISIS group from returning to launch more attacks, it has to make sure it doesn’t alienate residents and push them toward extremist ideas.
Abuza said continued delays in the peace process with the MILF is another sore issue. “These are what turn the populations on the government, not the actions of small cells of terrorists,” said Abuza.
In Mindanao, there is an abundance of issues to exploit. “Even without the ISIS, armed secessionist and terrorist groups have existed in Mindanao and will even outlive ISIS due to the historically rooted social and political issues in that island,” Custodio said. – Rappler.com
Top photo: URBAN WARFARE. The Philippine military exposes the shortcomings of the Philippine military in urban fighting. Photo by Bobby Lagsa/Rappler