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The Maute Group’s siege of Marawi marks the latest chapter in a long-running saga of religious conflict, ideological differences, and even ethnic and socio-economic tensions in the island of Mindanao. It also bares the presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Southeast Asia.
In the days after the initial siege, President Rodrigo Duterte linked the activities of the Maute Group to the illegal drug trade, implying that the siege was funded by illegal drugs monet. He was criticized for this. But are Duterte’s claims without basis, or are there international and local patterns that suggest that terror and drugs are connected?
The Maute Group isn’t the first terrorist organization in the world. Neither is ISIS, for that matter. And neither the Maute Group nor ISIS is the first terrorist group to be accused of having ties to the drug trade. But it would be a big mistake to conflate drugs with religion to explain what is motivating the fighters in Marawi. Why are the terrorists, many of them apparently very young, able to endure this long? What sustains them, and not just materially but spiritually (even if it is a distorted view of religion)?
Drugs, revolution, and terrorism
Connections between drugs and terrorist or rebel groups have been said to go all the way back to the Cold War, during which there were several so-called proxy wars fought between the United States and the Soviet Union.
One of the earliest movements with connection to the drug trade that would later be associated with terrorism is the mujahideen, a predecessor to al-Qaeda. These fighters were initially armed with relatively old weapons like AK-47 assault rifles and RPG-7 rocket launchers. Later during the campaign however, the mujahideen would also receive American weapons and aid in what the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) called “Operation Cyclone.”
The US government was criticized for its involvement with a certain Hekmatyar, who was known to be one of the leading heroin smugglers in the region. According to Peter Bergen’s book, Holy War Inc., the American government allowed Pakistan to channel a disproportionate amount of its funding to Hekmatyar.
Another rebel-slash-terrorist group with alleged ties to the drug trade is the Colombian FARC. Colombia has been known as a hotbed for the production of coca, one of the main ingredients of cocaine. A 2010 country study done on Colombia by the Federal Research Division of the US Library of Congress said: “Colombia is the world’s leading coca cultivator and supplier of refined cocaine. More than 90% of the cocaine that enters the United States is produced, processed, or transshipped in Colombia.”
That same country study also said: “By the mid-1980s, large narco-trafficking syndicates, particularly the Medellin and Cali cartels, gained wide power through terror and corruption. During the narcoterrorist era (1983-93), traffickers sponsored assassinations of numerous government officials, justices, and politicians, particularly those who favored an extradition treaty with the United States. Illegal armed groups increasingly depended on the drug trade to finance their insurgent operations. Despite the breakup of the big cartels, hundreds of smaller, lower-profile cartels have proliferated, often operating in association with the paramilitary and guerrilla groups.”
Drugs and terrorism in Mindanao
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has been implicated in drugs. The association between the ASG and shabu, which sits comfortably at the top of President Duterte’s substance hit-list, doesn’t stop with distribution, either. According to the 2012 UN World Drug Report, the Philippines has the highest methamphetamine abuse rate in the East Asia region. In a 2016 article for dailycaller.com, members of Joint Task Force Sulu (JTFS) of the AFP’s Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) were quoted as saying, “Drugs are being used to lure youngsters who may have been given shabu for free and are recruited once they become addicted.”
The connection between drugs and terrorism definitely exists. As such, President Duterte’s rants against drugs in connection to the Maute Group and the Marawi siege are not without basis. It is known to be a part of the so-called “underground economy” of Mindanao.
In a 2013 article for the Philippine Daily Inquirer entitled, “Mindanao’s underground economy,” Cielito F. Habito writes: “In Mindanao’s conflict-affected areas, the underground economy is likely to be even more prevalent and significant than it is nationally. With violent conflict long having been a deterrent to formal investment, much of the local populace has been pushed into various economic activities that provide for the peculiar range of needs and wants in its internal and external markets, whether explicit or hidden, legal or illegal. Among the notable ones are the illicit trade in guns and prohibited drugs, kidnap for ransom, informal land markets, illicit cross-border trade, pyramid scams, human trafficking and informal credit. Most of these can be extremely lucrative for those who engage or work in them, hence tend to be associated with conflict and violence spawned by the very activities themselves. For some, like the illicit gun trade, it’s the other way around: prior conflict and violence in the area due to political rebellion and clan feuds may have provided the impetus for its active market.”
In an article for BusinessWorld Weekender published on June 8, 2017, entitled “Our long hot summer of terror,” Francisco Lara recalled a study published by Alert Philippines in 2013 that showed “how shadow economies were the most frequent sources of violence and that central Mindanao, particularly the Lanao to Maguindanao corridor, was ground-zero for these illicit and deadly economies.”
According to Lara, “In fact, many known drug lords fled to the Lanao corridor soon after Duterte declared his war on drugs. There they established a useful and tactical alliance with extremist groups, supplying funds and weapons in exchange for protection. Therefore, if you are still wondering how the terrorists could survive a two-week assault and siege by the military and police, the answer is simple – their longevity was secured long in advance with profits from the illicit drug trade, and lubricated by their easy access to illegal weapons in a region known for it.”
However, while the drug problem and the terrorism problem are connected, one cannot assume that they are the same thing. While the illegal drug trade makes up a big part of Mindanao’s informal economy, it is only one of many parts that include drugs, kidnap-for-ransom, activities, hired killings, gun smuggling, and human trafficking.
The challenge of religious extremism
In the case of religious extremism like ISIS (whose fighters have actually been known to use an amphetamine variant called captagon), Al-Qaeda, and the Maute Group, the drugs aren’t what get you addicted to the cause; the cause is what gets you addicted to the cause.
In a 2016 interview with CNN, an American Muslim former ISIS recruit named Muhammad Dakhlalla recounted about how he was almost brought into ISIS by a girl he was in love with. In the interview, Dakhlalla (also known as Mo) recounts his girlfriend Jaelyn’s conversion to Islam, her growing strictness and conservatism in her life, her eventual discovery of ISIS, and her convincing him to try to join.
Mo said, “Throughout the time she convinced me of that [ISIS]… I don’t know exactly how, you know, it came to be, but I know that she knew I loved her at that time, and I was just going to follow whatever she said, and I felt like she knew that, like, I was going to follow anything that she said.” Mo and Jaelyn were arrested while attempting to fly to Syria and join ISIS. It is clear that Jaelyn was able to successfully (almost) recruit Mo due to the highlighting of what seemed to be a humanitarian side of ISIS, as well as her manipulation of his romantic feelings for her.
As for other jihadists, Al-Qaeda once came out with a guide called “A Course in the Art of Recruiting.” One common theme throughout the text is Al-Qaeda fighters’ constant equation of themselves with the Mujahideen, who still have a relatively favorable image for a radical Islamist group.
In a section entitled, “The Third Stage: The Awakening of Emaan,” the guide lists tips such as, “Always clarify and explain the virtues of good (Islamic) deeds (to the candidate) and encourage him to engage in doing good deeds,” “Focus on At-Targheeb (teachings of the desiring for Paradise), but don’t completely leave At-Tarheeb (teachings of the terrifying punishments of the Hellfire). You should spend more time reminding the candidate of Paradise and how to get there, than about Hellfire,” and “Begin with the (Islamic) obligations and focus on them. Then, encourage him to perform supererogatory deeds, according to his capability.”
One of the key points that the guide stresses (and also calls on recruiters to stress) is that “Jihad is the only salvation and solution.” A passage of the Hadith reads, “That the Messenger of Allah said: ‘There are six things with Allah for the martyr. He is forgiven with the first flow of blood (he suffers), he is shown his place in Paradise, he is protected from punishment in the grave, secured from the greatest terror, the crown of dignity is placed upon his head – and its gems are better than the world and what is in it – he is married to seventy two wives among the Al-Huril-‘Ayn (wide-eyed ones, virgins) of Paradise, and he may intercede for seventy of his close relatives.’”
Closer to home, a case study was conducted by Rommel Banlaoi and the Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT) of the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on recruitment strategies used by the Abu Sayyaf. In the study entitled “The Pull of Terrorism: A Philippine Case Study,” Banlaoi pointed out that the Abu Sayyaf has used three different strategies of recruiting people to its ranks: ideational, material, and coercive.
Banlaoi describes the ASG’s ideological pull by saying that “(ASG founder Ustad Abdurajak) Janjalani was able to win the hearts and minds of former MNLF fighters and other young Moros because he offered an alternative ideology that effectively touched the sentiments and aspirations of Muslims in Mindanao. In his inner-circle, he recruited younger and more passionate Muslim leaders who studied Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Pakistan and Egypt.
These young Muslim leaders had a common reproof of the MNLF, which had entered into a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996. These leaders also shared common anger against the so-called Christian-dominated Philippine government based in what they called ‘Imperial Manila’”. However, this pull or approach was only really used while Janjalani was alive. Even Banlaoi writes, “The death of Abdurajak Janjalani […] marked the waning of the ideological luster of the ASG.” From that point, the ASG started to rely more on the latter two approaches for recruitment.
For the material approach, Banaloi writes, “the ASG acted like ‘Robin Hood,’ distributing part of its loot to local communities. Thus, the ASG was in turn able to get support from local communities that gave the group ‘early warning signals’ and even barricades during military offensives. New younger members were even paid to work for ASG makeshift camps as second and third layers of security. Parents of young ASG members were issued a monthly supply of rice and offered monthly financial honorariums ranging from US$100 to US$500. Thus through material inducements, the ASG was able [to] pull in members despite the lack of ideological agitation or religious propaganda.”
However, as the Armed Forces of the Philippines intensified offensives against the ASG, particularly during former President Joseph Estrada’s all-out war, Banlaoi writes, “intensified military operations caused the membership of the ASG to decline sharply. From more than 1,500 members in 2000, the ASG membership was reduced to less than 500 in 2005. To recover, the ASG resorted to coercive methods of recruitment. ASG commanders resorted to scare tactics like threatening to kill those who refuse to join and their families. Some ASG commanders even used deception to recruit members, e.g. making young Muslims carry firearms, taking pictures of them, and then using the pictures to blackmail the kids into joining the group. Though there are anecdotal stories of young persons being kidnapped to force them to join the ASG, these cases have not been properly documented nor vigorously studied.”
Mainstream Moro groups vs the jihadists
There is an interesting historical progression among the different radical Islamist groups in the country. Islamist rebellion in the Philippines started in the 1970s with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
The MNLF itself started as a splinter group of the Muslim Independence Movement (MIM). The MNLF had the supposed goal of gaining independence for Muslim Mindanao from the central Philippine government. Back then, against the backdrop of Martial Law, the Moro rebellion was more political than religious. Then, in 1977, Hashim Salamat and his followers broke off from the MNLF and started the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The MILF was founded upon Salamat’s disagreement with MNLF leader Nur Misuari’s ideology in that Salamat felt that Misuari’s quest for an independent Moro Mindanao didn’t line up with Islam. Thus the rebellion and ideology of the MILF was seen as more religious than political.
As opposed to the MNLF, which sought total independence from the Philippines, the MILF wanted either a separate Islamic state or an autonomous Islamic region that was still counted as part of the Philippines. Here we see the movement from a socio-political agenda to a more religious one. With the emergence of ISIS on the world stage, we see the combination of the political and religious agendas of the two prior groups. In an article on ISIS, Thomas Jocelyn writes, “the Islamic State seeks nothing less than to ‘expand’ until its ‘blessed flag…covers all eastern and western extents of the Earth, filling the world with the truth and justice of Islam and putting an end to the falsehood and tyranny of jahiliyyah [state of ignorance], even if American and its coalition despise such.’”
As opposed to the local groups, which seek independence or autonomy, what ISIS wants, for lack of a better term, is world domination. It seeks to establish an Islamic world order, and it is willing to do anything in order to achieve that goal. We see the transformation of radical Muslim ideology, from a purely political movement (as seen with the “National” in “Moro National Liberation Front”), to a more religious agenda (hence the Moro Islamic Liberation Front), to the combination of the two with the added goal of making the entire world an Islamic state. With beheading videos and more pronounced involvement in the drug trade, ISIS’ mode of operations definitely fits in with what the Human Security Act of 2007 defines as terrorism, namely, “sowing and creating a condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace, in order to coerce the government to give in to an unlawful demand.”
The real opium of the people
While the problems of terrorism and illegal narcotics are certainly connected, regarding them as one and the same would be both dismissive and useless. While both Islamist and leftist radical organizations have been known to traffic in illegal drugs and while fighters from both types of groups have been known to use them, there is a deeper attraction to these organizations that seems to go beyond the profits of drug trafficking. To at least some of the people fighting for these organizations, there is a more ideological motivation to fight, borne out of either misguided interpretations of religious obligations or social injustice.
In this way, what Marx said about religion is true. In his work, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx writes, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
In this day and age, extremism (religious or otherwise) has become the new opium of the people, an addiction to the promise of paradise, and its ultimate high is the assurance of going to heaven as a reward for martyrdom. It is a misguided aspiration, but one taken to heart by some young people. In the context of Mindanao, it can only be addressed by meaningful change that enables real hope in the here and now of this great island.
Until the slogan “change is coming” is put into real and tangible practice, in particular completing the peace processes with the MILF and MNLF, this addiction will continue to spread, and war will rage on in Mindanao. – Rappler.com
Tony La Viña is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government. Alberto Valenzuela is an incoming sophomore at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. He is currently an intern with the Manila Observatory.