A ticking time bomb in the Philippines: A second Marawi will come

The occupation and siege of Marawi exposed the unpreparedness of the Philippines government. Groups are expected to capitalise on this weakness with more attacks to follow.

by Oliver Ward

Filipinos have watched in horror as Marawi has been torn apart by Islamic extremism. But, the events seen in Marawi and on Basilan Island are just an indication of things to come. The Philippines is a ticking time bomb. It is only a matter of time before another incident like Marawi will happen again.

ISIL’s presence in the Philippines has been growing since 2014

Since 2014, 16 armed groups based in the Philippines have pledged their support for ISIL. The largest are ISIS-Lanao and ISIS-Philippines.

These groups pose a new kind of threat to the Philippines. Unlike al Qaeda and terror groups operating before them, these new ISIL affiliated groups want to establish a state. Pictures from Marawi show black flags raised on buildings captured by the militants. These are not the actions of a group who makes a one-off attack and lies dormant. These are the actions of a group determined to establish a state and fight a war with the government.

The Philippines is a hot bed for ISIL groups. Manila has struggled to have any impact on disbanding them and Duterte’s focus on the war on drugs has left resources scant for counterinsurgency.

The response to Marawi has been ineffective

Fighting in Marawi broke out after a botched attempt to arrest ISIL recognised leader, Isnilon Hapilon. There are only three roads which lead out of the city, however, Hapilon’s whereabouts are still unknown. He may have escaped the city.

The Philippines military claims that they killed Omarkhayam Maute in the fighting but these reports could not be confirmed by intelligence reports.  His brother, Abdullah Maute is definitely still alive.

The leadership behind the attack in Marawi are likely still at large. This is a major blow to the Philippines government in their fight on Islamic extremism. It also allows the terror cells to regroup and plan more attacks. Without destroying the leadership, the Maute group will be ready to conduct another attack in a matter of months.

Marawi was a success for the militants

The government claims they have killed at least 303 Islamic militants in Marawi, while losing 75 government troops. Despite the death count, Marawi was a victory to ISIL.

Liow Chin Yong, Dean of Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said tactically “They [the Islamic militants] will be defeated, but it will cast light on the real depth of the problem that the Philippine Government faces”, he added, “it will demonstrate how far the Philippine security forces are from the operational state that is required to competently deal with and defeat the militant groups in the region.”

The aftermath of Marawi will bring more foreign ISIL supporters to the Philippines

With the success of Marawi behind them, they will be able to attract more support from foreign backers and fighters.

The military have confirmed the presence of foreign fighters in the Maute groups forces at Marawi. They found two Malaysians, two Indonesians, two Saudis, a Yemeni citizen and a Chechen among the dead. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Indonesia estimates that there were at least 38 of its citizens fighting in Marawi and an intelligence report estimates the involvement of a further 26 Pakistanis and 21 Malaysians.

As the groups notoriety rockets in the aftermath of the Marawi attack, these figures can only be expected to swell. The heightened security in the Middle-East designed to prevent extremists joining ISIL’s ranks in Syria and Iraq may also drive most ISIL sympathisers to the Philippines.

Within the last year, 20 items of ISIL propaganda have mentioned the Philippines. ISIL is already urging recruits who are unable to get to Syria, to head to Southeast Asia.

The long stretches of coastline and limited marine patrol resources will make it difficult for Filipino authorities to prevent the arrival of large numbers of Islamic extremists to Filipino shores.

Getting the MILF on board is key to preventing more attacks

The government’s record on managing the aggressive Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has been less than impressive.

In January of 2015, another botched counterterror operation against the MILF and the BIFF led to the death of 44 officers.

The MILF has huge influence on the region. Without the MILF’s decision to open up a relief corridor, many more civilians would have remained trapped in Marawi. The 2016 siege of Butig Town by the Maute group and their execution of two Christians were both undertaken within the MILF heartland. The Maute group would have needed their approval to conduct both campaigns. Without securing the support of the MILF, Duterte has little chance of disbanding the Maute brother’s group.

A peace deal with the MILF and BIFF could be the only way Duterte can prevent another attack. The MILF has expressed an interest in the peace process. They have even gone as far as decommissioning 75 weapons in a gesture of their commitment. But, the peace process has stalled and many militants have become disillusioned with the process and do not trust Duterte to deliver.

Duterte is helping create the perfect conditions for terrorism

Extremism and terror flourish under weak law and order. Duterte has undermined Filipino law by endorsing extrajudicial killings, jailing his political opponents and administering martial law. His disregard for the national law is playing right into the terrorist’s hands. With an environment so conducive to terror, it is only a matter of time before another situation like Marawi occurs.

The military simply do not have the resources to fight attack after attack. They were already stretched in Marawi. If there were multiple attacks at the same time, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) would be overwhelmed.

In Marawi, a spokesperson from the government of Lanao del Sur encouraged residents to take the law into their own hands. “If anybody thinks that he or she is capable a member of the Maute, then do so”, Zia Alonto Adiong said.

This demonstrates the army’s insufficient resources to protect civilians. They called on civilians to endanger their lives to assist in the apprehension of dangerous militants. When the state fails in its ability to protect its citizens, militant organisations can fill that void. They can provide citizens with protection and draw even more support from those feeling vulnerable.

Marawi was significant for the Philippines. Not for the result or outcome of the attack, but because it exposed the unpreparedness of the military for such an attack. Duterte continues to create conditions for extremism to breed, which will bring fighters in from across the region.

The only way out may be through a reopening of peace negotiations with the MILF. But even if Duterte can secure the deal, there is no guarantee it will save the nation from the repeat of another bloodbath like we saw in Marawi.