Written by Rohan Gunaratna.

In Islamic State’s (IS) global ambition to expand beyond its heartland of Iraq and Syria, the most notable achievement during Ramadan in 2017 has been the siege of the Islamic City of Marawi on May 23, 2017. Local groups with foreign fighters and directions from IS-central fought with Philippine security personnel, displacing 330,000 people from Marawi and neighbouring areas. The IS East Asia Division meticulously planned the siege of Marawi, the capital of Islam in the Philippines hosting 200,000 Maranaos. To be recognised as a Wilayat (province of the caliphate) by IS central, IS East Asia Division wanted territorial control.

The ranking leaders of IS planned the attack against Marawi City. These included  Islamic State Philippines leader Isnilon Hapilon; Dr Mahamud bin Ahmed, the advisor to Hapilon; Abu Human Abdul Najib, the founder leader of Khilafah Islamiyah Mindanao; and Abdullah Maute, the leader of Islamic State Lanao, who oversaw the entire operation.

With the rise of the self-declared Caliphate, the IS-centric threat supplanted the al Qaeda threat in the Philippines and demonstrated Islamic State’s global aspirations. Although al Qaeda poses a resurgent threat in some parts of the world, the dominant threat in Southeast Asia is by IS centric groups.

On the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (May 26-June 24), IS planned to control Marawi city. This plan was disrupted when Philippine government forces received intelligence that the IS anointed Philippine leader Hapilon was recuperating in Marawi. When a combined army and police team with an arrest warrant launched an operation to capture or kill Hapilon, several hundred IS operatives took positions to control the city. They were reinforced over the coming days. With close air support planes to back attack helicopters and ground troops, government forces supported by the US Special Forces boxed IS into the downtown area. However, demonstrating IS resilience, a few hundred IS fighters remain entrenched in Marinaut, Lulut, Mapandi and Bongolo after weeks of fighting. In addition to holding the heart of the city, IS Philippines is working with its constituent organisations to mount attacks outside the principal theatre.

The Context

On June 29, 2014 when IS declared a caliphate, one of the first groups in Southeast Asia to pledge allegiance to its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was the former deputy leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Hapilon. Sixteen groups including Islamic State in Lanao (ISL), Ansar Khilafah Mindanao (AKM), Bangasamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), ASG Basilan and a faction of ASG Sulu also joined IS. With the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) stepping up operations in Basilan, Hapilon moved with nearly hundred fighters from the Sulu archipelago to mainland Mindanao in late 2016. After Hapilon suffered wounds from an airstrike in Sitio Basudan, Butig on January 25, 2017, he relocated to Marawi together with the IS rank and file. Protected by his own cadre of soldiers, including foreign fighters, he lived in Marawi’s residential and commercial area between Mindanao State University and the city centre’s police headquarters. When the combined military – police team approached the apartment in Marawi City at 1.45 pm on May 23 to arrest Hapilon, heavy fighting broke out in Barangay Basak Malulut.

As the conflict expanded into a deadly rampage from Barangay Basak Malutlut, IS fighters attempted to take control of the city by taking up strategic positions. Replacing the Philippines national flag with its iconic monochromatic flag, IS fighters armed with heavy weapons and improvised explosive devices began the siege. IS placed snipers on top of buildings, checkpoints on key roads and commandeered vehicles. IS urged a shocked public on megaphones to join the “Dawlah,” a reference to the “Islamic State.” Inspired and instigated by the IS ideology, the IS attack in Mosul on June 4-10, 2014 provided IS Philippines with a template. Contrary to IS expectations, there was no local Maranao support for the rebels. Except a handful of political figures opposed to the ruling leaders of Marawi, the people of Marawi rejected the IS message.

The IS strategy was to shock the city by attacking centres of government – IS attacked the Marawi police station in the downtown area. After attacking the city jail, IS freed 107 prisoners. IS fighters also attacked areas near the 103rd Brigade, situated at Camp Ranao in Marawi City where the military eventually prevailed. In addition to torching several homes, IS set fire to Ninoy Aquino School and Dansalan College. After desecrating and burning both the Mary Help of Christians Cathedral and Bishop’s House in Marawi, IS fighters abducted vicar general Teresito “Chito” Suganob, and took others as hostages. This precipitated an exodus, with much of the population starting to move out on foot and by road after the shutting down of power and communication lines. The mass exodus transformed Marawi into a ghost town as government forces created relief centres to accommodate the displaced population. Although the number of military and fighter fatalities and casualties grew every day, civilians were the main casualties.

What Happens Next?

With the rise of the self-declared Caliphate, the IS-centric threat supplanted the al Qaeda threat in the Philippines and demonstrated Islamic State’s global aspirations. Although al Qaeda poses a resurgent threat in some parts of the world, the dominant threat in Southeast Asia is by IS centric groups. Unyielding, IS will fight despite losses in Marawi. Even after Islamic State is militarily defeated in Marawi, with the larger IS affiliates intact, the threat will persist.

Marawi City, the capital of Lanao del Sur province, is the heartland of Islam in the Philippines. Hundreds of mosques and madrasahs ring Lake Lanao sitting in a green bowl circled by distant mountains.  Cunningly, IS used religious institutions to hide and fight back. Considered the Islamic capital of the Philippines, Marawi is like the rest of Mindanao, where Christians and Muslims coexist. The ISIS version of Islam differs from the traditional Islam that has characterised Marawi for centuries.  The stonings, amputations, flagellations or other Islamic punishments are against the law of the Philippines.

IS will remain in Marawi and fight until Ramadan is over. IS will also hold hostages elsewhere and in Marawi, demanding the withdrawal of troops. IS is also aware of the need to engage the population.  Although IS ideology had no appeal to Marawi Muslims, large scale destruction can make them vulnerable to IS belief systems. While it was essential for the government to have declared martial law, it is also important to be very soft on the population.

Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to crush IS in Marawi, saying “I made a projection, not a prediction, that one of these days the hardest things to deal with would be the arrival of ISIS. The government must put an end to this. I cannot gamble with ISIS because they are everywhere.” The determined and at times over enthusiastic President will have to be managed by his colleagues and staff to ensure the best outcome for the Philippines, the region, and the world.

Rohan Gunaratna is Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, a constituent unit of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He was the first to alert the Philippines to the emergence of an IS-centric threat. He tweets @RohanGunaratna. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue edition entitled ‘Islamism in Southeast Asia’. Image Credit: CC/ Wikimedia Commons.

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