A botched raid on a guerrilla stronghold in the city of Marawi has exposed the growing strength of Muslim extremists in the Philippines. The city of 200,000 has become a battle zone, with much of the population having fled. President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law in the southern Philippines and has threatened to extend it to the entire country. Given his record, that step must be avoided. But the battle for Marawi has important lessons for the Philippines and Southeast Asia.
The government of the Philippine has long battled separatist forces in the predominately Muslim province of Mindanao. Manila has largely prevailed, splitting the rebel groups and striking peace agreements with some, while continuing to fight the holdouts. In many cases, the remaining militants are more properly considered criminal gangs that engage in kidnapping and extortion rather than real separatists. They are vicious and deadly, nonetheless.
The most recent spasm of violence erupted last week when government forces attempted to capture Isnilon Hapilon, an Islamic preacher and former leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), one of the remaining criminal gangs. Since leaving ASG, Hapilon has pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State group, and united a number of smaller extremist groups, including the Maute, an especially well-armed group with a presence in Marawi, to fight under the black IS flag. Hapilon’s work has earned him a spot on the “10 most wanted terrorists list” of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and a $5 million bounty.
The raid failed as the militants called in backup forces — reports range from 50 to 100 fighters; some of them are said to be foreign — and outgunned the military. They then went on a rampage, burning buildings, taking hostages, beheading unbelievers and raising the IS flag throughout the city. The government said the death toll after a week of bloody fighting has reached 104 — 65 of them militants, but also including 20 government soldiers and police officers, as well as 19 civilians.
In response, Duterte cut short a trip to Russia and declared martial law in the southern Philippines, a move that gives him 60 days to wage war as he sees fit. At a news conference after his return home, he made his intentions clear: “If I think you should die, you will die. If you fight us, you will die. If there’s an open defiance, you will die. And if it means many people dying, so be it.” The result has been an onslaught waged by attack helicopters, artillery, armored vehicles and battalions of soldiers. Most of the citizens have fled, but more than 2,000 are believed to remain trapped inside under dire conditions and begging to be rescued.
The military believes the tide is turning against the militants. Resistance is diminishing as food and ammunition are running out. But the rebels’ determination has prompted the military to consider more air strikes and its record of surgical attacks is poor; it has instead frequently destroyed everything in its path. Duterte’s remarks do not inspire confidence: He is reported to have ordered the troops “to kill all those who are not authorized by the government to carry firearms, who fight back; kill them all.”
Duterte has also said that he is considering the declaration of martial law for the entire country if he “thinks that ISIS has taken a foothold” in Luzon, the main northern island of the Philippines. That brings back memories of the Ferdinand Marcos era, when that leader began the slide into dictatorship with a similar declaration. Indeed, Duterte has embraced the comparison: “To those who have experienced martial law, it would not be any different from what President Marcos did,” the president declared. “I’ll be harsh.”
Given the controversy that already surrounds Duterte’s campaign to stamp out the drug threat to his country, one that has resulted in thousands of extra-judicial deaths and has received harsh criticism from other governments and human rights groups, that is an ominous statement.
At the same time, however, the Manila government, like its regional counterparts, must wake up to the very real threat posed by the spread of extremist groups and jihadis throughout Southeast Asia. There are large ungoverned spaces in the region and militants can pass relatively easily from one country to another, linking up with like-minded groups. IS represents a new phase in regional extremism, one with greater fluidity than in the past. Governments must adapt their counter-terrorism strategies accordingly.
Friends and partners of the Philippines must be ready to assist in the fight. But in so doing, they must not give the Philippines government a blank check to commit any misdeed or shred the country’s legal and constitutional order. The Philippines faces two threats today: IS and an unrestrained executive.