Philippines: Marawi City Is Not Mosul


June 21, 2017: In the south (North Cotabato province) at least 30 Islamic terrorists seized a school and held 70 adults and students in the school building. The attackers were identified as members of BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) and Maute and all them fled when a large number of troops arrived. Both these groups were formed by MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) members who refused to accept the autonomy treaty MILF leaders had negotiated with the government. Many of these dissidents openly pledged allegiance to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The North Cotabato siege is taking place 190 kilometers north of Marawi City. The BIFF raiders may have been heading for Marawi to reinforce the ISIL fighters already there. That will be difficult because the security forces have the city surrounded, the better to keep Islamic terrorists (especially leaders) in and keep any reinforcements out.

MILF Militants Get Trapped

The large scale battle in Marawi City (capital of Lanao del Sur province) began on May 23rd when a raid to capture or kill Isnilon Hapilon (the head of Abu Sayyaf since 2016) escalated. So far a month of fighting has left nearly 400 dead (67 percent Islamic terrorists, 21 percent security forces and 12 percent civilians). Over 4,000 security personnel (most of them military) are involved against over 600 (so far) Islamic terrorists. Marawi City covers about 88 square kilometers (33 square miles) and has a population of 200,000. A majority of the population is Moslem but Christians are a large minority and hostile to Islamic terrorism and efforts to turn the Philippines into an Islamic religious dictatorship (which is what ISIL is all about).

While many neighborhoods have been untouched by the fighting, when ISIL gunmen suddenly show up many of the civilians flee until the troops can clear the Islamic terrorists out. As a result of this going on for weeks thousands of civilians are believed to be still hiding in basements or similar refuges, afraid to come out until certain that the threat is gone. ISIL is known to take lots of hostages and use civilians as human shields. Those tactics have slowed efforts by troops and police to find a kill or capture the remaining Islamic terrorists in the city.

How many armed ISIL supporters there are in the area is unclear but over 600 are known to have made it into Marawi City or been blocked from getting there. MILF is being pressured to try a little harder to find out how many diffident (and pro-ISIL) members they have and who they are.

Since the 1990s, when Abu Sayyaf was created, Hapilon was known to be a key member. Since 2006 the United States has offered a $5 million reward for Hapilon because of his effective efforts running terrorist operations. The security forces had been receiving a lot more tips about Abu Sayyaf activity this year and several them led to a building in Marawi City where the wounded (in a recent battle) Hapilon was recuperating. The military was unaware that Hapilon was also seeking to become part of a new ISIL coalition that was being formed by various MILF dissident groups, mainly the Maute Group and several foreign Islamic terrorists who were helping plan a major ISIL surprise attack. The military effort to catch Hapilon interrupted ISIL preparations and triggered a premature ISIL uprising centered on Marawi City.

The May 23rd mid-day raid soon escalated to a larger battle involving hundreds of troops and at least fifty gunmen trying to protect Hapilon. The Maute Group called in more gunmen and attacked multiple targets in the city, including city hall, a Catholic church (that was burned down) and a university campus. By nightfall the electricity was cut to most of the city and the Islamic terrorists had taken over a dozen civilians’ hostage. The government immediately ordered more soldiers and police in and declared 60 days of martial law.

It soon became clear that Maute Group, BIFF, Abu Sayyaf and several other smaller groups that that had already pledged their allegiance to ISIL were involved and were all calling for their armed members to head for Marawi City. The plan had apparently been to eventually make Lanao del Sur province a new “province” of the ISIL caliphate. Similar recent efforts in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and Nigeria had failed but that does not discourage true believers and Marawi City quickly turned into a typical ISIL suicidal last stand.

Abu Sayyaf and the other Filipino Islamic terror groups have taken heavy losses over the last year, both in terms of manpower, public support and, most importantly cash flow. Even religious fanatics have expenses and these have increased for Abu Sayyaf while income declined. It was time for a bold and desperate move and it was led by Maute Group not Abu Sayyaf.

Abu Sayyaf had lots of allies in this area and Maute Group was known to be one of them. Earlier in the year ISIL finally recognized Abu Sayyaf as part of ISIL and was fine with Abu Sayyaf leader Hapilon being the emir (man in charge). That meant other Islamic terror groups in the area that had pledged allegiance to ISIL were obliged to recognize the authority of (or at least cooperate with) Hapilon. Now hundreds of local Islamic militants had an incentive turn the defense of Hapilon into a major battle. It also appears the Hapilon was something of a figurehead and the real power here is several of the Maute brothers who created and sustained the Maute Group.

ISIL has been trying to establish a larger presence in the Philippines for years and by 2016 had over 500 local followers. Most of them belong to Abu Sayyaf but at least a hundred were from what is left of the Maute and BIFF groups. What was not noted was the success of ISIL recruiting efforts among MILF members dissatisfied with the MILF autonomy deal. Since early 2016 the government and MILF have cooperated (mainly in Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur provinces) on destroying rogue MILF factions like BIFF and the Maute Group and that seemed to be going well. Abu Sayyaf by contrast was much more in the news and was thought to still have as many as 400 active members. But it soon became clear that most of the gunmen showing up in Marawi City were from Maute Group and BIFF.

The activities of BIFF, Maute and several smaller pro-ISIL groups had forced the larger Moslem separatist groups MNLF and MILF to crack down on Moslems who work with the Islamic terrorists. Because of that Abu Sayyaf was soon considered unworthy of local support by the Moslem community and the Abu Sayyaf leaders know that is the worst thing that could happen to them. The government was hoping for a final (or at least decisive) battle with Abu Sayyaf, BIFF and Maute here and they got it. Martial law enabled the security forces to quickly round up the known or suspected supporters of Hapilon. That is important because Hapilon had lots of allies and contacts in the numerous local drug and smuggling gangs.

Even before the Marawi City violence the military had announced that so far in 2017 (through mid-May) at least 81 Abu Sayyaf members had been killed. In that time fifty had surrendered and another 18 captured. Public opinion among southern Moslems had turned against Abu Sayyaf and it was believed that the final battles would be with the most desperate and ruthless members of these groups and that has proved to be the case in Marawi City. Since mid-May Islamic terrorists groups have lost three times more than their casualties until May. Filipino and American intel analysts appear to agree that the local ISIL leadership have quietly called for a retreat and are trying to get their key people out of the city. Many of the ISIL gunmen still in the city will try to tie down the security forces during this withdrawal. It’s what ISIL did recently in Mosul (Iraq) and Sirte (Libya).

The main problem ISIL faces in the Philippines is that Moslems are a minority. This became an obvious issue in 2015 when the national legislature made it clear they were unwilling to approve the peace treaty with the Moslem rebels down south until convinced that the Islamic terrorism problem down there was under control. This has always been an issue because there are still Islamic terrorists active in the south and the Moslem population down there is obviously not united in wanting to abide by the treaty.

In September 2015 the Moslem separatist group MILF agreed to proceed with the peace deal even if the legislature does not approve all aspects of the autonomy package. Countrywide there is a lot of popular opposition to the MILF autonomy deal and even MILF accepts that they will never have the votes in the legislature to get everything they want. The major problem down there in that a sizable minority of southern Moslems (ten percent or more) want to hold out and keep fighting to establish a separate Moslem state in the south. MILF leaders know this is impossible because a majority of the people in the south are opposed. That includes a majority of the Moslems and the nearly all the non-Moslems down there. Moslems are only eight percent of all Filipinos, and represent an even smaller proportion of the economic activity. MILF wanted control of more of the economy, which meant control of "ancestral Moslem areas" in the south that are now populated by Christians. The Christian majority in the legislature refused to allow domination by Moslems in a larger and more autonomous Moslem south. MILF settled for a smaller autonomous area (Bangsamoro) that had about four million people and a Moslem majority. This issue is still a big deal for many Moslems and could still turn into an armed rebellion against MILF and the collapse of the plan for an autonomous Moslem area in the south.

There are over half a dozen known Islamic terrorist groups in the country but it was believed that most had fewer than a hundred (or a few dozen) members each. Unfortunately ISIL recruiting efforts succeeded and were kept quiet, just as many Christians had feared. The government, especially legislators, are demanding the MILF explain how they missed this ISIL recruiting effort and attack plans. At the moment MILF leaders are concentrating on assisting the military in containing and destroying ISIL in Marawi City. That will eliminate a lot of MILF dissidents and hopefully convince the Christian dominated legislature to approve the autonomy deal.

Chinese Carrots

Chinese efforts to buy the cooperation of the Philippines in the South China Sea dispute have failed as Filipinos realized that there was little gain in the long run by giving in to Chinese demands. Although China became the largest trading partner with the Philippines in 2017 most Filipinos did the math and realized the Chinese dictatorship could turn that around without warning. It now seemed that the Americans were a better long-term ally because the Americans have no old territorial claims in the neighborhood, are a democracy and have a long history of good behavior.

In response China has told the Philippines that they have much to gain from the Obor (One Belt, One Road) plan. A new Chinese PR campaign for Obor describes it as a revival of the ancient “Silk Road” but that’s not accurate as the ancient Silk Road was only partially run by the Chinese. Most of it was operated by other major powers (Iranian, Indian and Arabs) and was largely put out of business after the 16th century by European innovations in ship building and management of sea routes that provided a safer and cheaper way to move goods worldwide. Moreover, until the late 20th century Chinese leaders never encouraged (and often banned) foreign trade. For most of Chinese history the leaders believed China had all it needed (largely true) and considered all non-Chinese and their products as inferior. The big change now is that China needs international trade and Obor is the Chinese plan to control as much of it as possible. This is essential for a prosperous economy because without that the communists are in big trouble. Obor means China owning or otherwise controlling as many of the new roads, railways, ports, pipelines and sea routes as possible. China is investing nearly $200 billion in Obor construction. This includes land routes through Central Asia to Europe and the Middle East, another through the Himalaya Mountains to the Indian Ocean (soon to be under new management if China has its way) and new land connections into Southeast Asia. The key to China’s new sea routes is asserting ownership of the South China Sea. Another feature of Obor is that it offers business relationships that are more acceptable (than Western ones) to most of the nations Obor is investing in. The Chinese can, as they like to put it, be more flexible and respectful of local customs. In other words the Chinese don’t see bribes and corruption as a defect but an opportunity.

While Obor appeals to some Filipino businesses most major Filipino trading partners (the U.S., Singapore and South Korea) are also democracies and abhor corruption. Moreover the Americans are the only Filipino “treaty ally” that is obliged to aid the Philippines if the islands are again attacked (as they were by the Japanese in 1941.) Meanwhile China is displeased with the increasingly frequent visits of American warships to the Philippines (for leave and maintenance) and the South China Seas (to challenge Chinese claims.) So far China has not been violent but with more and more Chinese warships, warplanes and troops showing up in the South China Sea there appears to be increased risk of someone opening fire. There are a growing number of “offenders” for the Chinese to shoot at. In addition to ships from the nearest countries (mainly Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan) there are the more powerful allies of these countries (mainly Japan and the United States). Now the Philippines is daring China to make an aggressive move at a time when China is busy with several similar situations from Africa to Korea and the Japanese islands. China continues to offer the carrot or the stick and for many Filipinos deciding which way to go is difficult.

June 20, 2017: A recent ISIL video showed Abu Sayyaf and Maute Group leaders meeting with Mahmud Ahmad, the most wanted Malaysian Islamic terrorist. Ahmad had apparently been operating in the southern Philippines for a while and had helped organize the planned ISIL uprising in Lanao del Sur province. The video indicated that Ahmad may be the guy giving the orders and Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon may be more of a figurehead as emir (leader) of the Filipino branch of ISIL. The video also showed several of the Mute brothers, who were very assertive and determined.

June 19, 2017: In the central Philippines (the Visayas Islands) a scheduled joint (U.S.-Filipino) training exercise began. This involves several hundred sailors and marines from both countries and will end on the 25th.

June 18, 2017: In the south (Marawi City) troops clearing a building ISIL men were using (and just fled from) discovered over two million dollars’ worth of “shabu” (slang for illegal methamphetamine pills, often smuggled in from Burma via Thailand). The meth pills are a regional problem and show up throughout East and Southeast Asia, including China and North Korea. The 2016 drug crackdown helped MILF to crack down on the growing number of its members who are engaged in importing and selling shabu. MILF members are going to run the government of the new autonomous state in the south and corruption (like cooperating with the shabu trade) is expected to be a major problem. At the same time working with drug gangs has long been a major source of income for Islamic terrorist groups worldwide. The Philippines is no exception and troops had earlier found nearly two million dollars in cash (mostly local currency) in another Marawi City building the Islamic terrorists had been driven from. That the Islamic terrorists seemed unable or unwilling to move all the cash or shabu, or fight to the death, indicated that a retreat was underway.

Further south, on Basilan Island, marines captured another Abu Sayyaf camp, seizing weapons, ammo and other equipment the fleeing Islamic terrorists had to leave behind.

Elsewhere in the south (Davao Oriental province) clashes with NPA rebels over the last few days left at least six of the leftist gunmen dead and several soldiers wounded. Despite continuing peace negotiations with NPA, many factions of the group continue to fight.

June 16, 2017: In the south (Basilan Island) Abu Sayyaf released one of the six Vietnamese sailors they had captured last November. The other five Vietnamese sailors taken from a merchant ship are still being held for ransom. Abu Sayyaf is believed to still be holding nearly twenty people for ransom, most of them foreigners seized from merchant ships and fishing boats in the last year.

June 8, 2017: In the south (Maguindanao province) troops clashed with a group of BIFF gunmen and killed four of them. This follow a similar clash on the 4th that did not result in any casualties.

June 1, 2017: In the south (Sulu Island) marines killed three Abu Sayyaf men and captured another three along with lots of weapons and ammunition.

May 31, 2017: In the south (Marawi City) an airstrike hit troops by mistake and 11 soldiers were killed and several others wounded. The air force and army are seeking to find out exactly how this happened.

May 28, 2017: In the central Philippines (Negros Island) NPA rebels attacked a police station, captured five policemen (who were handcuffed and left behind) and looted the station of weapons, ammo and other equipment.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close