Philippines: Not A Sanctuary But A Deathtrap


July 21, 2017: The large scale battle in Marawi City (capital of Lanao del Sur province in the south) continues. It has been going on for eight weeks mainly because the Manute Group (a radical MILF faction that opposes the peace treaty) unexpectedly brought in hundreds of gunmen who were willing to fight to the death. The Manute family is one of the larger and wealthier clans in the south and seven Manute brothers got mixed up with clan politics, MILF and now ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). What dragged the fighting out for so long was the fact that the Islamic terrorists quickly split into small groups and set up positions as snipers (or machine-gunners) in many buildings. The security forces had to check out nearly a thousand buildings (including high-rises and school compounds) to make sure no gunmen were there nor were any civilians hiding from or all the violence. It has been a tedious process but there are still a hundred or so buildings to check and, based on intel (especially reports from prisoners and civilians) there are fewer than a hundred of the Islamic terrorists left in the city and some of them will apparently hide their weapons somewhere and try to sneak out of the city as a civilian. Most, however, are expected to get killed.

The battle began on May 23rd when a raid to capture or kill Isnilon Hapilon (the head of Abu Sayyaf since 2016) escalated unexpectedly. Since then nearly 450 Islamic terrorists have been killed along with about a hundred troops and fifty civilians. MILF recently reported that they had refused to help negotiate a withdrawal of the remaining Islamic terrorists (many of them former MILF members) from the city. Some Islamic clerics have visited the city and urged the Islamic terrorists to stop fighting. That failed. The government demands that the Islamic terrorists in the city surrender or die. It is believed that only a few Islamic terrorists are still fighting in the city and many of these men had made it clear that they will fight to the death. MILF leaders are perplexed at the tactics employed by the rogue MILF gunmen who are apparently fighting to the death rather than continuing to armed opposition to the MILF peace deal. It’s a good news (gets a lot of rogue gunmen killed), bad news (there are probably more like this in the south) situation. Like much else in the Philippines.

Over 5,000 security personnel (most of them military) are involved in the effort to clear Islamic terrorists out of the area. 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 and make sure none are hiding in buildings. As a result of this it was obvious from that start that this was going to take a while, especially when it became clear that thousands of civilians were 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 700 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 different (and pro-ISIL) members they have and who they are. Most it turned out were associated with the Manute clan but there were also members from other Islamic terror groups like Abu Sayyaf and BIFF. There were even several dozen foreigners. The Manute brothers who founded and lead the Manute Group apparently believed their operation in Marawi City would trigger a general uprising by Moslems. That did not happen, although internationally ISIL is touting Marawi City as a sign of their strength. For the Manute Group it is a major defeat and the government (and MILF) see this as an opportunity to eliminate Manute Group (and a lot of Islamic extremists in the south) once and for all. For years the Philippines had a reputation as a place Islamic terrorists could hide out. Everyone wants to make it clear to Islamic terrorists worldwide that the Philippines is not a place you come to find sanctuary, it where you come to die.

Because worldwide Islamic terrorist violence declined about 10 percent in 2016 while such violence increased in the Philippines this put the Philippines in the top five nations for Islamic terrorist violence. In 2016 over half (55 percent) of Islamic terrorist violence took place in just five countries; Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines. This was the first time the Philippines made the top five. Most of the increase in the Philippines was because of Abu Sayyaf and MILF factions that oppose the peace deal establishing an autonomous Moslem region in the southwest.

Meanwhile Elsewhere

Despite the Marawi City mess and the continued bad behavior of Abu Sayyaf life goes on. Decades of effort have finally reduced the internal threat of leftist and religious rebellions leaving most Filipinos are more concerned about endemic corruption and the resulting economic stagnation. There is also the Chinese threat, with more Chinese warships showing up in what had been, until recently, unquestionably Filipino coastal waters. Most Filipinos see China as a threat but not as large as the internal problems with corruption, Islamic terrorism and unemployment. A new president (Rodrigo Duterte) took power in mid-2016 pledging to do what most Filipinos wanted, not what the politicians wanted. Duterte had been doing this locally (as mayor of a major southern city) since the 1990s and was ready to try and make it happen nationally. This has led to condoning vigilante tactics by the police to suppress the drug gangs as well as an unexpected adoption of an anti-American foreign policy and a willingness to make deals with China.

This different approach to China weakened the coalition with Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the United States that had formed to oppose the Chinese threat. Duterte told the Americans he would not risk war with China over it. Duterte told the Islamic minority in the south (led by MILF) that he would get behind the 2015 peace deal (that gave it more autonomy but not its own country and the expulsion of non-Moslems) and help get it approved by the legislature if MILF helped destroy Abu Sayyaf (the ultra-radical Islamic terrorist group in the south that is responsible for most of the kidnappings and terror bombings down there) and MILF factions that refused to accept the peace deal. Abu Sayyaf has integrated itself with the clan culture down there and become very difficult to eliminate. The Moslems have, as always, lots of clan feuds and internal violence which will survive the autonomy deal with the government. Duterte may not be the solution to the many problems the country faces but he is the most radical, and promising, one to come along in decades.

NPA Peace Talks Collapse

The government has apparently given up on peace negotiations with the NPA (the illegal armed wing of the local Communist Party). NPA negotiators were warned that the peace negotiations (resumed this year) would be abandoned if some progress was not made. The government kept the peace negotiations with the NPA going this year despite persistent NPA demands that hundreds of jailed NPA members be freed first. Since February the army and police have been ordered to exert maximum pressure on the NPA and that apparently worked because the operations concentrated on the NPA groups known to be hostile to a peace deal. The third round of peace talks took place in early January but it quickly became clear that there too many NPA factions that refused to make peace and that problem remains unsolved. Until the NPA can regain control over (or disown) disobedient factions the government will resume its efforts to destroy the NPA completely. Both the government and the NPA leadership are trying, in different ways, to deal with the uncooperative NPA factions and that is enough to maintain the option to resume negotiations. But at the moment the government appears to have had enough of NPA instability and recently announced that once the situation in Marawi City was taken care of (and that should be sometime in August) the security forces will turn their attention to the NPA.

Piracy Alert

Regional piracy monitoring groups are telling shipping companies to warn crews of vessels operating near southwest Philippines (Sulu Province and the Sulu Sea) to exercise extreme caution or even avoid the area if possible because of the continued piracy threat from Abu Sayyaf.

July 20, 2017: The government ordered the arrest of the fifteen NPA rebel leaders recently freed from jail to help with peace talks. The arrest order was in response to an NPA ambush yesterday, in violation of the agreement that was to get peace talks going.

July 19, 2017: In the south (Mindanao) NPA rebels ambushed two vehicles carrying presidential security personnel. The NPA justified this, and other attacks, because they objected to the government decision to extend the martial law imposed in the south recently to deal with the fighting in Marawi City.

Singapore, with one of the best equipped and trained armed forces in the region, has offered the Philippines assistance in dealing with the Marawi City situation. Singapore offered to provide ones of its C-130 transports to quickly move supplies and people to the city and casualties and others out. Singapore also offered some of its UAVs as well as the use of its urban training village facilities to prepare Filipino troops for the fighting in the city.

July 18, 2017: The government asked the legislature to extend the state of emergency (martial law) in the south until the end of 2017. This would enable the security forces to more quickly destroy the Manute Group and other Islamic terror groups in the south. The legislature is divided on how long to extend the state of emergency, which had originally been declared on May 23rd when the battle for Marawi City began.

July 16, 2017: In the south (Sulu province) 14 prisoners escaped from a new jail. Several of those escaping were Abu Sayyaf members, most of the rest were drug dealers. During the escape four of the prisoners were shot. Three died and one was captured.

July 15, 2017: In the south (Sulu province) a group of Abu Sayyaf gunmen raided a new school and sought to capture six painters working there. One of the painters escaped and alerted police who promptly went after the Islamic terrorists and their captives, freeing one of the painters and continuing the pursuit.

July 14, 2017: In the south (Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental provinces) NPA rebels captured two police officers and are holding them prisoner.

In the north (Quezon province) patrolling soldiers encountered some NPA gunmen and killed one of them while the others got away.

July 13, 2017: In the south (Zamboanga City) a long sought Abu Sayyaf member, who specialized in supplying weapons to Abu Sayyaf factions in Sulu province, was arrested. The veteran (nearly 20 years) Abu Sayyaf man was caught with a hand grenade and had been working as a security guard in the city to provide cover for his weapons operation.

July 12, 2017: In the south (Compostela Valley province) soldiers clashed with about 40 NPA rebels, killing eight of them and wounding even more. One soldier was killed in the brief gun battle.

It’s been a year since the Permanent Court of Arbitration, after two years of deliberations, ruled that that China was acting illegally with its claims in the South China Sea. Britain and other Western nations said they would enforce any penalties levied but none were. While the Permanent Court of Arbitration is universally recognized (and backed by the UN) its rulings require other nations to enforce them, or not. It this case China pushed back and nothing has really happened because of the ruling. The Philippines, America, Australia, Japan and South Korea all openly opposed the Chinese claims early on while other nations in the area (Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and India) held back for a while but eventually lined up against China. Only Japan, the United States and Australia openly called on China to obey the court rulings. The United States told China that any efforts to build an artificial island on Scarborough Shoal and install a military base would be resisted with more than diplomatic protests. The base was built and is still there. Another reason for the lack of success in halting Chinese aggression is because China offers to hold regular talks with the Philippines over these disputes. The Philippines refused at first because it did not consider the situation a dispute but rather a case of unwarranted Chinese aggression. But around the same time the court ruling came through the Philippines elected a new president who was willing to negotiate. Now China has offered the Philippines $24 billion in economic aid plus trade deals. This has changed attitudes in the Philippines.

July 8, 2017: In the south (Sulu province) soldiers searching for Abu Sayyaf camps holding captives clashed with a large group of Abu Sayyaf gunmen. Three of the Abu Sayyaf were killed as they fled. One soldier died and fifteen were wounded. Soldiers found one of the hostages they sought, a Vietnamese sailor, among the dead. Apparently the Abu Sayyaf gunmen were moving him, and perhaps other hostages, to a new location.

July 5, 2017: In the south (Maguindanao province) security forces encountered a group of BIFF (a renegade MILF faction) gunmen and after a brief gun battle captured six of the BIFF gunmen along with their weapons. The other BIFF men got away.

Elsewhere in the south (Basilan province) Abu Sayyaf beheaded two of the Vietnamese sailors that had taken off a passing cargo ship last November. It’s unclear why they killed these two hostages, who were being held for ransom.

July 4, 2017: In the south the leader of MILF announced that his organization was most definitely opposed to Islamic terrorism and especially what the Manute Group was doing in Marawi City. While this is an accurate description of how most MILF members feel it ignores that the fact that there are, and have long been, a percentage of Filipino Moslems who are attracted to Islamic terrorism and have been for centuries, ever since Islam was first introduced to the southern Philippines. But there are other factors at work here. Many native (Malay) tribes of the Philippines developed differently since (and probably before) Islam and Christianity arrived over five hundred years ago. Those in the south encountered Moslem traders and missionaries from Indonesia, and became Moslem, while those in the north (and most of the Philippines) encountered Spanish explorers and missionaries and became Christian. For reasons more cultural than religious, the tribes in the south retained a strong clan structure, and a preference for settling clan disputes with violence and private armies. Since World War II there have been about two such feuds a year, leaving a dozen or so people dead, and often causing hundreds, and sometimes thousands, to flee their homes. The violence has become more deadly in the last few decades as automatic weapons became cheaper (and more common). Getting MILF to enforce the disarmament portions of the peace agreement are already running into problems because of rogue MILF factions and internal disputes based on clan affiliation. While religion is the main glue holding the MILF together, clan politics still stirs the pot and clans do not want to give up their guns. Even the recent battle in Marawi City that got hundreds of members of the Manute clan killed, was believed to be connected with a feud between the powerful Manute clan and a local rival. Outsiders find that sort of thing hard to believe but those who have spent a lot of time in the Moslem south know better.

June 29, 2017: In the south (North Cotabato province) a rural MILF commander got into a fight with some village self-defense forces when he tried to seize a portion of the recent harvest as part of a MILF “tax”. The villagers saw this as robbery, not support for MILF and fought back killing two of the MILF gunmen. The police and more senior MILF leaders were then called in to sort it all out.

June 28, 2017: China flew in some emergency military aid in the form of 3,000 CQ-A5 assault rifles (and five million rounds of 5.56mm ammo) and 80 CS-LR4 7.62mm sniper rifles (and 800,000 rounds of ammo). The aid was valued at $7.3 million. It was noted that these two weapons, while Chinese made, looked like two famous rifles from the 1960s; the U.S. 5.56mm M-16 and the Russian 7.62mm SVD sniper rifle. Both are indeed that, Chinese copies of these two weapons manufactured mainly for the export market. Filipino troops have long used the M-16 as their standard assault rifle and Filipino snipers use several different sniper rifles and like variety. The Philippines thanked China and later thanked the United States as well for providing intel resources as well as American Special Forces troops on the ground to advise and assist.

June 23, 2017: In the south (Marawi City) efforts to identify the bodies of Islamic terrorists killed there so far indicate that a man killed on June 7th was Mahmud Ahmad, a notorious Malaysian Islamic terrorist who apparently helped plan, and pay for, the concentration of Islamic terrorists in Marawi City for what turned out to be a suicidal battle for the various Islamic terror groups involved. Ahmad was known to be directing ISIL cash to local Islamic terror groups.

June 21, 2017: In the south (North Cotabato province) about 200 BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) gunmen tried to take control of two rural villages but ran into security forces that fought back. At least six of the Islamic terrorists and one of the local defense volunteers were killed as well as one local civilian. BIFF has been on the run since it was formed in 2011 after splitting from MILF. Since early 2016 the government and MILF have cooperated (mainly in Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur provinces) on destroying rouge MILF factions like BIFF and the Maute Group. That effort has prevented both groups from growing a lot larger but has not eliminated them.




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