A controversial policy of the current government is the preference for taking all the legal gifts (aid, investment, loans) China offers in return for not resisting Chinese claims in the South China Sea. President Duterte pointed out earlier in 2017 that China threatened war if the Philippines went ahead with plans to drill for oil in offshore areas that international law recognizes as Filipino but that China claims actually belongs to them. Duterte openly criticizes other nations for not confronting China and sees no point in the Philippines trying to take on China by itself. All the South China Sea nations facing territorial losses because of Chinese claims have backed down. He points out that even the United States is unwilling to go up against China. Meanwhile the Chinese are openly moving more weapons to bases in the South China Sea as well as their main naval base in southern China (Hainan Island). When pressed a few Chinese officials would admit that in recent talks between Duterte and Chinese leaders it was mentioned that war was a possibility if other nations sought to take possession of Chinese territory. In other words (that non-Chinese can understand); back off or die. In practical terms that means Chinese fishing boats get away with poaching (fishing in waters international law recognizes as Filipino) because China tends to send armed coast guard ships to escort the poachers and force local naval forces to either open fire (and risk a major retaliation by China) or back off. Filipino naval and coast guard boats back off. But if the poachers are not Chinese they will get arrested or even fired on. This is causing some friction with neighbors like Vietnam, which not too long ago considered themselves allies of the Philippines in the effort to get the Chinese out of the South China Sea.
Meanwhile China continues expanding its operations in the South China Sea while seeking to buy the favor of Filipino politicians and voters. This is having some success but most Filipinos oppose the Chinese aggression and see the United States as a more positive presence in the region than China. President Duterte’s year old war on drugs is still controversial (more so outside the Philippines) but so far most Filipinos back the violent, deadly and unorthodox approach to dealing with illegal drugs, the drug gangs, corrupt politicians and all that. Recent polls show 88 percent of Filipinos support the war on drugs even though 67 percent believe soldiers and police have committed illegal killings. The anti-drug campaign continues, although with fewer corrupt practices (like police undertaking criminal acts while pretending to be going after drug gangs). Duterte’s popularity remains high, with an 80 percent approval rate (down from 82 percent before Marawi City).
An example of this in action was evident when a recent anti-Duterte demonstration attracted some 5,000 protestors. But at the same time three times as many Duterte supporters took to the streets. Yet the opposition to “peace at any price” (or “peace at the right price”) are finding allies in Congress and inside the government. Documents are being leaked detailing the discussions between China and the Philippines and the degree to which China is demanding that the Philippines surrender control, and even access to, much of the waters off the west coast of the Philippines. While the Chinese see this continued resistance by many Filipinos as something that can be fixed by increasing the goodies offered and threats made, most Filipinos see China as yet another conqueror, not much different from the Spanish or the Japanese. The Americans threw the Spanish out in 1898 but soon agreed to get out themselves and did so right after World War II, a year late because of the Japanese occupation. The Filipinos remember that and are certain that the Chinese would behave much like the Japanese (as in brutally and with no intention to leave voluntarily).
The Smoldering South
In the Moslem south Abu Sayyaf and other ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) affiliated Islamic terror groups have suffered a major defeat in the failed attempt to take over Marawi City (the capital of Lanao del Sur province). The government declared the battle over on the 17th. At that point there were still about 20 ISIL gunmen holding about 20 hostages and surrounded. Police are treating that as another hostage incident and agree that there are few, if any, Islamic terrorists left loose in the city. The information gained from dead or captured Islamic terrorists has provided leads for surviving Islamic terrorists and their hideouts throughout the Philippines, especially in the south. This has apparently done some serious damage to Islamic terror groups in the Philippines.
In the last few days the regional ISIL leader was killed and his successor (Mahmud Ahmad) was identified and is being sought. Ahmad is Malaysian and has been active with ISIL since 2014. He was the regional ISIL chief of finance and recruiting and is believed to be somewhere in the Philippines. Before 2014 Ahmad taught at a university in Malaysia but like many other veteran Islamic terrorists ended up in the Philippines because, until recently, it was considered the safest place to hide out. That is no longer the case but there is nowhere else in the region to flee to and international travel has become more and more difficult for Islamic terrorists, especially any that have been around for a while. In response to this the nations in the region with most Islamic terrorism problems are cooperating with the U.S. and Philippines to determine who are, or should be looking for in the Philippines. That’s how foreigners like Ahmad were tracked and identified. To aid in the process American intelligence specialists are working with their Filipino counterparts in Marawi City to identify the many bodies of Islamic terrorists that have been and are still being found. There appear to have been over a hundred foreigners among the Islamic terrorists fighting in Marawi City and perhaps as many still active elsewhere in the Philippines.
The large quantity of information collected from the Islamic terrorists in Marawi City has led to dozens of arrests, often of senior Islamic terrorist officials including recruiters and fund raisers that do not carry a gun and stay in the background. Also revealed was the locations of hidden stockpiles of weapons and ammo, which are often unguarded in order to help keep the stuff undetected. All this data revealed how the Marawi City operation was organized, including the names of those who financed the purchase of weapons, ammo and other equipment for the large (over 2,000) local Islamic radicals invited to take control of the city. The plan failed because, as is often the case, the Islamic terrorists overestimated how much popular support they had in the south. Too many people in Marawi City were hostile to Islamic terrorists and willing to inform on them.
Once names of these Marawi City attack planners and supporters were available it turned out to be easy to get additional information from those who knew (or knew of) the suspects. The intel also revealed that this support had little depth in the Philippines. In fact many of the most likely replacements for Islamic terrorist leaders and key operatives were not Filipino. Thus the likely new leaders of both ISIL/Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group will be foreigners, which will not, in the long run, be popular with Filipino Islamic terrorists. In addition the foreigners are easier to track down because, well, they are not Filipino and stand out. For that reason many of these foreigners have stayed in the countryside and generally out of sight.
In addition to the heavy losses in the five month battle for Marawi City Abu Sayyaf is not attracting many new recruits and many veterans are quitting or, if wanted by the police, taking advantage of an amnesty. So far this year at least 120 Abu Sayyaf have surrendered. Half of the surrenders took place in Basilan province, the center of Abu Sayyaf power and where most of the remaining kidnap victims are being held for ransom. The surrendering Abu Sayyaf bring information as well as weapons and that info has led to the remaining Abu Sayyaf forces being constantly moving and disrupting plans for more kidnapping or piracy operations. It is believed that Abu Sayyaf will take some risks to carry out a spectacular attack that will revive their sagging popular image.
In Marawi City security forces have regained control of the entire city that a thousand Islamic terrorists occupied or threatened since late May. The search is underway for explosive traps the Islamic terrorists may have left behind but there do not appear to be many of these. All five leaders of the Islamic terrorist coalition fighting in Marawi City have been killed. The last two died on the 16th when one of the four Maute brothers and Abu Sayyaf/ISIL leader Isnilon Hapilon were ambushed by soldiers. These two had gathered fifty or so men to make a last stand at a location on the city waterfront. They were unable to reach the waterfront and instead established a final redoubt in a lakeside neighborhood. Several Islamic terrorist leaders had managed to get out of the city since July but Hapilon and his group were detected and intercepted by special operations troops. Another interesting item was that at least 20 of these final fifty were foreigners, the rest are Filipinos from Abu Sayyaf or the Maute group. The military insisted that for this final group escape was not an option, especially because Abu Sayyaf leader Hapilon, who has been much sought for years and is also the leader of all ISIL in Southeast Asia was with the final fifty. It appears that about a thousand people died in Marawi City fighting with most (78 percent) Islamic terrorists. Some 17 percent of those killed were security forces and the remaining five percent civilians. Now a dozen or so Islamic terrorists are holding out, protected for the moment by the civilians they are using for human shields.
The largest ISIL faction in Marawi City was from the Maute Group (a radical MILF faction that opposes the peace treaty) who unexpectedly brought in over 300 of their own gunmen who were willing to fight to the death and triggered an existing plan to gather in Marawi City to inspire local Moslems to rise up and drive out Christians. The Maute family is one of the larger and wealthier clans in the south and seven Maute brothers got mixed up with clan politics, MILF and now ISIL. The battle began on May 23rd when a raid to capture or kill Isnilon Hapilon (the head of Abu Sayyaf since 2016) escalated unexpectedly. As the fighting went on there were efforts to end what quickly turned into dead (literally) end for the ISIL fighters. MILF refused to help negotiate a withdrawal of the remaining Islamic terrorists (many of them former MILF members) from the city. Some Islamic clerics visited the city during the battle and urged the Islamic terrorists to stop fighting. That failed. The government demanded that the Islamic terrorists in the city surrender or die. Some surrendered, most died and few escaped.
The Marawi City battle killed a lot of the most dedicated Islamic terrorists but it also demonstrated how Islam keeps generating more “more Islamic than thou” religious fanatics generation after generation. More Islamic majority nations are trying to deal with this militant intolerance problem (that no other major religion has) if only because this attitude has crippled areas where Moslems predominate. Islamic conservatives have successfully suppressed scientific and political progress for over a thousand years and that has become much more obvious during the last few centuries as the West moved ahead in multiple areas. MILF is trying to persuade the Christian majority that Filipino Moslems can deal with this problem but incidents like Marawi City don’t help. Nevertheless the current government is trying to persuade Congress to approve the MILF autonomy treaty because it is best that Moslems solve these problems themselves. If MILF fails Congress can cancel the autonomy deal but at a cost in another period of intense violence.
Abu Sayyaf took heavy losses in Marawi City and add to that known combat losses elsewhere plus the 130 who have accepted the amnesty and surrendered so far this year it is no surprise that Abu Sayyaf has not been very visible since May (when the battle in Marawi City began). Abu Sayyaf still holds some hostages but cannot keep them in one place for too long and every time they move their captives they are more vulnerable to an encounter with the security forces or a hostile local militia (including MILF). Abu Sayyaf is still dangerous, but it has fewer resources.
The leftist (communist) NPA rebels refuse to resume negotiations to work out a peace deal, partly because the leftist organization is divided internally. The government has responded by ordering the security forces to concentrate on NPA and shut them down. As a result more NPA members are surrendering of deserting the organization. In September 52 NPA members surrendered and intel provided by them indicates that losses from desertion were more than twice that. In addition there are medical losses as well as fewer new recruits. Yet the NPA remains divided with many factions willing to fight on. Since the peace talks collapsed on February 4th nearly 600 NPA rebels have surrendered, been captured killed or known to have deserted (and are sometimes being sought to major crimes). In many arears where the NPA has long operated the locals have come to view the NPA as bandits.
October 18, 2017: In the south (Basilan) Ben Salina Sapilin, a cousin of Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon. Surrendered. Elsewhere in the south some fighting continued in Marawi City with at least four Islamic terrorists killed.
October 16, 2017: Down south in Marawi City soldiers cornered Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute (one of the Maute Group leaders) and killed them, along with some of their companions. Others in the group were captured and said they were unhappy with the fact that the two leaders had abandoned many of their followers rather than stay and fight to the death. The U.S. offered $5 million reward for the capture or death of Hapilon.
October 12, 2017: The Philippines revealed that Russia had sent military aid that included 5,000 AK-47 type assault rifles and 20 military trucks.
October 11, 2017: In the north (Taguig city, east of Manila) police arrested Karen Aizha Hamidon, a local woman who had been recruiting for ISIL worldwide via the Internet. Hamidon was the ex-wife if a Singaporean ISIL member who was arrested there in 2015.
October 10, 2017: Down south in Marawi City the military reports that about 20 percent of the remaining (fight-to-the-death) Islamic terrorists in the city were probably foreigners.
October 5, 2017: China delivered another 3,000 assault rifles plus three million rounds of ammo and 90 sniper scopes for the sniper rifles donated in June (along with 3,000 CQ-A5 assault rifles, five million rounds of 5.56mm ammo , 80 CS-LR4 7.62mm sniper rifles(and 800,000 rounds of ammo for them). The June donation was valued at $7.3 million while the one today is worth about the same. This shipment of assault rifles is going to the national police. With less fanfare China is selling the Philippines ships, trucks and other equipment that can be used by the military.
September 28, 2017: The government revealed that it is negotiating with a Chinese oil company to jointly explore for oil in Filipino waters that China claims. China had recently threatened to attack any Filipino oil exploration efforts in this area and the Philippines backed off. The new offer is about the two countries sharing any oil found in what used to be Filipino waters.
September 23, 2017: Coast Guard opened fire on a Vietnamese fishing boat caught poaching in Filipino waters off Luzon. Two of the Vietnamese were killed and Vietnam is demanding an explanation for the use of fatal force. The Philippines has promised a thorough investigation. In cases like this the poachers often fight back or attempt to flee.
In the south (Zamboanga city) police detected and prevented an Abu Sayyaf terror attacks planned for the city. Three Abu Sayyaf men were captured along with weapons and bomb components.