Violent clashes between local militants and government forces in the southern Philippines have sparked fears of a wider campaign from the Islamic State in its global jihad. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has since declared martial law throughout the affected regions.
The latest reports from Marawi City, the capital of the Lanao del Sur province and one of the hubs of the Mindanao region, said 19 civilians, 11 military, and four policemen have been killed by Islamist militants in street battles. The civilian deaths included three women and a child, officials said, while a priest and several worshippers were taken hostage- there has been no word on their condition. However, according to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), 61 terrorists have been killed, and 124 civilians have been rescued.
Conflicts between government forces and the Maute group, an Islamist militant organization based in Mindanao, began to escalate last Tuesday. Presidential spokesman Ernesto Albella confirmed that the fighters had taken over several government buildings in Marawi and had torched others- including a church, a school, and a city jail. It is not clear from his statement how much damage the arson had caused. Manila has mobilized attack helicopters and special police forces in an attempt to combat and control the chaos.
Local resident Chico Usman said the militants had entered the predominantly Muslim city with an estimated population of 200,000 wearing masks and carrying assault rifles.
“Everybody was shocked and ran into their houses,” Usman said, adding that they had heard gunfire and fighting well into the next morning. Black ISIS flags with the words “There is no god but God” in white text have since been spotted flying from “every corner in the city” according to Usman. He spoke to CNN from near Saguiaran, a town outside Marawi where thousands of residents have taken temporary shelter.
Police have also discovered the bodies of eight workmen on the outskirts of the city. Thought to be fleeing Marawi, witnesses said the victims were asked to recite verses from the Qur’an. Their hands were tied together, and most of the men were shot in the head when they did not comply. A sign saying “munafik,” roughly translated to traitor, was attached to one of the bodies.
The main militant force driving the attacks is known as Maute, after two brothers, Omar and Abdullah Maute, who reportedly ran a criminal gang in nearby Butig before turning to armed insurrection. The trigger for their uprising is thought to be a failed attempt to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, the group’s leader. Hapilon was designated as the ISIS emir for Southeast Asia last year. He was previously second-in-command of the al-Qaida linked terrorist group based in Basilan. The group is notorious for bomb attacks, beheadings of western hostages, and its connects to Jemaah Islamiyah, which carried out the 2002 Bali bombings. The militants’ aim is supposedly greater autonomy or independence from the ‘Christian’ government in Manila, but many find flaws in that declaration, as one of their main demands includes increased control over the impoverished region’s mostly untapped natural resources.
“What’s happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens,” said Philippines Solicitor General Jose Calida during a press conference. “It has transmogrified into invasion by foreign terrorists. They want to create Mindanao as part of the caliphate.”
While ISIS has yet to formally declare Mindanao as a caliphate as it has done in Libya and Saudi Arabia, analysts believe it is just a matter of time. This Marawi siege, hostage-taking, and execution of civilians are reminiscent of ISIS tactics in their other regions, and many fear they are emulating the Daesh group and doing its bidding to win recognition as the main ISIS affiliate in South-East Asia. The siege comes after unconfirmed reports of Islamist militants from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore flocking to the Maute banner. President Duterte’s vocal support for violent methods, including torture, rape and extrajudicial killings- and now martial law in the area- since his election last year may be partly to blame for the escalation crisis. Some responsibility could also be directed at the US and China, who are fighting for control and influence in the Philippines and the South China Sea
Duterte was forced to cut his recent trip to Russia short to return to the country and declare martial law. Martial law will be in effect on the Muslim-majority southern Philippines island for 60 days “to suppress lawless violence and rebellion and for public safety,” Abella said. Under the 1987 constitution, the president has the ability to place the country under martial law. It should not last more than two months, but Duterte has gone on record saying he would be willing to extend it for a whole year.
“If it would take a year to do it, then we’ll do it. If it’s over within a month, then I’d be happy,” Duterte said in a video posted on Facebook by the assistant secretary to the Presidential Communications Operation Office. Maute has been accused of involvement in a bombing in Duterte’s hometown in September that left 14 people dead. Around ten months ago, Duterte gave a speech in Manila warning that ISIS followers, posing as missionaries, had started radicalizing locals in Mindanao and threatened that he would be ten times more brutal in dealing with them. With this martial law in place, the military now can search any homes they wish, impose curfews on citizens, and make arrests without court-issued warrants.
While criminal and Islamist groups have been active in the area between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia for years, this last attack has been hailed as the most aggressive and audacious attack on government troops by ISIS-loyal fighters. According to a senior analyst at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, this increased cooperation between the groups in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia is a significant step towards “generating a much more unified Islamist front, particularly in the southern Philippines.”
However, some view the situation as an excuse for Duterte to solidify and justify his arms deal with Russia. The US refused to sell to Duterte claiming human rights abuses, but Duterte has argued that he needs modern weaponry to combat the terrorists. Duterte could be opening his administration up to abuses of power, despite the fact that he reportedly said that he “alone would be responsible” for any consequences of martial law. Which sounds great, until I found out that he joked to his troops about raping up to three women. We will have to see what this leader, who has already been involved in the extrajudicial killings of thousands in his war on drugs, does to quell the violence- and how the rest of the world, especially the Trump administration, reacts.