Duterte Fumbles in Southern Philippines

Philippine government troops take cover in Marawi City
Philippine government troops take cover in Marawi City Erik De Castro/Reuters

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s hard-line, but chaotic, strategy against radical, Islamic State-linked groups in the southern Philippines risks undermining a real chance for peace while failing to defeat the most extreme militants.

June 30, 2017 9:12 am (EST)

Philippine government troops take cover in Marawi City
Philippine government troops take cover in Marawi City Erik De Castro/Reuters
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The battle for Marawi, the capital city of some two hundred thousand on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, has begun to raise global concern. The island, part of the Muslim-majority south in a state dominated by Catholics, has chafed against Manila for over a century. Southerners fought intense battles against U.S. colonial rule in the Philippines and insurgent armies there battled federal forces from 1969 to the mid-2010s, seeking independence or at least a high degree of autonomy. But in recent years, major insurgent groups have mostly put down their weapons, trying to reach peace deals with the Philippine state.

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Radicals, some inspired by the self-proclaimed Islamic State and aligned with other extremists, have splintered off from the major insurgent factions. Authorities in the United States and Southeast Asian nations such as Singapore and Indonesia now fear the often lawless southern Philippines, increasingly prominent in Islamic State propaganda, will lure militants from around the world—and especially from other parts of Southeast Asia.

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Rodrigo Duterte

Islamic State

Meanwhile, Duterte appears to see the Marawi fight as a test of his tough guy mettle, up to now most associated with his harsh approach to narcotics trafficking. In May, Duterte declared martial law on the entire southern island of Mindanao, vowing that it would help rid Marawi of militants and warning that he might extend martial law nationwide.

Map of the Philippines

Although Duterte served for roughly three decades as the mayor of Davao City, the most populous city in Mindanao, as president he has paid relatively little attention to the conflict in the southern Philippines until recently. Yet, his declaration of martial law will not help authorities destroy Islamic State-linked groups, which are still quite small in number. The Marawi fighters have proven difficult to defeat; nearly one thousand people reportedly have died in battle, and the government has claimed several times that the militants were almost eliminated only to find this was untrue. One of the most wanted militants is believed to have evaded capture and escaped from Marawi. The casualties stem in part from the Philippine military’s lack of training and the difficultly of fighting on the complex terrain in the south, both in urban and rural areas.

In reality, Duterte’s tough talk and indiscriminate approach to fighting in Marawi may actually damage the peace process with the largest remaining insurgent army, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The MILF has helped evacuate civilians in Marawi and wields significant power in Mindanao. Its help is critical to cracking down on radicals hiding in the south, building permanent peace, and, probably, fostering economic development that could reduce the appeal of militancy.  

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A New Jihadist Frontline?

The Islamic State has used social media and print propaganda to highlight Southeast Asia as a potential battleground. Its magazine, Rumiyah, recently featured Islamic State-linked fighters in East Asia, including an interview with Abu Abdullah al-Filipini, also known as Isnilon Hapilon, who it claimed to be the Islamic State’s emir in Southeast Asia. Hapilon had been a leader of the southern Philippine militant group Abu Sayyaf, and is thought to be one of the masterminds behind the Marawi siege, though his current whereabouts remain unknown. In the Rumiyah interview, he claimed that Islamic State-linked groups “continue to increase in numbers and weapons” in East Asia and specifically referenced the Philippines. The Islamic State also made a video in 2016 encouraging militants to travel to the southern Philippines, presumably to fight.  

The southern Philippines could be ripe for a massive recruitment drive by the Islamic State.

The group also set up a brigade for Southeast Asian fighters traveling to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside Islamic State militants. Researchers who study the appeal of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia have estimated that between eight hundred and one thousand Southeast Asians have traveled to Islamic State-held territory, the majority of whom are believed to be Malaysians and Indonesians. These fighters could return home, linking up with local militant forces and also serving as recruiters for Islamic State-linked groups, trying to win over young people in the southern Philippines to their cause. Since the beginning of the Marawi siege, Philippine authorities have reportedly killed eight foreigners fighting with the local militants, including people from Chechnya, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. The southern Philippines also could prove an attractive spot for Indonesian and Malaysian radicals who have not traveled to Islamic State-held territory but are looking for somewhere to fight, and cannot find it at home. Rule of law is stronger in Malaysia and Indonesia, and Malaysia in particular has cracked down on potential militants. Sidney Jones of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict has noted that it is easy for people to travel from Indonesia and Malaysia to the southern Philippines, given porous borders, yet the three countries have not stepped up joint intelligence and law-enforcement efforts effectively.

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Rodrigo Duterte

Islamic State

On the surface, the southern Philippines could be ripe for a massive recruitment drive by the Islamic State among disillusioned locals. The islands are underdeveloped and home to Muslim-majority populations in an overwhelmingly Catholic country long ruled by Manila elites. Small arms are also easy to acquire in Mindanao, the legacy of multiple insurgencies.

Several small remaining militant groups in the southern Philippines have affiliated themselves with the Islamic State. Abu Sayyaf apparently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in early 2016. The organization then apparently linked up with another group of militants operating in the south, known now as the Maute group, a radical splinter faction.

However, these groups are far smaller in numbers and influence than the MILF. Under former president Benigno Aquino III, who served from 2010 to 2016, a framework peace deal was launched, designed to offer significant autonomy to five provinces in the south in exchange for an end to conflict that has killed over 120,000 people since the late 1960s. The framework, signed in 2014 by Aquino and the head negotiator of the MILF, was supposed to lead to formal legislation finalizing the deal. The legislation was not approved by the Philippine legislature before the conclusion of Aquino’s term or during the beginning of Duterte’s presidency last year.

No Time for Peace

Still, many Philippine and foreign opinion leaders hoped that Duterte, with his ties to the south, could complete the peace process by convincing the legislature and the Philippine public to embrace a final agreement. During his presidential campaign, Duterte expressed the need for peace in the south, and he seemed genuinely sympathetic to southerners’ longstanding grievances against Manila. A peace deal would potentially give way to significant development in the south, and potentially reduce the pool of recruits for extremists by raising incomes and creating jobs.

Duterte recently has claimed that southern Muslims could have their own homeland in the next three years. On other occasions he has downplayed southern autonomy plans, saying that they have to be part of some larger—and extremely hard-to-achieve—nationwide political decentralization.

[Duterte’s] administration appeared unprepared for the militants’ uprising.

Such promises seem unlikely to come to fruition. During his first year in office, Duterte has focused on his war against drugs. He has also cultivated closer strategic relationships with Russia and China, part of what appears to be a strategy to reduce the Philippines’ dependence on the United States. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and other media outlets have chronicled Duterte’s history of distrust of the United States, dating back to his time as mayor of Davao and even his childhood, which may play a part in Duterte’s decision to reduce Manila’s dependence on Washington. The drug war further established Duterte’s image as a macho, ruthless leader. Over nine thousand people reportedly have died in his drug war since July 2016, according to the Washington Post, often in extrajudicial killings with no semblance of due process.

As president, Duterte appointed Jesus Dureza as the top advisor to the southern peace process, but Dureza has poor relations with MILF leaders. Duterte has further complicated matters by devoting little of his personal bully pulpit to making peace in the south, despite high popularity ratings. The southern peace process drags on with a new draft law for autonomy based on legislation proposed during Aquino’s presidency, though it remains unclear whether the legislation has national public support or how much of his personal popularity Duterte will invest in trying to get it passed.

Rising Southern Discontent

Despite Duterte’s macho image and his own history in the south, his administration appeared unprepared for the militants’ uprising—in regard to both the fierceness of fighting in Marawi and the actual siege of the city. He ignored a request from the Maute group for a cease-fire last year, perhaps underestimating their ability to cause havoc. The Duterte administration did little after the Maute group captured the southern town of Butig last year using tactics like those now used in Marawi.

Displaced residents lineup for food in Marawi City as government forces fight militants.
Displaced residents lineup for food in Marawi City as government forces fight militants. Jorge Silva/Reuters

After Philippine forces tried and failed to capture Abu Sayyaf’s leader in May, members of Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group laid siege to Marawi before the Philippine armed forces could stop them from taking parts of the city, emptying jails, and digging in throughout the city. In the past month of fighting, Philippine forces have been ambushed several times in and around Marawi by militants. Meanwhile, the military’s use of conventional bombing has been ineffective, killing civilians and Philippine soldiers in friendly fire incidents.

Duterte’s open hostility toward the United States may have complicated his forces’ unreadiness. The U.S. military’s counterterrorism advisory program in the south, established after 9/11, wound down in 2014, although a small contingent of advisors remains. Duterte has reportedly allowed U.S. forces to advise the military on the Marawi siege, but he may be reluctant to significantly relaunch a formal U.S. training program for forces in the south, regardless of the need to bulk up the Philippine military’s counterterrorism tactics and combat capabilities. 

Destruction of large parts of Marawi and high civilian death tolls are not going to endear Manila to the south either.

Under martial law, the military has launched an offensive in Marawi and its outskirts. Yet, martial law does not make it easier for the armed forces to wipe out the most extreme Islamic State-linked radicals in the south. Training, better equipment, and better intelligence networks would improve matters. The use of tactics like regularly dropping conventional bombs in crowded urban areas has led to large-scale civilian casualties. These bombings claim many civilian lives and do little to help capture Abu Sayyaf and Maute leaders.

In addition, further civilian casualties will likely not help the broader cause of peace. Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group enjoy little public support in the south, where they have been terrorizing civilians. But destruction of large parts of Marawi and high civilian death tolls are not going to endear Manila to the south either.

Any final peace deal with the MILF, including legislation creating autonomy for parts of the south, will require massive popular support. It will also require the MILF to support the deal, put it into practice, and back development in the south. And in turn, the insurgent group will need to help Manila in eradicating smaller radical organizations like Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group. It can do so by helping the Philippine military attack these hard-liners anywhere they try to hide in the south.

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