ISIS-Linked Groups in the Philippines Are Not Yet Defeated

Experts say the bloody siege of Marawi doesn't solve the larger problem.

May 9, 2018 5:00 am
Philippine soldiers are lined up during their send off ceremony in Marawi, Lanao del Sur in the Southern Philippines on October 25, 2017. The military showed to media the destructions brought by the siege that left 165 soldiers, over 900 militants, and 47 civilians, dead.  (Jeoffrey Maitem/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Philippine soldiers are lined up during their send off ceremony in Marawi, Lanao del Sur in the Southern Philippines on October 25, 2017. The military showed to media the destructions brought by the siege that left 165 soldiers, over 900 militants, and 47 civilians, dead. (Jeoffrey Maitem/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Getty Images

When U.S. officials gave lawmakers the latest update in the battle against ISIS-linked groups in the Philippines, it appeared to be a sea of good news.

Last year, the local coalition of ISIS-affiliated militants in the southeast Asian nation, dubbed ISIS-P by the U.S. government, stunned counter-terrorism officials when it managed to capture and hold the city of Marawi in the country’s south. But after a bloody battle with U.S.-supported Philippine government forces that lasted nearly half a year, ISIS-P was beaten down. The militants suffered an estimated 900 killed-in-action, including the deaths of two of the most powerful factions’ overall commanders.

“According to USPACOM [U.S. Pacific Command], the 5-month siege of Marawi took a significant toll on the force strength of ISIS-P and prevented the insurgents from conducting any major attacks in the immediate aftermath of the heavy fighting, which ended in October 2017,” says the oversight report sent to Congress and published online last week. “USPACOM reported that ISIS-P did not control any territory in the Philippines this quarter [January 1 to March 31], and there were no reports of ISIS-P aligned fighters still present in Marawi. According to USPACOM, the loss of senior ISIS-P leadership severed the functional relationship between ISIS-P and its Middle Eastern affiliates, although ISIS leaders in Syria were attempting to reestablish contact with elements in the southern Philippines.”

As of the end of March, core-ISIS had yet to recognize a new leader for ISIS-P and, aside from deadly skirmishes with the Philippine military, the group is not believed to be near a position to re-create the “success” of the Marawi takeover.

But just because ISIS-P is on its back foot now does not mean the terrorist threat has abated — mostly because Marawi wasn’t necessarily a loss for ISIS, globally speaking, and because killing of those hundreds of militants did not address the root cause of militancy that’s certain to return, as ISIS or not, according to experts and observers.

“Think about it, a small group of militants claiming allegiance to ISIS occupied and held portions of Marawi — a major Philippines city — in the face of a full on government offensive for over five months. With only a little spin and propaganda, this was presented by ISIS-core as a strategic victory and one that could end up helping them regenerate their ranks and bolster the group’s appeal,” Joseph Felter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, told the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in December. “So let’s be clear, the Philippine military ultimately prevailed in a brutal urban fight. Huge credit must go to them for regaining control of the city and degrading ISIS as a coherent and effective organization in the process… My concerns about the group’s capability going forward hinge more on the ISIS brand in the Philippines and the region and the ability of the Philippine government to erode the strength of ISIS’s ideological appeal.”

Jack Murphy, a former soldier in the U.S. Army Special Forces and close observer of the counter-terrorism fight in the Philippines, told RealClearLife it looked like ISIS-P was in “shambles” and that name could even be a “thing of the past” thanks to ISIS-core’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria, but that almost misses the point. Violent militancy, in the form of an anti-government insurgency, was around long before ISIS in the Philippines and, in some other form, will likely be around long after.

“For these bandits and insurgents, ISIS was the cool new name brand of global jihad so of course they wanted to hitch their wagon, as have other jihadi groups,” Murphy said in an email. “From Afghanistan to the Philippines, there are little terrorist groups re-branding themselves as ISIS in order to attract membership, financing, and even to goad governmental troops into fighting them so that they gain credibility as insurgents. What was called ISIS-P is probably defunct at this point, but the various jihadists who survived along with other disenfranchised young people will most likely remain jihadists, and over the course of the next decade will likely consolidate into whatever the flavor du jour of international jihadis at that time.”

According to Filipino security analyst Rommel Banlaoi, one underappreciated aspect of the problem that transcends ISIS’s current infamy is perhaps the Philippines’s other most controversial issue: the drug trade and President Rodrigo Duterte’s highly criticizedbrutal crackdown against it.

Banlaoi, Chairman at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, argues in a forthcoming study that the siege of Marawi and the operations of ISIS-P groups elsewhere were closely tied to the drug trade, as alleged by Duterte’s government, and aided by criminal groups with little interest in jihad.

“The [s]iege occurred not only because of the collective actions of most of the ISIS followers in the Philippines, but also because of the collective support of various criminal syndicates engaged in drug trafficking, human smuggling, money laundering, and trafficking of small arms and light weapons…” Banlaoi writes in the study, which he provided to RealClearLife. “Transnational organized [crime] provided the resilient support network of ISIS followers in the Philippines to mount the Marawi siege.” (Banlaoi’s report identifies no less than 23 separate militant groups in the Philippines who purportedly have pledged allegiance or support to ISIS in some manner.)

For the Philippines to be victorious against the Islamic terrorist threat, the government must reconcile and coordinate the two separate battles they’re currently fighting on different fronts, Banlaoi says. “In the aftermath of the Marawi City siege, there is a strong realization that waging the war on drugs and the war on terrorism should go in tandem,” he writes.

In his interview in December, Felter, the State Department official, didn’t mention drugs specifically, but agreed that the battle against Islamic militancy cannot succeed without addressing the trouble spots where enduring local issues mix with opportunistic international Islamic extremism.

“[T]he factors responsible for ISIS’s attack and occupation of Marawi are local, not international in origin. [Chinese leader] Mao [Zedong’s] famous dictum that insurgents are the fish and the population is the sea in which they swim applies in this case. Disenfranchised Filipino Muslims who are dissatisfied with their government’s ability or willingness to address their needs are more inclined to provide tacit, and sometimes direct, support to anti-government activities,” he said. “Going forward, it will be important to maintain pressure on ISIS and other extremists. However, the real challenge for the Philippine government will be addressing the conditions that drove many of these militants to violence and will drive the next generation to similar ends. This must complement [military] efforts if any enduring solutions are to be achieved.”

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. In the oversight report, U.S. officials said, “USPACOM cautioned that it must be assumed that the surviving militants loyal to ISIS-P have retained the additional skills and capabilities demonstrated in the Marawi campaign.”

Back in January Col. Romeo Brawner, the deputy commander of Joint Task Force Marawi, told Reuters he and his men were waiting for the next wave of violence.

“Definitely they haven’t abandoned their intent to create a caliphate in Southeast Asia,” Brawner reportedly said of ISIS-P. “That’s the overall objective, but in the meantime while they are still trying to recover and build up again — fighters and weapons — our estimate is they are going to launch terrorist attacks.”

Lee Ferran is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.

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