Jul 20th 2017
THE Philippine army has been fighting for two full months to take back control of the southern city of Marawi from a violent and determined coalition of jihadist groups. The battle for Marawi, a mainly Muslim city of 200,000 with a lush lakeside setting and a proud sense of its culture, erupted when the government got word that Isnilon Hapilon was hiding there. Mr Hapilon, a leader of a notorious kidnap-for-ransom gang, Abu Sayyaf, pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) three years ago. In return, IS declared him the “emir” of the Philippine province of its caliphate. When the armed forces went to arrest him, up to 700 fighters emerged out of nowhere and, in the name of IS, seized the city. Ominously, foreign fighters and even veterans of Mosul are thought to be involved, including militants from Chechnya, Indonesia, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
The army has fought back hard, claiming to have killed 411 combatants. Its spokesman, Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, now talks of “mopping up”, with the remaining insurgents penned into an area of a square kilometre, encompassing the commercial district. But the militants do not scruple to use human shields—dozens of civilians have already died, and 300 are thought still to be trapped. That limits the army’s room for manoeuvre.
The army, too, has taken losses: nearly 100 soldiers killed and over 850 wounded out of a force of about 3,000. In Marawi this week it was clear the battle was far from over, with new units arriving in the city and helicopter gunships flying in for an afternoon attack, the thump of their rotors briefly drowning out the rattle of machineguns and the snap of sniper fire.
The outcome is not in doubt. But President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent predictions of a swift victory were far from the mark. Meanwhile, evacuees languish in their tens of thousands in dirty camps. A growing number realise they have no home to return to—much of the city has been flattened.
The Philippines has had its share of conflict, particularly in Mindanao, a poor and restive southern island that is home to most Filipino Muslims. But this is the heaviest urban fighting since the Second World War. Marawi came as a shock. Whenever one or other of a welter of bandit groups declared an IS affiliation, the authorities had tended to dismiss it as boastful self-branding.
The Maute group is a case in point. It is based in Lanao del Sur, the province of which Marawi is the capital. Even after it pledged allegiance to IS in 2015, many mistook it for a low-grade family mafia, with links to Marawi’s former mayor, Solitario Ali, whom Mr Duterte has denounced as a drug lord.
Yet both Omar Maute (said by the army to be dead) and his brother, Abdullah, had studied in the Middle East. They had links with jihadists in Indonesia. At home, they even recruited from among faculty and students at Mindanao State University in Marawi. The Maute group put up over half the fighters who seized Marawi, all the while advertising its role on social media. All this suggests unusual sophistication and strength.
Mr Hapilon is now thought to be injured and sheltering in Marawi’s biggest mosque (which the army is reluctant to attack, fearing a propaganda disaster). Abdullah Maute still seems to be in Marawi too, while his parents have been caught trying to escape. Some hope this will prove to be the end of the Maute gang and of Mr Hapilon.
Perhaps. But their propaganda is already painting the city’s destruction as the army’s fault. The dead jihadists leave behind orphans to be fed a diet of revenge. The pestilent, overcrowded prisons of the Philippines and Indonesia will continue as prime recruiting grounds for extremism. Meanwhile, that the Mautes, Abu Sayyaf and two smaller groups were able together to seize a medium-sized city shows how IS ideology can unite disparate groups to devastating effect. That IS is nearing its end in the Middle East should not be misconstrued. The wilds of Mindanao offer a destination for retreating jihadists. For young South-East Asian extremists, says Sidney Jones of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta, Marawi “has put the Philippines on the map”.
Mindanao’s the Time
And so Mr Duterte will not lack reasons to extend the 60-day imposition of martial law in Mindanao that is about to expire. He suggests keeping it till the end of the year, but some allies argue for five years, till the end of his term. More will become clear in his annual state of the nation address on July 24th. The army says martial law makes it easier to conduct house-to-house searches and seize weapons. It insists it has no wish to govern—suspects are handed over to civilian courts. But opposition politicians and civil-society groups say martial law undermines accountability in a region desperately short of it—and raises questions about the long-term intentions of Mr Duterte, an avowed authoritarian.
Martial law will surely complicate the broader “peace process” in Mindanao. In 1996 the government struck a deal with Muslim separatists to create an autonomous region in the Muslim-majority areas of the island; it broke down five years later. In 2014 a similar deal was struck with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the region’s main insurgent group. As a measure of its commitment to peace, the MILF has been working to get humanitarian supplies to Marawi’s residents and to broker the release of civilians still stuck in the battle zone.
Mr Duterte supports autonomy, but has muddied the process with vague proposals on federalism. Meanwhile, the MILF’s inability to head off the fighting in Marawi, even though many of its members have relatives in the Maute group, has undermined its authority. Some of the MILF’s younger members are said to be disaffected with its ageing leadership. When the battle for Marawi ends, the war for hearts and minds begins.