Smoke billows at the site of fighting between Philippine government soldiers and Maute group, near a mosque in Marawi City in southern Philippines May 30, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro
Smoke billows at the site of fighting between Philippine government soldiers and Maute group, near a mosque in Marawi City in southern Philippines May 30, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Islamic State-backed militants’ ongoing assault on Marawi City on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao heralds a bid by the radical extremist group to open a new Southeast Asian front in a spreading campaign of global jihad.

The Marawi battle has established the clear presence of other Southeast Asian nationals fighting side-by-side with the IS-aligned Filipino Maute Group, with confirmed deaths of Malaysian and Indonesian nationals in the battle zone. On the battle’s seventh day, 61 militants, 20 government soldiers and 17 civilians were reportedly killed. 

Philippine Solicitor General Jose Calida publicly announced that “what is happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of citizens, but it has transmogrified into an invasion of foreign terrorists who heeded the clarion call of ISIS.”

Philippine Marines stand guard outside a mosque in Marawi City in the southern Philippines May 30, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs has claimed that Muhamad Ali Abdul Rahiman, a Singapore national, has been in Mindanao and was implicated in terror-related attacks across the region since the 1990s. Rahiman’s involvement in the current assault on Marawi is under investigation.

The presence of foreign militants, of course, is not new to the Philippines. The Indonesian terror group Jemaah Islamiah, once affiliated with Al Qadea, is known to have set up a militant training center in the southern Philippines as early as 1994. Since then, the southern Philippines has been a known training ground for militant Indonesians, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Thais and some Arabs.

Analysts and officials are now grappling with how IS has leveraged into these well-established networks, particularly between the Philippines and Malaysia. Some fear that IS may have a deeper network in the region than many previously realized.

The Filipino Maute Group leading the siege of Marawi city has emerged suddenly at the center of Islamic militant ties. The extremist group was founded by Omar and Abdullah Maute, brothers who had previously worked in the Middle East and later returned to the Philippines imbued with hard-line Islamic ideologies.

Upon their return, they reportedly were involved in petty criminal activity in Mindanao’s northern Lanao del Sur province as late as 2012, but eventually transformed their group into an ISIS franchisee after formally pledging allegiance to the global jihadist group in 2015.

At least three other Filipino groups have also pledged loyalty to IS. They include the Abu Sayyaf Group headed by Isnilon Hapilon in southern Basilan, the Ansarul Khilafah Philippines earlier led by Abu Sharifah which pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014, and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) splinter group founded by the late commander Ameril Umbra Kato.

The IS global council, known as Ahlus Shura, is known to have appointed Isnilon Hapilon as its umbrella leader in the Philippines, with the objective of establishing a province in Mindanao and creating a new regional caliphate, or “wilalyat.” It is not clear how closely the four IS affiliated groups collaborate. 

The Maute Group, however, is clearly closely aligned with the Abu Sayyaf Group. It was not considered a serious threat until September 2016, when it fiercely fought a close quarter battle with government soldiers in Mindanao’s Lanao del Sur province. The Islamist group successfully captured Butig town hall in Lanao and hoisted its trademark IS black flag.

Philippine security officials soon thereafter shifted their earlier perception of the armed group as a band of criminals to a potential terrorist threat with members well-trained in bomb-making, urban guerrilla warfare, weapons development and potent Islamist propaganda.

Veryan Khan, an analyst at the Terrorism Research Analysis Consortium, a digital terrorism monitoring outfit, recently wrote that of the four Filipino groups that have pledged allegiance to IS, the Maute Group is the most educated and dangerous, even more than the Abu Sayyaf Group known for its piracy and kidnap-for-ransom activities targeting foreigners.

Abu Sayyaf rebels in the interior of the southern Philippine Jolo island in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Philippine National Red Cross via Reuters TV

Maute Group members are known to include a licensed engineer, a former government employee, and several academics with PhDs, he said.

The Marawi city siege was thus not completely unexpected. In February and March 2016, Maute group established three strongholds in Lanao del Sur province, a temporary consolidation that displaced nearly 30,000 people. After a ten-day armed battle, including a Maute Group attack on a military camp that saw the beheading of a uniformed soldier, government forces regained control.

In April 2016, Facebook photos showed Maute Group members beheading two of six captured sawmill workers kidnapped in Butig city. The two workers, wearing orange jumpsuits similar in style of IS’ grotesque public executions disseminated online, were killed allegedly because they were military informants.

Last August, 50 men freed eight Maute members and 20 others from a Lanao del Sur jail. An IS propaganda arm later claimed the foreign terror group was behind the prison raid. In October, three members of the group were arrested for allegedly carrying out the September 2016 bombing in a Davao City night market, President Rodrigo Duterte’s hometown.

Suspected Maute Group extremists allegedly responsible for the Davao City bombing, at a military press conference at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon city, Metro Manila, on October 7, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Ezra Acayan

In November 2016, members of the Maute Group occupied the Butig Municipal Hall and raised IS’ black flag, as it has flown in places over Marawi. Government troops were only able to retake control of the abandoned government building after weeks of military operations.

The fierce battle in Marawi began when joint police and military officials attempted to serve a court warrant to IS leader Isnilon Hapilon. The ensuing gun battles and violence caused Duterte to declare martial law across all of Mindanao on May 23. He has said he may extend the order nationwide if the violence spreads outside of Mindanao. 

While security forces have claimed they are in control of the situation in Marawi, thousands of civilians have fled the fighting, transforming the Muslim city of some 200,000 into a virtual ghost town. Many Filipino Muslims consider Marawi the “Mecca” of the Philippines due to its many aged and religiously important mosques.

Local Muslim scholars have condemned the Maute Group-led attack as “un-Islamic.” The Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy (PCID) said that “any act inciting to terror in the hearts of defenseless civilians, the destruction of places of worship and properties, the murder of innocent men, women, and children irrespective of one’s faith are all forbidden and detestable acts according to Islam.”

Evacuees queue at a relief center outside Marawi City in Lanao Del Norte, Philippines May 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

Two main Islamic revolutionary organizations, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), also notably condemned the attacks, saying in a statement that the Marawi violence was “perpetrated by a group or groups whose only aim is to sow terror.” Both long-time rebel groups have peace agreements with the government. 

While Manila may soon declare victory over the militant outfit in Marawi, the apparent unification of IS-affiliated groups in the southern Philippines will provide a significant new security challenge as so-called “soldiers of the caliphate” bid to replicate IS guerrilla tactics deployed in Syria and Iraq.

If the groups’ ideology gains grass roots currency, a distinct possibility with new liberty-curbing measures imposed under martial law, some analysts fear it could undermine popular support for ongoing peace processes with other bigger Islamic revolutionary organizations and potentially give rise to disaffected splinter groups.

By showing their warfare capabilities at Marawi, IS-affiliated groups could also grow in strength, size and influence with new recruits and present an unpredictable security challenge not only to the Philippines but to neighboring countries as well.

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