While one terror battle has ended, the next one looms in the shadows on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
Five months after the Islamic State-aligned Maute Group laid destructive siege to the southern city of Marawi, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced on October 23 the end of government operations to liberate the city from the militants.
“The Philippine security forces, aided by its government and massive support of the Filipino people, have nipped the budding terrorism infrastructure and defeated terrorism in the Philippines,” he said.
At the same time, Lorenzana acknowledged that the tactical triumph in Marawi will not eliminate Islamic State’s ideology in the Philippines, and called for stronger regional cooperation to fight the rising threat the terror group poses to Southeast Asia as fighters return home from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria.
The call comes ahead of this week’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila, where global leaders will be in attendance. Security forces have amped up their vigilance against a possible Islamic State-inspired retaliatory attack on the global meeting.
Some 60,000 police, soldiers and other law enforcement operatives have been deployed to secure heads of states, including US President Donald Trump, along with some 3,000 delegates who will hold crucial meetings on politics, security and economics.
A day before President Rodrigo Duterte announced the liberation of Marawi, troops killed Isnilon Hapilon, Islamic State’s designated emir in Southeast Asia and leader of the local Abu Sayyaf militant group, and Omar Maute, one of the two Maute brothers who led the months-long siege.
Hapilon’s presumed deputy, Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad, and Omar’s militant brother, Abdullah Maute, are also believed to have been killed in the Marawi fighting.
Yet regional security analysts have warned Philippine security officials to remain on high alert in the aftermath of the siege, from which hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians are slowly starting to return from evacuation centers to their ruined lakeside city.
“The death of Hapilon and Omar Maute will definitely create a tactical setback for pro-Islamic State groups in Mindanao,” said Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Manila-based Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, a think tank. “But this will not mean the end of violence in the southern Philippines and beyond.”
Lorenzana told media that his forces are still looking for Malaysian militant Amin Baco, who he described as Islamic State’s likely new designated emir in the region.
Baco, linked with regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, is known to be an expert bomb-maker who reportedly trained under Malaysian militant Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, who was killed in Maguindanao province in 2015 in a fierce firefight that left 44 Philippine police commandoes dead.
Reuters quoted an anonymous army colonel as saying Baco could be hiding in Maguindanao or the southern island of Jolo. While his links to Islamic State were until now not known to be particularly strong, the official said he was well-placed to serve the emir role due to his familiarity with local extremist groups.
Analysts say attacks could also be organized by Puruji Indama, an Abu Sayyaf chieftain based in the island province of Basilan who formed the Abu Dujana Battalion of the Soldiers of the Caliphate in East Asia.
Banlaoi anticipates possible new attacks from Naim Mujahid’s Ansar Khilafa Philippines militant group which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Formed in 2014, the group is based in Sarangani province near General Santos City, a backdoor entry point to the Philippines from Indonesia’s Sulawesi and Kalimantan provinces where Islamic militancy has long thrived.
Mujahid has strong links with Mahmoud Ahmad, the Malaysian academic who helped to fund and fought alongside the Maute Group in Marawi. The military has claimed to have killed Mahmoud, who is believed to have been operating in Mindanao since 2014, but his death has still not been independently verified.
Banlaoi also points to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a militant group that broke away from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) for making peace with the government, as another dangerous pro-Islamic State group capable of stirring chaos in Mindanao.
The BIFF operates in Maguindanao province, scene of deadly clashes between MILF and government forces until a peace deal was forged in 2014. In the months that war raged in Marawi, MILF forces launched separate offensives against the BIFF to help the government fight the spread of Islamic State ideology in the region.
Cotabato City, the seat of government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) that is surrounded by Maguindanao province, has been placed on high alert since the Marawi crisis for possible spillover effects of the fighting.
A dozen or so young men previously brazenly paraded in the streets of Cotabato with a black Islamic State flag, raising the specter that a locality where a Philippine marine battalion is stationed could be the next flashpoint for a Marawi-style attack, particularly with the BIFF’s presence in nearby Maguindanao.
Cotabato City Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi has denied the parade of Islamic State’s flag happened in her locality, but jas noted that security measures have been heightened to secure her constituents from possible Islamist attacks.
The Marawi siege laid bare the Philippine military’s lacking urban warfare capabilities and brought to fore the international connections of local Islamic State-aligned groups with foreign fighters, mostly Indonesians and Malaysians, but also from Arab countries.
Amid fears of a next assault or spectacular attack on a symbolic target, the military has belittled the capabilities of the other Islamic State-aligned groups to do so. The Marawi siege took careful planning and huge financial support for firearms, ammunition and food supplies for the hundreds of fighters.
Of the more than 1,100 people killed in the Marawi siege, 920 were militants, 165 were government troops and 47 were civilians, the Philippine military said. But “the risks won’t end when the military declares victory (in Marawi),” said Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC).
“Indonesia and Malaysia will face new threats in the form of returning fighters from Mindanao, and the Philippines will have a host of smaller dispersed cells with the capacity for both violence and indoctrination,” she added.
It’s not clear if foreign nationals involved in the Marawi siege have fled the Philippines or are in hiding. This month Philippine forces captured Indonesian Mohamadin Ilham Syaputra, one of the last holdouts in Marawi, who has reportedly admitted a role in the 2016 bombing in Jakarta that killed eight people. Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack.
In October 2016, IPAC released a study entitled “Pro-ISIS Groups in Mindanao and their links to Indonesia and Malaysia,” which warned of an impending attack in the island.
Support for Islamic State ideology “has facilitated cooperation across clan and ethnic lines, widened the extremist recruitment pool to include computer-savvy university students and new international communication and possibly funding channels,” the report said. “It means that more deadly violence in the Philippines involving alliances of pro-ISIS groups is a matter of when, not if.”
The study mentioned the slain Hapilon and Omar Maute – personalities who eventually figured prominently in the Marawi siege that erupted seven months after IPAC released its research. Philippine intelligence has since come under fire for not foreseeing and preventing Marawi’s occupation and subsequent destruction. Officials have said they will need at least US$1 billion for reconstruction and rehabilitation.
On October 4, Omar Maute’s Indonesian wife, Minhati Midrais, alias Baby, was arrested in Iligan City. Police claimed to have found bomb-making materials in her rented house. They say they have investigated her cell phone to ferret out militant connections and forestall future Islamic State inspired attacks.
New attacks, security analysts warn, could come from so-called “lone wolf” Muslim militants inspired by Islamic State propaganda, as has happened in several Western countries. Security officials say they are now carefully guarding Duterte’s hometown of Davao City, where a September 2016 bomb claimed by pro-Islamic State militants killed 15 and injured 70.