Philippine government forces have shifted to intense ground combat, in combination with a series of airstrikes, in the fight against the Islamic State-inspired Maute Group. This is after they failed to meet a 12 June Independence Day deadline to ‘liberate’ Marawi City—the Islamic town in Southern Mindanao home to more than 200,000 Muslim Maranaos. While hundreds of trapped civilians were saved, these military interventions have been unsuccessful in concluding the crisis.
Local leaders and volunteers, who are at the forefront of relief and rescue missions, have consistently appealed to the government to cease the airstrikes because of the severity of their impact on human lives. A glaring setback that demonstrates the propensity of airstrikes to fail was when a bomber plane killed 11 soldiers in a ‘friendly fire’ incident while they were in a closed range armed fight with the Islamic militants.
Since Marawi City is in total lockdown, entry and exit points must have been completely secured by government forces. Security checkpoints to track civilian movements have been strictly implemented after Martial Law was declared in Mindanao in the aftermath of the crisis. But it is not clear if the wounded Maute Group members captured along with Farhana Maute, the Maute Group matriarch, had initially escaped out of Marawi before they were captured in Masiu, a small town in Lanao del Sur which is believed to be a hiding place for criminals due to its isolation. The government’s ambiguity and inconsistencies on the numbers of Maute Group members that they have engaged in combat during the early stage of the armed fight is also an indication of the poor quality of their intelligence reports.
Whether these ‘surgical airstrikes’ are the result of political pressure from their Commander-in-Chief, or a vital military tactics to expedite and bring the armed conflict to an end, it is clear they have not brought the crisis under control, and have not moved the fighting closer to an endpoint. A teenage boy was killed by a sniper shot while praying inside the mosque, and an Australian journalist was hit by a stray bullet in the Capitol compound, which is supposedly the safe zone in the city where journalists are housed and assembled.
While the fighting continues, we are still able to draw a few lessons from Marawi.
First of all, what the events described above suggest is that the Armed Forces of the Philippines seriously needs to upgrade its warfare technology, and boost its ability to engage in unconventional warfare and precise security intelligence gathering. It is not surprising that US Special Forces, at the request of the Philippine military, have now assisted the local ground soldiers with surveillance and situational awareness, which falls under the scope of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the Philippines and the United States. President Rodrigo Duterte approved the continuation of this existing defence agreement which includes the conduct of joint exercises that focused, among other things, on counterterrorism.
Humanitarian concerns are still pressing. As the fighting continues, government reports indicate that 58 soldiers, 206 militants, and 26 civilians have been killed while an estimated number of 300 to 600 civilians, who are either stuck in their homes, are being used as human shields, or held hostage by Maute fighters, still need rescuing. Thousands of civilians have already been rescued since the start of the siege.
It is worth highlighting other efforts equally contributing to the growing numbers of rescued civilians. Inspiring stories depicting the courage of local Muslim residents—such as those who have sheltered their non-Muslim friends to safety in their respective homes when they were hunted by the Maute Group—is a reflection that certainly, this is not a religious war. Acts of selflessness from many local Muslim volunteers, as they continue to brave their way through rubble and sniper zones just to retrieve relatives and families of Muslim and non-Muslim evacuees who are left behind, is a depiction of the unseen side of jihad for most of the Muslim Maranaos.
The dynamics of the pre-existing Mindanao conflict have also come into play. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), for instance, has also stayed away from the armed fight to express their commitment to the protocols and mechanisms within the peace agreement they have signed with the Philippine government. Even Commander Bravo, one of MILF’s fiercest ground commanders in Lanao region—known for his uncompromising stance against government forces—has kept his guns from firing in the battlefield in support of the decision of the MILF leadership. Through the efforts of MILF and its government counterparts, hundreds of civilians have been saved when a four hour humanitarian ceasefire was successfully negotiated between the Maute Group and government security forces.
But the most important unanswered questions have to do with what happens after the fighting ceases. Looking forward, the Department of National Defense has been tasked to lead the overall rebuilding process in Marawi. This signals the Philippine government’s emphasis to build secure conditions after the armed fight is over. While this is a rosy picture for the besieged city, this can cause more harm than good if it is executed without regard to the contexts unique to Muslim communities.
In Marawi City, Muslim insurgency and violent extremism tend to mix up. The lines distinguishing civilians, combatants, clan leaders, elders, and militant groups are blurry. Some of its areas are strongholds of the MILF, in which local commanders hold high moral authority in the community. There are also communities that are bailiwicks of religious community leaders, who are at the same time clan leaders with networks of family members spanning across communities. Some communities are also ruled by traditional or elected leaders who serve within patronage networks or as allies of local town mayors or governors, thus having intellectual, material or social weight in the community.
Because of decades of Moro insurgency, there has long been a strong military presence in Maranao communities. Historically, violent armed conflicts have taken place between the government forces and the Moro communities, which also increases the sway of extremist groups over the local population. But why and how does local violence drive individual Maranao to radicalisation, or make Maranao communities susceptible to violent religious ideology?
Prolonged exposure to violence breeds or fuels grievance. Grievance—whether personal or collective, imagined or real—provides convenient justification to radicalise individuals, or generate communal support for violent conduct. In Lanao del Sur, which includes Marawi City, Muslim communities and the government security forces have long been suspicious of each other. This deep-seated mistrust is prominent in the recognised territories of the MILF where intermittent armed clashes have been experienced. Regular occurrences of military operations resulting in civilian casualties continue to ignite feelings of mutual resentment between the two parties. Given the slow progress made in the full implementation of the peace agreement between the government and the MILF, the threat of violent extremism will continue to endure if the issue of trust is ignored.
Establishing trust is a crucial precondition to counter the influence of violent extremist groups in Muslim communities. It lays the foundation to develop interventions that can effectively reduce or prevent radicalisation among specific groups that are highly vulnerable for recruitment. Some seasoned battalion commanders who have successfully maintained a constructive working relationship with the locals would assert the importance of mending this relationship gap in reducing the level of violence in the community. Armed combat may successfully remove violent extremist groups and dismantle their leadership, but a military-focused approach to rebuilding Marawi, albeit supported by good intentions, may have the tendency to fail.
Often, government security forces who are also assigned in Marawi City and Lanao region on rotation are non-Muslims. These security forces do not necessarily have a deep understanding of the culture and norms that are unique to Maranao communities. This means that the likelihood of misinformation, misunderstanding, or misperception of intentions between Muslims and government forces due to cultural differences is high.
For example, there are historical accounts of infighting in Lanao region when security forces were mistakenly pulled into rido (clan conflict) because they misconstrued the conflict as insurgency-related violence. Over time, this creates animosity between the local communities and the government forces in which the latter is generally perceived by the former as mere ‘outsiders’. If these differences are disregarded during the transition process, violent conflicts can erupt not only between the two parties, but also within and among the communities themselves. Islamic State-inspired groups can feed on this grievance and divisiveness by using their version of religion as a solution and a source for unity. Islamic militants, such as are in the Maute Group, are known to reach into communities that are caught up in armed violence and disunity to recruit potential members or followers, and establish a local base to plan and carry out terror and criminal activities.
Security-centred plans that emanate from the national government also tend to be rigid and prescriptive. During the transition process, there are possible approaches that can have the potential to undermine or fuel local grievances unique to Maranao communities. Grievances do not end once the fighting is over: there can still be aggrieved Maranaos who would recall and resent the airstrikes that killed some of their relatives and destroyed their only source of livelihood. There may be some disgruntled and restive combatants who may condemn the Maute Group, but who do not essentially want a strong Philippine military presence in their lands. Indeed, you may have a hardened Muslim Maranao population that remains distrustful of a non-Muslim government. Short-sighted reconstruction efforts would be futile, and may even allow violent extremism to spread, if legitimate solutions addressing these kind of grievances are not taken into account.
Although it is still premature in terms of timing, rebuilding Marawi City, however, provides ample opportunities for national government to address looming security threats, specifically the growing influence of violent extremism. Collaboration between local actors and government forces during this crisis signify some prospects for community engagement to counter this threat. Despite their differing positions on Martial Law and in the use of airstrikes in the battlefield, what is important is that there is still willingness and resolve from the broader population to constructively work with the government forces. This should be taken as a good starting point to learn and understand the implications of its future interventions in the battle-scarred city.
Haironesah (Hyro) Domado is a development practitioner from Mindanao, Southern Philippines, and is a Maranao Muslim. She has extensive development experience in conflict affected areas in the Philippines, particularly in the Mindanao region. The views expressed in this article are solely her own and not necessarily those of her employer[s].
Header image: via Flickr user Chrisgel Ryan Cruz, used under Creative Commons.