Instead of fixating on radicalisation, jihadism, and IS propaganda, the Philippine presidential candidates should focus on level-headed policies addressing socioeconomic deprivation if they want enduring peace in Mindanao Joseph Franco writes.

Recent skirmishes in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao have highlighted the protracted and unresolved internal security challenges facing the country.

Renewed violence has tempered expectations over the implementation of the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), which was projected to end the decades-long Muslim insurgency in the Philippines. The current instability has cast doubts on the potential of a peaceful Mindanao to act as a magnet for foreign investment.

In late February 2016, a 10-day military campaign was launched against the Maute Group (MG), reportedly killing 50 terrorists, including leader Omar Maute. The Maute Group is a newly-emerged terrorist faction which claims to to be linked to the Islamic State (IS).

Previously, the group was known as the Khilafah Islamiyah Movement (KIM), a little-known group engaged in extorting money from bus companies in central Mindanao. The Maute Group’s pledge to IS led to concerns that the militants may be on the verge of launching deadly terrorist attacks, instead of their previous focus on organised crime.

But beyond MG’s pledge of allegiance, or bayah, to IS, operational and financial links with the latter were more imaginary than real. IS has yet to recognise the MG’s bayah, the latter a critical part of jihadist practice. But while Filipino militants’ ideological links with transnational jihadist narratives remain superficial, the local political milieu in Mindanao continues to fuel dissent.

Unfortunately all presidential candidates gunning for the presidency in the May 2016 polls are keeping mum on specific measures to address the emergence of new extremist organisations. There is virtually no political party that has mentioned the challenge of terrorism and radicalisation as part of a political platform.

The only oblique references to the Mindanao problem could be found in quips and soundbites from the Manila-based mainstream media. Pundits are abuzz with criticism of President Benigno Aquino III’s administration’s failure to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL)–a law that was supposed to establish political autonomy for Filipino Muslims in Mindanao by 2016. At most, the issue of Muslim autonomy and the related issue of terrorism only comes up in a utilitarian fashion.

Remarks by some candidates on the alleged threat of IS radicalisation are used as a preamble to pro-federalism political platform. Hysterical claims of IS brainwashing goes against evidence that insecurity in Mindanao is actually caused by material rather than ideological issues. As early as 2005, a comprehensive study funded partly by the UN determined that economic deprivation was the key driver of conflict in the Philippines.

This has been backed up by a recent report by the World Bank-funded Bangsamoro Conflict Monitoring System (BCMS). Longitudinal data gathered under the BCMS showed how local-level financially-motivated violence, such as extortion rackets and kidnap-for-ransom, far outnumber cases of “vertical” conflict between Philippine security forces and militants. For militants, ideology acts as justifications rather than motivations for communal violence.

Religious narratives and references to Christian-Muslim animosity are exploited by charismatic community leaders like Omar Maute to mobilise supporters. Maute and his kin are known for their extortion and kidnap-for-ransom (KFR) activities in Central Mindanao, targeting entrepreneurs and electrical infrastructure belonging to the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines.

A similar modus operandi was observed with the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which gained notoriety in 2000 after kidnapping more than a dozen Western and Malaysian nationals from Sipadan Island, Malaysia. Initially, the ASG kidnappers demanded the release of terror suspect Ramzi Yousef from US federal custody. Later, it became known that the hostages were released after an estimated US$25 million in ransom payments, facilitated by the Libyan government.

What broke the back of the ASG, in their stronghold in Basilan Island, Mindanao, was a concerted effort to bring social services and infrastructure to far-flung communities. The Philippine military, along with their American counterparts, under the umbrella of the Exercise Balikatan (“shoulder-to-shoulder”), waged a classic “hearts and minds” campaign. By 2006, four years after the 2002 deployment of the US Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), ASG influence in the island had waned.

Non-combat, development-oriented military initiatives won back communities and denied terrorist leaders the audience for their ideological justifications for violence. The “Basilan Model” should be closely studied by Philippine presidential candidates as a way to pre-empt violence, while the BBL remains stalled.

Whoever wins in the May 2016 presidential elections will continue to face to the challenge of finally bringing peace to Mindanao. The campaign period makes tough-sounding promises to combat terrorism more attractive. The temptation of pandering to populist sentiment, of going tough on terror to score positively in opinion polls, is undeniable.

It is never too late to consider the best practices of the recent decade. Support from external actors, whether military or civilian, should be fused with intimate local knowledge of the drivers of the Mindanao conflict. Instead of fixating on addressing the nebulous threats posed by radicalisation, jihadism, and IS propaganda, level-headed policies addressing socioeconomic deprivation holds the promise of enduring peace in Mindanao.

Joseph Franco is an Associate Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a constituent unit of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

This article is a collaboration between New Mandala and Policy Forum – Asia and the Pacific’s premier website for policy analysis and discussion.