The raising of ISIS’ black flag over the city sent a strong message that despite setbacks in the Levant, the jihadi group remains active in other parts of the world.
As ISIS continues to lose ground in Iraq and Syria, elsewhere its efforts to establish a caliphate are getting underway. Around 100 people have been killed in clashes in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, while more than 90 per cent of the area’s residents have fled following a week of intense clashes and aerial strikes. Martial law was declared over the entire island. The raising of ISIS’ black flag over the city sent a strong message that despite setbacks in its territorial heartlands in the Levant, the jihadi group remains active in other parts of the world.
The situation in Marawi came about following a failed raid by the Philippine army to try and capture Isnilon Hapilon, the ISIS-backed leader of the Abu Sayyaf extremist group, who is the subject of a five million US dollar FBI reward. The botched operation led to dozens of armed militants emerging in the streets of Marawi, freeing inmates, taking over buildings, and seizing hostages as troops were overrun.
Major General Rolando Bautista, the commander responsible for ordering the raid, said militants had been planning an attack for several weeks and that the military had been caught out by the scale of the assault. The militants are believed to comprise fighters from both Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group, composed of fighters from Ansar al-Khilafah and former Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas.
The southern Philippine island of Mindanao, an impoverished province and home to some 22 million residents, has long been associated with Islamist militants. Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines, formerly Abu Sayyaf, and Maute have both reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS, while Abu Sayyaf has previously been linked to al-Qaeda. Hapilon is believed to have been in direct contact with ISIS central and was instructed to establish a caliphate in Mindanao, according to government sources.
While Islamist insurgencies in the southern Philippines are not new, the current situation marks a considerable escalation. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was active in the southern Philippines up until 2014, having emerged in the late 1970s to seek an autonomous Muslim region for the Moro people in Mindanao.The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway from the MILF, continues to remain active, with some reports suggesting the group has been involved in the the violence in Marawi.
Some of the Philippines' Islamist militants have had longstanding links to likeminded groups in Indonesia and Malaysia, with foreign fighters from around the region believed to have travelled to join the insurgency in Mindanao.
Philippine Solicitor General Jose Calida insisted the current situation was broader than just the Philippines, saying there had been an “invasion of foreign fighters” who had bought into ISIS’ ideology and sought to establish part of the so-called caliphate in Mindanao. There has not been yet been any evidence to suggest operational links between the Islamist militants in the Philippines and ISIS in Iraq and Syria, with the army describing the group in Marawi as being ISIS-inspired.
Analysts have been keen to emphasise that without recognition from ISIS central command, the insurgency in Marawi cannot be considered part of the group’s network of affiliates. There have also been suggestions that the actions of the Islamist militants in Marawi could be serving a dual purpose, offering protection to the group’s leader Hapilon by heavily engaging the security forces and partaking in a large-scale attack against government forces as a way of establishing the group on the global stage.
President Rodrigo Duterte has backed the military’s swift and robust response, although his comments reassuring soldiers of state protection even if they are found guilty of abuses have raised concerns. Duterte has also maintained a willingness to engage in talks with the militants however, saying that the situation could still be resolved through dialogue. Martial law was installed to help the security forces establish order.
South-East Asia has long been on the agenda for jihadi groups, with both ISIS and al-Qaeda making overtures to groups in the region in the last 18 months. It remains to be seen whether or not ISIS acknowledges the actions of those inspired by the group in Marawi, while the militants’ ability to seize and control territory effectively will serve as a warning sign to the Philippine army. Islamist insurgencies are not a new phenomenon in the country, but more local groups pledging allegiance to the leading global jihadi entity, seizing territory, and a inflow of foreign fighters marks a significant escalation.