The four-month-old Marawi crisis has revealed that the internal security threat in the Philippines has changed. It has mutated into the form that constitutes the Maute Group terror in Marawi City in the province of Lanao del Sur in Mindanao.
Analyst Sydney Jones of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict has argued that the Marawi crisis has brought about an altered form of extremism not only in the Philippines but in the region of Southeast Asia where the threat from actors, the Maute-Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), transnational in nature, is more dangerous.
The group’s transnational linkages, both in terms of their ideological affiliation with ISIS at present and their technologically driven platforms for recruiting global adherents, have enhanced their resource base for exerting extreme violence in a local area for more than 120 days against the more superior force of the state’s military.
Peter Chalk’s work on Southeast Asian terrorism (RAND) investigates the implanting of the roots of transnational extremism in the Sulu-Sulawesi region. This includes parts of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Sulu archipelago and their “ungoverned” maritime spaces in between that served as transit points for the logistical work of Jemaah Islamiyah.
Known to have been connected with the creation of an Islamic State in Indonesia, JI, has in the ’90s envisioned a sub-regional command for centralizing weapons and IED procurement in Sabah (Malaysia), Southern Philippines, Kalimantan and Sulawesi (Indonesia). Prior to 9/11, the JI trained in the MILF-held Camp Abubakar in Maguindanao, which later on ramified to include the building of relations with the Sulu archipelago-based ASG.
A critical transnational feature lies on the objectives of violent extremist groups. Accordingly, Lowy Institute’s Euan Graham and Greg Colton have reserved to the MILF the status of a former insurgent actor. First, it has dis-associated itself from the JI-affiliated terrorist-ASG after 9/11. In 2011, the MILF has negotiated a framework for an autonomous government with the previous administration.
In contrast, the Maute group is endowed with a trans-territorial ambition of creating a regional caliphate. In pursuit of such an objective, the foreign fighters in Marawi, perceived as ideologues as opposed to bandits (as in the ASG) “were ready to die” — an observation that led the military on the ground to speculate on the possibility of ISIS-inspired tactics on suicide bombings and human shields as early as July, into the third month of the crisis. Foreign fighters are believed to replicate their experience in jihad, creating a possible regional spill over of ideas and strategies when the Indonesian and Malaysian jihadists return from Marawi to their home countries.
As technology enables transnationalism, the recruitment and propagation of jihadism is no longer confined on the national or the sub national. This means that the aftermath of the crisis may further as opposed to curtail radicalization. The Philippines’ vulnerability to future threats is predicted not to subside even if the Mautes are out. Threats of the technology-enabled radicalizing forces loom large with human displacement, deaths, and destruction.
While asymmetrical conflicts between the government and internal threat actors have sustained since the fight against the Communism and the Muslim separatism, this form of violent extremism is reported to have driven the military to a different kind of urban warfare that it has no knowledge of until the Zamboanga siege incident of 2013. As of August to September 45 civilians, 136 military and 620 terrorists perished in the course of the Marawi crisis.
Solutions to transnational concerns will require joint action beyond the nation-state. In the most immediate term, transnational security threats will require the Philippine government to build on the existing regional initiatives on counter-terrorism with ASEAN as well as the bilateral agreements with Indonesia and Malaysia in the sectors of maritime security, border patrol, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), anti terrorism, etc.
Trilateral efforts between the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia in information exchange, customs, immigration, quarantine and border patrol should be reactivated.
While under the previous Aquino administration, the Philippines was able to settle its boundary delineation question with Indonesia (with implications on joint enforcement of maritime security), the Duterte administration, aware of the challenges of this future action with Malaysia should still consider to reexamine and prioritize border diplomacy with this ASEAN state as an opportunity to further cooperation in anti-terrorism and security from transnational crimes.
Security, development, and peace building approaches are key, where security based responses are anchored on ISR-capacity building and retooling for urban battle of the security sector. Meanwhile, as analysts have noted, the Duterte government should have a realistic plan for the reconstruction of Marawi. It should also be a plan that allows it to reclaim its waning legitimacy.
Alma Maria O. Salvador is Assistant Professor of Political Science of the Ateneo de Manila.