Philippines Struggles to Suppress ISIS-Linked Rebels as Foreign Fighters Found

Philippines Struggles to Suppress ISIS-Linked Rebels as Foreign Fighters Found by Jake Maxwell Watts, Wall Street Journal

Philippine troops accidentally killed 11 of their comrades as they battled Islamist militants, the latest in a series of incidents illustrating how the military is struggling to contain the threat of rebel groups.

Soldiers are fighting street by street in the southern city of Marawi with the Muslim-extremist Maute group, which raised the black Islamic State flag there more than a week ago after authorities attempted and failed to arrest the leader of an allied faction.

The friendly fire incident announced Thursday, in which an airstrike Wednesday used unguided ordnance after the military ran short of guided missiles, came as the government said eight of the militants killed in fighting there were citizens of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other foreign countries. That announcement bolstered fears that the complexion of the Philippines’ militant uprising was becoming increasingly international, as Islamic State, also known as ISIS, loses territory in Iraq and Syria.

The threat is all the more severe given the longstanding failure of the Philippine military to eradicate the many extremist groups that recruit from the poor, marginalized Muslim communities in the jungles of the southern island of Mindanao. The region, which includes Marawi, has spawned and supported myriad insurgencies dating back to at least the 1970s. Successive governments have promised to bring peace to Mindanao, but none have.

Security experts fear that disparate extremists are coalescing in Mindanao under the Islamic State banner, establishing themselves in a country with a weak rule of law, thriving illegal arms trade and ready supply of brutal criminal factions…

Read on.

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The Marawi fighting is now in its third week, and is blowing up into something much more serious than initially expected. I'm told (personal sources, not media, and potentially erroneous) that the Philippine Marines lost 13 KIA, 29 WIA, 1 MIA on June 9 alone. The military is now estimating that there are up to 500 fighters from different groups, including foreign fighters, entrenched in Marawi. The Air Force is already (also according to private sources) running low on key munitions; this kind of protracted battle is not in their logistic game plan. A US P3 was seen overflying the city yesterday, presumably gathering intel.

Hard to see where it's going, but this was clearly planned in advance and involves coordination between multiple groups.

Interesting times.

It is interesting that so little of the discussion around the Maute Group and the Marawi siege is being connected back to the Mamasapano incident 2+ years ago and the subsequent scuttling of the second round of Government - MILF peace negotiations. I wrote this on SWJ at that time:

I don't see ISIS as a major factor... certainly the more radical factions (not all of them young) identify with ISIS, but if ISIS wasn't there they'd identify with something else. If this agreement falls apart, as seems likely, I do expect some significant changes in the MILF and in the separatist movement in general, with the radicals and those who see negotiation as pointless gaining traction and the negotiation-minded factions losing traction. This will be the second time that the negotiators have signed an agreement only to have the Philippine government reject it; if negotiation does not bring results it's hard to see why they would continue on that course.

I would stand by the ISIS comment. The connection is certainly there, but it is driven less by any ideological affiliation than by the Maute Group's need to establish themselves as a presence. They will affiliate with and declare loyalty to whoever is the international Islamist threat du jour.

For me the ISIS connection is less of interest than the extent to which the repeated failures of negotiation are driving a re-radicalization of the MILF rank and file. The formal MILF leadership is still invested in the peace process, but that's been going on a long time with nothing to show for it. The formal MILF leadership has little enough control over its field units at the best of times; given those failures it is not at all unlikely that MILF fighters will gravitate toward more radical groups that are seen to be more actively challenging the government.

If the declaration of martial law in Mindanao leads to mass arrests, killings, harassment and abuse of the Muslim populations that are accessible to Government forces, it's hard to see how the MILF leadership will be able to maintain their current stance; they will have to take up arms again or watch as the followers move off to the more radical groups, leaving them irrelevant.

It's not a pretty picture, and I hope I'm wrong.

While you make good points, ISIS's involvement has probably changed the character of the conflict. Even if the Senate approved the peace agreement, which would have given the MILF some degree of political autonomy, ISIS may have still reared its ugly head in the Southern Philippines. Senior MILF leadership have long warned of more radical youth within their ranks and the need to bring the conflict to a conclusion while they still had control. The BIFF demonstrated that the MILF is not as unified as some claim.

Fortunately, for now at least, most MILF fighters are not joining the Maute Group in the fight for Marawi, but one can't help but think that many in their ranks see this as an opportunity to more effectively wage jihad, while their seniors still seek a political agreement. I suspect this will create new and sharper divisions within their ranks.

If the Philippine security forces are able to destroy the Maute Group, or even better if the MILF supports them in removing this sore from the region this may only prove to be hick up. If not, I suspect we'll see a much more aggressive regional insurgency throughout SE Asia. Not only in Indonesia and Malaysia (where there have already been attacks), but also Burma and Thailand. In the Philippines we may start seeing a steady stream of attacks in Manila and maybe in Cebu. An uncomfortable prediction for those who think this conflict will remain limited to the south, and one I hope I'm wrong about.

Unfortunately the failure of the Philippine government to resolve the insurgency when there was a chance is now water under the bridge. ISIS will bring a new dynamic to the region that will differ from al-Qaeda's influence based on: the significant change in social media over the last 10 years; the new norm for senseless violence; and unlike the regional fighters returning from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan who came home to a limited insurgent/terrorist infrastructure, there is now a well established insurgent/terrorist infrastructure to fall in on. Of course ISIS will need to coopt these existing actors to support them. Bottom line, things will happen much quicker than in the past, and they'll spread beyond the traditional zones of conflict.

Regional governments have the advantage of having much more capable CT and security forces, but still lack the degree of regional cooperation needed to address this networked threat. President Duarte establishing martial law is a reasonable action in and around Marawi. A government that can't establish order and protect its citizens isn't really a government, which is probably what the Maute Group seeks to demonstrate. How martial law is implemented may ultimately determine the population's support for either side.

ISIS may have some influence, but at this point I think it's less about ideological direction or military support than it is about using the ISIS brand to expand influence in the constantly changing constellation of ethnic and clan affiliations, which often mean a lot more than ideology.

The Maute group does appear to have formed a functioning alliance with the Hapilon faction of the ASG. How much actual traction they have among the wider Tausug and Sama groups remains to be seen. A bigger question is whether they have drawn widespread support from Maranao outside their clan grounds in the towns south of the lake. They clearly had support inside Marawi, but whether that stemmed from a broad base or from transplants from their clan base is yet to be determined. My main source in that area has been off the grid, like a lot of folks down there, but I'll ask when I can :). It does not appear that the Maute Group has drawn much support from Maguindanao. BIFF has been fairly quiet since Umbra Kato died, and it's not clear whether the Maguindanao will start lining up with Maute, or the BIFF will re-emerge with new leadership, or a new Maguindanao group will emerge, or whether Murad can hold the loyalty.

All this stuff matters, and often matters more than foreign links. No group since the early days of the MILF has ever managed to speak for Tausug, Maguindanao, and Maranao aspirations. The MILF succeeded in building a sustained, if often tenuous, alliance between Maranao and Maguindanao, but never got the Tausug and Sama on board in any meaningful way. The Tausug/Sama resistance hasn't had coherent political leadership since Misuari imploded.

The future of the Maute group will depend less (IMO as always) on foreign alliances and ISIS attachments than on their ability to expand their support base outside their own ethnic and clan bailiwicks. The ISIS brand may help them do that; certainly they are trying to use the brand toward that goal.

The Rajah Solaiman Movement, which was nationwide and composed largely of converts coming back from employment in the Middle East, has also been quiescent after a series of arrests some years back. If that could be resuscitated it would give them reach outside Mindanao, but it's not clear that it can be resuscitated. There's also a nationwide Maranao diaspora that may or may not be an asset...

There is apparently an alert circulating (as of this morning), specifically directed at ferry companies, listing a half dozen or so vehicles, with specific plate numbers and descriptions, as carrying IEDs. It was not clear whether the ferries themselves might be targets or the intent is to move vehicle-based IEDs to Manila or other cities. We will see.

There's a body of thought that believes the government wants a terror attack in Luzon to justify nationwide martial law. Hard to say whether that is a "shades of Marcos" thing or an actual plan, but the belief is there, and the government's enthusiasm for martial law is well established. I do not think martial law will be an effective device even on the local level; it really doesn't allow the security services to do anything they weren't already doing. Martial law is, as always, more about politics than security.

Interesting times.

This saddens me after all the great work done by airmen assigned to JSOTF-P (i.e., Carlos O and his team) to improve CAS capabilities of the PAF 10 years ago. Training is perishable and if it is not sustained you will have incidents like this.

QUOTE The friendly fire incident announced Thursday, in which an airstrike Wednesday used unguided ordnance after the military ran short of guided missiles, came as the government said eight of the militants killed in fighting there were citizens of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other foreign countries. That announcement bolstered fears that the complexion of the Philippines’ militant uprising was becoming increasingly international, as Islamic State, also known as ISIS, loses territory in Iraq and Syria. END QUOTE

The current official understanding of ISIS, coupled with the US approach to addressing the problem, is driving shortages of precision munitions everywhere. A side-effect of our CT approach.

If, however, we were to adopt a C-UW approach, then as I think of that mission, the nationalist revolutionary movements that AQ and the Islamic State conduct UW with would come off of Western target lists. This reduces the CT mission set to only those foreign operatives who are conducting UW or terrorist attacks. This would drop the demand for US CT capacity by probably 80-90%. There would be a corresponding reduction in the demand for expensive precision munitions.

The US need to get out of the business of conducting CT on the nationalist revolutionary populations of our allies and partners, and also out of the business of building their domestic capacity to conduct their own CT on the same. This means stop the non-sense of slapping an "AQ" or "IS" label on every revolutionary who turns to these radical groups for their UW support. The US should consider conducting our own UW among these populations to attempt to out-compete those other UW providers whose efforts are clearly against our interests. When we once again become the champion of oppressed populations, rather than the champion of the stubbornly autocratic regimes they rise up against, we begin to once again find our footing as a nation.

A more holistic approach, designed to mitigate and disrupt the high end of violence; designed to offer less radical options to populations who increasingly perceive themselves to have no effective legal options to get their respective governments to become more inclusive or make reasonable changes; and do more to help our partners be more professional in how they engage their own populations, rather than more capable in how they employ state power to sustain a status quo of governance that has grown obsolete; that is when we will begin to turn the corner on organizations like AQ and ISIS. Until then we flog vigorously at the symptoms in ways that serve primarily to enable the impunity of autocrats, and to make the problem worse. We should use our influence to bring all parties to the table to sort out their own issues that they otherwise prefer to ignore or suppress.

This would be a fairly easy transition from the approaches we were forced by our respect for Philippine sovereignty to take in JSOTF-P; but would be a radical change from places elsewhere where we are allowed to act with greater impunity and disregard for the sovereignty of those we operate among.