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An eastern caliphate? The future of ISIS in Mindanao


An eastern caliphate? The future of ISIS in Mindanao

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) talks to Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General Ronald Dela Rosa (R) during a press conference at the Malacanang palace in Manila on January 30, 2017.


Should Congress fails to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the threat of ISIS in Mindanao will continue to grow—despite the successful liberation of Marawi.


– The Philippines Congress will likely pass the BBL—the law needed to enact the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which aims to achieve peace by giving greater autonomy to the indigenous Moro people—within the next six months
– A Supreme Court challenge to the BBL is possible
– Owing to the entrenched presence of ISIS-affiliated groups and the reorientation of ISIS strategy towards the region, the extremist group will have an enduring foothold in Mindanao irrespective of whether the BBL is passed
– If the BBL does not pass, the peace process will be in tatters and ISIS ranks will be bolstered by disaffected Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters


From May to October, the Mindanao city of Marawi was held by a series of local radical Islamist groups including the Maute Group, Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamaro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which had all recently declared allegiance to ISIS. Numerous foreign fighters hailing from Indonesia, Malaysia, Chechnya and Saudi Arabia were also reported as being present. Most of the militants and their leaders, including Insilon Hapilon and Abdullah and Omar Maute, were killed during the liberation of the city, but not before 165 soldiers and approximately 90 civilians perished. Worryingly, the Philippines armed forces—even with the cooperation of their erstwhile enemy, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)—struggled to defeat the insurgents and foreign (primarily US) help was required. It is estimated that $1 billion will be required to rebuild the war-torn city.

ISIS-affiliated groups surprised officials and analysts in their ability to hold the city and surrounding territory, and while the city has been recaptured, they have not yet been defeated. As the world’s attention was focused on Marawi, fighting between the ISIS-aligned BIFF and the MILF raged in Mindanao’s Maguindanao province and Abu Sayyaf militants continued to operate in their forested strongholds on the nearby island of Basilan.


The recent outbreak of fighting is only the latest violent eruption in Mindanao, which has experienced decades of conflict and failed peace agreements. Unlike the Christian north, Mindanao—which has had a Muslim majority for centuries—was never successfully subdued by the Spanish colonists. From the early twentieth century onwards, as part of a nation-building drive, successive Manila administrations (including the US) undertook a series of programs aimed at settling Mindanao with Christian northerners.

By the end of the twentieth century, the indigenous Moro had become a dispossessed minority in their own lands. Exacerbating their discontent, Mindanao contains four out of the five poorest regions in the Philippines. Frustrations with central government policies boiled over into armed insurgent movements.

A government police officer along with members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF-back) wading through a flooded farm on their way to the frontline in Datu Salibo town, Maguindanao province, in southern island of Mindanao. The Philippines' largest Muslim rebel group said on August 23 it had lost 10 fighters in battles to stop a "growing force" of radical militants who support the Islamic State group.
Photo: AFP/Ferdinandh Cabrera

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) emerged from this context in 1972, fighting for the creation of a separate state. By 1977, after it became apparent that MNLF would settle for autonomy, the more religiously-minded MILF splintered away. More than a decade later, agreements between the MNLF and Manila culminated in the establishment of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was strengthened by the 1996 Final Peace Agreement. The MILF rejected these agreements and continued to fight for independence.

In 2014, after years of fighting which saw two million displaced and up to 150,000 killed, the MILF also opted to settle for autonomy, signing the Comprehensive Agreement for the Bangsamoro. The passage of the BBL through Congress is required to successfully enact the agreement, which aims to create a new autonomous region with greater powers, territory and control over resources than before.

However, the BBL has stalled since 2015, discrediting MILF and leading to the emergence and strengthening of several rival, radical groups. Much like the MNLF, the MILF has struggled to control internal dissent and Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF broke away from MILF in the 1990s and mid-2000s respectively. The Maute Group emerged in 2015 when Congress and public opinion turned against the MILF, and the BBL split after a botched counter-terrorism operation that led to the death of government soldiers. Since then, the BBL has remained on ice. In remote areas where government reach is weak, ISIS-aligned groups have been able to operate and recruit among the dispossessed and impoverished populace.


A view of the Maute group stronghold with an ISIS flag in Marawi City in southern Philippines/Mindanao, May 29, 2017
Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

The Philippines Congress will probably pass the BBL within the next year, despite the opposition of some politicians who are wary of ceding government control given the country’s security situation and because of the perception that the MILF has secessionist and radical Islamic tendencies. President Rodrigo Duterte has consistently championed the passage of the BBL as an antidote to terrorism, and aims to pass the bill by December. Crucially, Duterte’s PDP-Laban party has a supermajority in both the House and the Senate, improving the chances of passing the BBL.

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However, the BBL’s ultimate passage may be out of Congress’s hands. Skeptics have already argued that it is unconstitutional, presaging a possible challenge in the Supreme Court. If their challenge is successful, Manila could attempt to pass a modified bill—possibly after renegotiation with the MILF—or even pursue constitutional amendments to facilitate the BBL’s enactment into law. Yet the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement would remain on hold in the interim, and extremist groups have benefited from every past roadblock in the peace process. If peace is not forthcoming, the MILF will be discredited and many fighters who share kinship ties with ISIS-affiliated militants will be tempted to sign up to the radical alternative.

Even if the BBL is passed, local and international factors mean that ISIS will have an enduring presence in Mindanao. Although the BBL will placate some Moro grievances, Mindanao will remain one of the poorest areas in the country. Further, even by enlarging the area controlled by the Muslim Autonomous Region, the Moro have lost most of their former territory and there is no sign their ancestral lands will be returned. These factors, combined with the slow pace at which Marawi is likely to be reconstructed, will favour well-resourced ISIS recruiters.

Irrespective of whether the BBL is passed, both Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF have an entrenched presence in the region. The BBL will not satisfy the demands of these groups for an independent, Islamic state. The reorientation of ISIS’s resources and strategy away from the Levant towards South-East Asia is also an important factor. Buoyed by the success of the Marawi siege, ISIS has created sleek propaganda videos featuring scenes of Marawi and urging recruits to head to the Philippines. Accordingly, local ISIS-affiliated groups will gain new members and funding streams, and hundreds of battle-hardened Malay, Indonesia and Filipino fighters are likely to return to the region.

Ultimately, although the probable passage of the BBL will dent ISIS recruitment efforts, there are enough local grievances and entrenched fighters to ensure that ISIS will endure in Mindanao, especially given its newfound focus on Asia. A bad situation will only get worse if the BBL is not passed.

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