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After the Siege of Marawi, Another Fight Plays Out

6 MINS READOct 26, 2017 | 08:00 GMT
Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana (center) raises his fist in victory as President Rodrigo Duterte declares the end of the siege of Marawi City on Oct. 17.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte proclaims victory over the Islamic State in Marawi on Oct. 17, nearly six months after militants overran the city. Now that the jihadist group's influence in the region is diminishing, the long-standing rivalries in the southern Philippines will come back to the fore.

The military operation in Marawi City is officially over. After six months of urban combat that killed hundreds of Philippine troops and hundreds more militants — including Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon and at least one of the brothers behind the namesake Maute group — President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi "liberated." A few days later on Oct. 23, the Philippine defense minister announced that security forces had cleared the last militants from the city. The siege of Marawi City was arguably the most ambitious and successful exploit to date for jihadists in the southern Philippines, and its end represents an important benchmark in the country's centurieslong struggle against insurgency. Though Philippine security forces have won the battle in Marawi, their war on militancy is far from finished.

Losing a Common Enemy

The threat of the Islamic State has a way of bringing people together, despite the political and ideological rifts between them. As militants overtook Marawi City under the Islamic State's banner, Duterte assembled a diverse coalition, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which for decades has waged an insurgency on the government in Manila, to fight them. Now that Philippine and Moro nationalist forces have defeated their common enemy, their underlying rivalries are coming back to the fore — much as the unresolved disputes between Iraq's central government and Kurdish leaders have resurfaced since the battle for Mosul. The MILF, the group at the vanguard of the Moro nationalist movement, is determined to use its prominent role in the Marawi operations to revive discussions with Manila over increased autonomy.

As negotiations resume between the MILF and the Philippine government, they could spill over into the effort to rebuild Marawi City. The city sustained $1 billion to $2 billion in damage, which will require numerous funding allocations and construction contracts to repair. Manila will be responsible for handling the arrangements, for which the United States and China have offered monetary and material assistance. But given its influence in the region, the MILF will have veto power in the reconstruction campaign, and it will make sure deals are awarded and funds distributed with its interests in mind. Keeping its members from losing patience with the political process and resorting to violence during the course of these discussions will be a steep task for the organization. The MILF, after all, has a long history of militancy, and nearly all the jihadist leaders in the southern Philippines, including Hapilon and the Maute brothers, got their start with the group. 

The Remains of the Siege

In addition to the threat of new militant groups branching off from the MILF, remnants of the jihadist groups that overran Marawi City are still lurking in the region. Philippine officials haven't been able to confirm rumors that Abdullah Maute died during the siege, though security forces killed his brother Omarkhayam Maute, along with Hapilon, in mid-October. If Abdullah managed to escape Marawi City, he will face the long, slow undertaking of reassembling the Maute group in the wake of a devastating fight. 

Abu Sayyaf fared better by comparison. Despite making headway against the group, the Philippine military has yet to oust Abu Sayyaf from the Sulu Archipelago, where it conducts the kidnapping attacks and piracy that have periodically halted trade in the area. Joint patrols by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have made the waters of the Sulu and Celebes seas less hospitable in the past few months, but hundreds of militants are still entrenched on the islands of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. Abu Sayyaf, moreover, has regrouped time and again over the years after losing leaders and fighters in battle. Picking up the pieces in the aftermath of the Marawi siege will be difficult, and it may take the group out of commission for months or even years to come. Nevertheless, Abu Sayyaf will return eventually in one form or another. 


Taking Up the Cause

As Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group recover from the recent siege, other groups in the southern Philippines may take up the jihadist mantle in their stead. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) may emerge as the Islamic State's new standard-bearer in the region, if only by default. Having mostly abstained from the fight in Marawi City to focus instead on modest attacks on its home turf in Mindanao, the BIFF still has the manpower to carry on.

One of the group's leaders, Esmael Abdulmalik, has already drawn the attention of the Philippine security forces and of the MILF, the BIFF's onetime ally. Over the past month, Abdulmalik's fighters have tried repeatedly to raise the Islamic State's flag over various locations in Maguindanao province. The move suggests that Abdulmalik hopes to follow in the footsteps of Hapilon and the Maute brothers by seizing and holding territory in the transnational jihadist group's name. Though he probably won't manage to pull off a repeat of the Marawi City siege in Maguindinao province anytime soon, Abdulmalik and the rest of the BIFF will doubtless keep up their attacks in the area. The group could even take a page from Abu Sayyaf and start staging kidnappings to generate revenue and publicity. Lacking Abu Sayyaf's maritime capabilities, however, the BIFF would have to stick to nearby urban targets such as Cotabato City and Davao City.

For now, the BIFF is the Islamist group most likely to conduct a breakout attack in the southern Philippines. But jihadist outfits aren't the only threat to watch for in the region. A group called the Maranao Victims Movement released a video Sept. 18 threatening both the Islamic State and the Philippine government. In the video, the group's members claimed to be displaced residents of Marawi City who would start conducting their own attacks if the siege continued. The Maranao Victims Movement has yet to make good on its threats or to follow up with another statement.

Even so, the very idea of the Maranao Victims Movement serves as a reminder of the difficulties to come in Marawi City. The siege and ensuing battle displaced hundreds of thousands of residents, some of whom may well have decided to take up arms to try to protect themselves. And the Islamic State was just one threat to their security. As its presence in the region recedes, if only temporarily, the rivalries that have long defined the southern Philippines, and fueled its Islamist militant movements, will take center stage once more.

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