Marawi City: The High-Water Mark of Southeast Asian Terrorism

7 MINS READAug 16, 2017 | 20:31 GMT
A monthslong siege has destroyed large swaths of Marawi City and cost local jihadist groups more than 520 fighters so far.
(TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

A look at Marawi City shows that Philippine jihadist groups have taken a major gamble on the siege, since the Philippine military has forced them to engage in conventional combat. 

  • As enemy forces unite against Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group, they will amplify the significant losses the Philippine jihadists have endured.
  • Counterterrorism forces in Southeast Asia and beyond will keep working together to prevent a jihadist base from growing in the region.
  • The uprising in Marawi City will represent a high-water mark for jihadists in Southeast Asia, rather than a rising tide of attacks in the region.

In the Philippines, progress toward ending the nearly three-month siege of Marawi City has been slow but steady. The Philippine defense minister has revised his prognosis for the battle after perhaps excessive optimism early on, estimating that it may take the country's security forces another month or two to completely rid the city of jihadists. The events in Marawi City have demonstrated that jihadism is alive and well in Southeast Asia. But local, national and regional limitations will keep militants from the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups from turning the Philippine city into a lasting base in the Islamic State's global caliphate. Marawi City today is no Mosul in 2014, and though the threat of Islamic extremism will persist in Southeast Asia, the siege of Marawi appears to be the upper limit of success for the region's jihadists.

On the Ground 

A look at the city itself shows that Philippine jihadist groups have taken a major gamble with their siege. The Philippine military has forced the groups to engage in conventional combat, a battle well outside their comfort zone that has destroyed large swaths of Marawi City and cost the jihadists more than 520 fighters so far. Based on the government's estimates — which put the number of jihadists in the southern Philippines at between 2,000 and 4,000 at the start of the year — the siege has thinned the militant groups' ranks by 12-25 percent. Furthermore, though Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon appears to have escaped Marawi City, security forces have killed a handful of the group's subcommanders over the past few months. 

Status of Abu Sayyaf Group Commanders

Throughout the Philippines, the drama unfolding in Marawi City has galvanized opposition to the Islamic State. The siege, for example, has prompted ethnic Moro insurgent groups, which for decades have been fighting the Philippine government for greater autonomy, to take a stronger stance against Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group. The leader of the Moro National Liberation Front is now working closely alongside Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to resolve the Marawi City crisis. And although the more militant Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is by no means cozy with Duterte, they now have a common enemy in the jihadists. In fact, the MILF has begun fighting Islamist militants in the city of Maguindanao. The siege of Marawi City hasn't won Philippine jihadists any friends in the area.  

The Jihadist Threat Nears Its Limits

Still, the events in Marawi City are worrisome. For leaders in Southeast Asia especially, part of the concern centers on the effect the siege could have on the region. Neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia have their own histories with jihadist activity, and recruiters in both countries have been trying to funnel Islamic State supporters to Mindanao to fight for Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group. A jihadist stronghold in the Philippines could embolden radicals throughout the region, allowing it to become the Islamic State's next geographic stronghold.

The migration of regional jihadists to the Philippines is not a new trend, however; Islamist militants in Southeast Asia have been heading to Mindanao since long before the siege in Marawi City began. Today, Indonesians make up the largest foreign cohort in the southern Philippines jihadist theater, but officials estimate that they number only around 40 fighters. (By contrast, about 500 Indonesian jihadists are fighting in Iraq and Syria.) Indonesian President Joko Widodo, like Duterte, faces political pressure to counter radical Islamism. The memory of devastating attacks on Bali in the early 2000s and in Jakarta in 2009 serves as a reminder of what Indonesia's jihadists can do if given the opportunity. Widodo's administration, moreover, is well aware of how quickly a threat in one country can spread to the other across the porous maritime boundaries between Indonesia's Sulawesi region and the Philippines' Mindanao region. 

The few Indonesian militants who make it over to the Philippines lack experience and tradecraft. During the 2000s, Indonesia's Jemaah Islamiyah group was considered the vanguard of transnational jihad in Southeast Asia. But the country's terrorist outfits have declined over the years, splintering under pressure from counterterrorism forces. The largest jihadist group currently active in Indonesia, Jemaah Ansharut Daulah, has managed nothing more spectacular than bombings with crude, low-power pressure cooker devices and knife attacks targeting mostly police officers.

In Malaysia, meanwhile, the terrorist threat has been largely aspirational. Aside from a small grenade strike on a bar in 2016, Malaysian authorities have kept jihadist plots from advancing to the attack phase. The country has worked closely with Turkey to monitor and return the estimated 100 Malaysians fighting in the Middle East, as well as other citizens trying to travel there. Its efforts have paid off, but at the same time, they have made the Philippines an attractive option for Malaysian extremists looking for a fight. Media outlets have reported that at least 28 Malaysian fighters were involved in the early phase of the Marawi City siege. A few months in, however, Malaysian Islamic State supporters appear to be providing mainly logistical assistance to the fight in the southern Philippines. A former university professor in Malaysia, for example, has helped move fighters — and, perhaps more important, money — into the Philippines through Sabah province in the eastern part of his country. (Sabah also has served as a hunting ground for Abu Sayyaf kidnapping gangs looking for foreign hostages.)

Of course, all of this means that Malaysia has its own incentives to stop regional jihadist activity, and it has been working with the Philippines and Indonesia to stem the threat. The Trilateral Maritime Patrol, which kicked off in June, exemplifies the countries' heightened efforts to cooperate, enabling vessels from any of the three participating nations to cross into the others' territorial waters to track jihadists. Combined with Philippine military operations, the arrangement has driven down the number of Abu Sayyaf kidnappings from eight attacks between January and August 2016 to just four attacks in the same time period this year. That the group hasn't taken any Western hostages so far this year has limited its international media attention, depriving Abu Sayyaf of propaganda opportunities. In addition, the drop in kidnappings will reduce its ransom revenues.

Hostages Kidnapped For Ransom by Maritime Abu Sayyaf Group Gangs, 2015-2017

Outside the region, too, the Philippines has received support for its fight against terrorism. U.S. forces have provided assistance to their Philippine counterparts in Marawi City since at least mid-June, and the siege has tempered the notoriously anti-Washington rhetoric for which Duterte is known. Rumors of potential U.S. airstrikes on Marawi City even have surfaced.

A United Front Against Extremism

Terrorism is generally at its most dangerous when its enemies are divided. The Islamic State took advantage of the discord in war-torn Syria and Iraq to increase its strength and territorial holdings, seizing control of Mosul along the way. In Marawi City, on the other hand, the jihadist uprising appears to be uniting various forces in and beyond the region against extremism.

The threat of Islamist terrorism in Southeast Asia won't end with the siege in Marawi City. Governing the dense, mountainous jungle terrain of the Sulu Archipelago is a steep task, and so long as conflict persists between the Muslim populations of the southern Philippines and the government in Manila, extremists will exploit it. The international attention the siege has attracted, moreover, will likely draw new recruits to the jihadist groups occupying Marawi City. Still, it takes time for an organization to recover from losses as substantial as those Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group have sustained. And even if they can replenish their ranks, the radicals will be working under more scrutiny from Manila than ever before. 

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