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Jun 9, 2017 | 10:05 GMT

8 mins read

In the Philippines, the Islamic State Fights to Set the Narrative

(NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • The siege of the southern Philippines' Marawi City, despite its scale, will likely amount to little more than propaganda fodder for local Islamic State affiliates Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group.
  • More moderate separatist factions in Mindanao will work with the government to end the siege.
  • The move's success will depend on whether the jihadist militants occupying Marawi City can persuade younger members of the moderate separatist groups in the region to take up their radical cause.

Over the decades, jihadist groups have been drawn to prolonged hostage situations for the theatrics and publicity they afford. The siege in Marawi City, the capital of the Philippine province of Lanao del Sur, offers a particularly dramatic example of this tactic. Now in its third week, the attack by militants with the Islamic State-affiliated Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups has earned a place in the record books. Along with the 100 to 240 people under militant control, the nearly 2,000 residents of Marawi City who have been caught in the crossfire make it the largest jihadist hostage situation in modern history. And only individuals or smaller groups of hostages have been held for longer than the 17 days Marawi's residents have spent captured.

The incident's size and duration make it difficult to determine the jihadists' intentions for the attack. The Philippine government and armed forces have labeled it a hostage scenario, but the militants occupying the area seem to have a more ambitious goal in mind. Fighters from the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf brandished Islamic State flags and occupied government buildings early on in the attack in a scene reminiscent of the siege of Mosul in 2014. A week into the siege, moreover, the militants released a video in which one of the captives, a Catholic priest, referred to the civilians under their control as "prisoners of war." But while the incident is unprecedented as a hostage scenario, it is far less spectacular as a bid to claim territory. The attempt falls far short of the Islamic State's land grabs in Syria and Iraq, and it hasn't gotten the Philippine militants any closer to amassing the territory necessary to establish Southeast Asia's first Islamic State province. Either way, what Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group fail to achieve in gaining ground, they could make up for in capturing attention.

Terrorist hostage situations

Prelude to a Siege

The attack, albeit sudden, didn't come out of the blue. The militants had already established a training camp in the region and had conducted raids on Marawi City, in one instance targeting a local prison and releasing some of their comrades. And in the months before the Marawi attack, the same group of fighters tried to take over Butig, a smaller town nearby, at Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon's instruction. Still, the incident represents one of the most ambitious, aggressive forays by Philippine jihadists in recent years and the culmination of Abu Sayyaf's growing relationship with the Maute group.

Leaders from the Islamic State's core allegedly considered Abu Sayyaf's base on the island of Basilan too small and isolated to merit designation as an official wilayat, or province. Consequently, Hapilon has joined forces this year with the Maute group to take advantage of its base in Lanao del Sur in the predominantly Muslim Mindanao region. The province is larger and more populous than Basilan, which spans just 824 square kilometers (318 square miles). Marawi City, home to one-quarter of Lanao del Sur's roughly 1 million inhabitants, is an obvious target as the militant groups try to overrun the province.

A Risky Move

But Hapilon, the Maute group's leaders and the estimated 200 to 300 fighters holding siege in the provincial capital are taking a big risk with their campaign on Marawi City. Until now, both groups have adhered to insurgency theory, striking only when they had the advantage. The militants previously ambushed Philippine troops on patrol in remote areas, conducted quick raids or struck large urban centers with improvised explosive devices, as they did in Davao City in September 2016. In Marawi City, by contrast, they are surrounded by the Philippine military, and it's difficult to imagine that they will all make it out of their standoff alive. So why did Hapilon and the Maute group embark on such a perilous endeavor?

Map of Terrorist Groups in Mindanao

One possible explanation is that the groups stumbled into the situation by accident. The siege unfolded when a Philippine counterterrorism team tried to capture Hapilon at a house in Marawi City on May 23. The Abu Sayyaf leader and as many as 50 fighters responded, triggering a melee throughout the city. Militants set fire to buildings, including a church, occupied Mindanao State University, and took hostages — a tactic the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf frequently use to generate income or increase their notoriety. Had the fighters retreated then, before military reinforcements could arrive on the scene, they would have had more leverage to negotiate and more leeway to keep chipping away at the state's control over rural Lanao del Sur.

Instead, the groups deviated from conventional insurgent wisdom. Hapilon stayed put, according to the Philippine government, and more militants flooded into the city to support the fight. The groups' actions suggest that Hapilon and his followers had a plot in the works even before the May 23 raid set the siege in motion, a theory that the government has tried to push and that certainly seems plausible given the militant reaction. Having failed to take control of Marawi City, Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group are trying to make the most of the situation, exploiting it for propaganda purposes and using their hostages as bargaining chips against the state.

In fact, propaganda may have been a primary impetus behind the attack all along. The Maute group and Abu Sayyaf are not the only insurgent movements in the southern Philippines; both groups and their leaders emerged from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), two more moderate militant organizations that want greater autonomy for the region. For several years, the MILF, in particular, has been working with the Philippine government toward a political solution to their decadeslong insurgency. But its progress has been slow. With little to show for its recent efforts, the MILF and MNLF risk losing younger and less patient members to more radical elements, much as it lost Hapilon and the Maute brothers. The local jihadist groups can point to the stalled peace process as evidence that violence, made all the more sensational by the global terrorist phenomenon, is a surer means to their desired end than politics can be. The current conflict in Marawi City is a dramatic push by the new generation of separatists to advance their agenda.

How It Ends

Whether they succeed will depend in large part on how the episode in Marawi City ends. The best-case scenario for the government in Manila is that the militants run out of food, water or ammunition and eventually surrender to the military forces surrounding them. Blockading the city will be difficult, though, considering the thousands of civilian residents and hostages trapped there. Philippine security forces will be under pressure to supply the captives with food and water, and the provisions may inadvertently reach the militants as well. The question, then, is how long the militants' stores of ammunition will last them and what they will do with their numerous hostages.

Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group have been in communication with the government, thanks to a channel the MILF set up between them to demonstrate its skills in governance and crisis resolution. Nevertheless, the risk of hostage executions is high. The Maute group and Abu Sayyaf routinely execute their captives and distribute video footage of the killings. Furthermore, assuming the Philippine armed forces don't collapse and let the hundreds of militants in Marawi City out of their containment areas, Hapilon's bid to establish a wilayat in the area has failed, for now. Sympathizers throughout Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago have failed to rise up in support of the jihadist groups, and by declaring martial law over the region, President Rodrigo Duterte has made it harder for them to do so. More moderate Moro Muslim groups in the area, meanwhile, have disavowed the siege and appear willing to work with the government to end it, by acting as a mediator, for example. The only way the militants in Marawi City can salvage their botched land grab is through the power of propaganda. Broadcasting hostage executions from the besieged city would serve as a powerful propaganda tool to distract from the overall weakness of their situation.

At the same time, however, the threat of execution will give the hostages greater incentive to attempt to escape — or at least less to lose in trying — making them more difficult to control. It's also unclear whether the jihadists entrenched in the city still have lines of communication to the outside world. Security forces have likely shut down internet connections in the area. Regardless, the longer Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group manage to drag out their standoff in Lanao del Sur's capital, the more opportunities they will have to persuade young separatists in Mindanao to take up arms and join their cause. If the militants can convince their target audience that radical jihad is more effective than politics for gaining greater independence from Manila, then they can portray their stunt in Marawi City as at least a partial success.

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