Understanding ISIS in the Philippines

For about a month the government of the Philippines has been fighting a group who has pledged allegiance to ISIS. The battle is in Marawi City, about an hour from my family’s city, where I have built a house and live part-time. We have relatives in Davao City, where the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, was mayor for decades. We have a good understanding of what is going on generally, and knew about the ISIS takeover before it was international news from our contacts in Marawi City on social media. Some background:

In 1521 Magellan arrived in the Visayas, the islands of the Southern Philippines. He met the Lapu-Lapu, who were Muslim, and demanded conversion to Christianity along with payment of tribute. The Lapu-Lapu responded by killing Magellan. I wish my elementary school teacher had told me the truth about Magellan, instead claiming that he sailed around the world. Because the truth is a much better lesson.

The Spanish never conquered the Visayas. Neither did the USA when it conquered the rest of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. Neither did the government of the Philippines, at least not completely in a total of five hundred years. That fiercely independent warrior spirit remains alive in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, (ARMM) with a specific history of significant battles around Marawi City on the island of Mindanao.

This city is the capital of the local province, on a lake (Lanao) that provides the hydroelectric power for the entire island. The Agus River flows from Lake Lanao to Iligan City, and it has a chain of hydro facilities along the way. Iligan City has been preparing for an attack, and it is not the first time. The last strategic attack was the bombing of the Maria Christina bridge over the Agus River at Iligan City in 2009. Control over the entire hydro chain would be established through occupation of the Marawi – Iligan corridor.

The most recent set of long term wars began in the 1950’s when Mindanao was still over 90% Muslim. The national government had been contending with rebels all over the Philippines, particularly forerunners of the communist New People’s Army (NPA), like the Huks. Landless peasants under insurrection were offered land on Mindanao, which although ostensibly "vacant", nevertheless was not taken with the consent of the people of Mindanao.

The original homesteads were settled with the help of the military and funds from the national government after surrender of the Huk rebels in the 1950’s. There were skirmishes from the beginning. The new settlers from the north were Christian. Their system of law, property ownership, and governance followed western civilization whereas the existing people followed Islamic law and it’s governance through a traditional Datu and council. It has become known as a Christian-Muslim conflict, but originally it was a land dispute that ultimately led to conflict over the form of governance.

It is no surprise that this led to the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front, (MNLF), the first of the present-day fighting armies of the Muslims in the 1960’s. Moro is how the Spanish originally referred to their people. Since then, around 130,000 people have been killed in battles just like what is going on now in Marawi. Several hundred people have been killed in the last month and there are several hundred thousand refugees who have fled the fighting.

The MNLF was successful in forcing the government to create an autonomous region for Muslims in the Southern Philippines, mostly on Mindanao: the ARMM. There were promises made of greater autonomy than were never put into effect. Hence, a new resistance group formed with demands for greater independence: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The MILF’s territory surrounds the current battle, whereas the MNLF is mostly further west.

The MILF too was successful in reaching an agreement with the national government in 2014. It is called the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro, or "Moro Homeland". Greater autonomy was again promised – and not yet delivered. It was an offense to more independence-minded groups within the MNLF that a new agreement was being reached with the national government. These MNLF splinter groups tried to pre-empt it and declare an independent homeland in 2013, resulting in a siege against their forces in Zamboanga.

The patience of others too within the ARMM wore thin as the years passed without greater autonomy, and one MILF splinter group arose calling itself the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Islamic groups had in the past worked with outside support and the BIFF by 2015 was keeping a Malaysian bomb-making terrorist wanted by the USA, one Zulkiffi Abdhir, with a $5 million FBI reward on his head.

The president of the Philippines ordered a Special Action Forces (SAF) assault on the BIFF in October of 2015 in coordination with American Special Forces to capture him. Although these are police forces theoretically executing an arrest warrant, it was immediately without question a military engagement that ended in the greatest loss of SAF forces in the history of the Philippines: 44 officers. Once the fighting started, elements of both the BIFF and MILF engaged the Philippine government forces and obtained a tactical victory with a loss of 18 men and 5 civilians. Abdhir was killed in this "Mamasapano Clash".

The larger result of this clash was outrage by northern Filipinos and the scuttling of the new agreement. A full-scale military assault followed by the Philippine army upon the BIFF, resulting in hundreds of casualties and 30,000 refugees. The peace process was in a shambles. It is no surprise then that in the wake of these developments even greater separatist gambits have been launched, and with allegiance to the growing power and prestige of ISIS.

We have thus far only neglected one group mostly occupying Tawi-Tawi and Basilan. These are islands close to Malaysia. The group is Abu Sayyaf. It is the most brutal of all, and is probably best viewed as a criminal gangster organization more than a political movement. It specializes in kidnap for ransom and extortion. They have become a problem in nearby shipping lanes, tourist destinations (kidnappings) and have in the past blown up a passenger ship for failure to pay extortion. The group should not be underestimated, for both World Trade Center bombers – Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were Abu Sayyaf.

In fact, these two terrorists, nephew and uncle, were busy on a hijacking plot known as Bojinka when their Manila apartment caught fire from bomb-making equipment. They escaped to Pakistan. Nephew Ramzi Yousef was captured and extradited to the United States where he was convicted of the first World Trade Center bombing. Uncle Khalid Shiekh Mohammed continued on to Afghanistan where Osama Bin Laden picked up his Bojinka plot and made the second attack of 9/11 with mostly Saudis.

This Abu-Sayyaf 9/11 information is virtually unknown in the United States. One of the reasons may be that the computer hard drive with the Bojinka plot was turned over to the FBI by the Philippine police. It is quite damning in terms of forewarning of a 9/11 style attack. Regardless, Abu Sayyaf was the first Philippines group to declare allegiance to ISIS and the BIFF soon followed. One of the leaders of the group that overtook Marawi City is the former Basilan Abu Sayyaf leader, Isnilon Hapilon. The other two are brothers with connections to the BIFF. It is a fusion of the Eastern and Western Visayan ISIS variants.

This new group is calling itself the Maute, after its founding by the Maute brothers Omar and Abdulla. The fusion with Abu Sayyaf soon followed. The group has therefore declared allegiance to ISIS and has made this desperate gambit to declare an independent Islamic nation centered in the strategic city of Marawi.

One of the principle means of financing itself is drugs, particularly shabu. That is the name for crystal meth in the Philippines. This has been a common problem in the ARMM, along with violence even among the elected officials. For example, the Mayor of Maguindanao, Andal Ampatuan, personally led a massacre of over 50 people in 2009 for daring to form up a convoy of people attempting to register a political rival for election against him.

The Maute brothers were infamous before this takeover of Marawi City. They had kidnapped local lumber mill workers for ransom and beheaded them when the ransom was not paid. Like ISIS, the execution was widely circulated on social media. There we have all the elements that seem to foster the kind of violence and criminality attractive to ISIS.

If we can summarize this history, the deep background is 500 years of refusal to submit to outside non-Islamic rule. Settling of their homeland by Christian Filipinos under the protection of the military and under a western civilization style government gradually cornered them into a small region. At one time Islam was nearly universal on Mindanao and it is now practiced by only 20% of the population.

Armed insurrections for the last three-quarters of a century had led to the establishment of a quasi-independent Islamic area, the ARMM. But the government did not follow through with all the promises that had been made and more violent, criminal gangster organizations arose that financed themselves with kidnappings, extortion, and drugs. It is in an area rife with violence to begin with. The most peaceful city, Davao, was governed by the current President Duterte who is internationally famous for enforcing law through assassinations.

Unfortunately, the long process of peace negotiations is in ruins. Before Duterte took office, a misguided and tragic attempt to "arrest" international terrorists under the protection of an ISIS-linked group led to the slaughter of 44 Philippine Special Action Forces Police. That clash eliminated the willingness of the Philippine legislature to follow through with the promises of the Bangsamoro Homeland. It should be no surprise that a takeover happened. It has happened before, and not long ago. The only question was where and when.

To say the least, the future in the Visayas of the Philippines looks difficult. Of all people, Rodrigo Duterte is uniquely qualified to deal with it. He is part Moro himself and successfully kept the fighting outside of Davao City for over 20 years while Mayor. The MILF assisted in the evacuation of Marawi City. The leadership of the MNLF has also pledged to work with him in eradicating the ISIS-affiliated splinter groups. Nevertheless he entered the fray at a time when the peace process had shattered and he is currently presiding over a battle that is reducing a provincial capital city to ruins.

Robert R. Logan, PhD is a retired professor of Economics and consultant living in interior Alaska.

Author: Robert Logan

Robert R. Logan, PhD is a retired professor of Economics and consultant living in interior Alaska.