ISIS threat continues to haunt Marawi

A local government worker uses a mobile phone during the clean-up drive inside the war-torn Marawi city, on Oct 20, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

Barely an hour into my stop in Marawi, I got an ominous text message. A friend warned that militants were about to storm t Mindanao State University campus in the city (MSU), where I happened to be, for another go at establishing a "wilayah" or province for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

I showed the message to Mr Saddam Marohomsalic Omar, a 19-year-old communications student at MSU I was interviewing at the time. He shrugged his shoulders. "It's nothing new," he said, adding that such rumours have been flying thick and fast since the army routed in October the last of the militants.

The latest he heard was that a rising "young star" of the dreaded Maute group was spotted praying at a mosque inside the university one morning.

The pro-ISIS Maute Group, formed in 2013 by brothers Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute, was responsible for the Marawi siege in May. Both were killed in the conflict.

Mr Saddam assured me the rumours were all talk. Still, they were a source of unease. There has been a sense here that at any given time, a conflict will erupt and decimate the part of Marawi still left standing.

The locals said the five month-long conflict was as much about territory as it was about ideology. Although the military declared victory over the militants on Oct 23, few believe the war has ended.

"No one in the Philippines should ignore the fact that salafi jihadism, the ideology that supports violent extremism, may be here to stay," said Ms Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.


Security forces have cut off the heads of the factions that stormed Marawi. But like the hydra, new heads are already sprouting to keep the rest of the body alive.

The military has tagged Amin Baco, an Indonesian, as ISIS' new "emir" in South-east Asia, replacing Isnilon Hapilon, who was killed just as the war in Marawi drew to a close.

But Ms Jones said Baco is too far down the ladder to be taking such a big role. "This man has no religious knowledge. There's no way that this guy will be accepted as emir by many of the other people he was with," she said.

There are other names on her list. At the top are Abu Walid and Bahrumsyah, both Indonesians.

Abu Walid "has religious credential", while Bahrumsyah has "the most military authority", she said.

Abu Walid is a former member of the Indonesian Islamist group Kompak. Last year, he appeared in a video that called on would-be fighters to go the Philippines, if they could not get to Syria to fight with ISIS. Bahrumsyah organised the first pro-ISIS rally in Indonesia in March 2014, and left for Syria two months later. He became head of Katibah Nusantra, the South-east Asian unit of ISIS, that same year. He was said to be making his way back to South-east Asia, after ISIS collapsed in Raqqa, Syria.

The militants are swimming in a fertile pond. The illegal drug trade and gunrunning remain rampant in Muslim Mindanao, providing resources for plots to disrupt and claim lives in urban areas in the insurgency-wracked southern island.

"Shadow economies" will continue to fuel violent extremism, warned Mr Francisco Lara, Philippine manager of the World Bank-funded think-tank International Alert. He said the Maute group would not have been able to mobilise 1,000 fighters and lay siege to Marawi if not for money from their drug deals and extortion rackets, and ransom from the families of their kidnap victims.

"There are signs that this scale of operation would not have occurred had those resources not been available," he said.

Security forces seized 11 kg of crystal meth, estimated to have a street value of up to 250 million pesos (S$6.7 million), as they fought their way to areas controlled by the militants in Marawi in June.

Mr Lara said the drug-fuelled "shadow economies" endure, despite President Rodrigo Duterte's crackdown on the narcotics trade.


The militants are already starting to regroup and recruit in places where they fled to after the Marawi debacle.

Colonel Edgard Arevalo, the Philippine military spokesman, said "recruitment videos" have already surfaced on Facebook.

Ms Jones said the recruitment pool is deep. "The slain militants have children, younger siblings. Who is identifying them? You have children of 800 terrorists killed in Marawi who are potential candidates as ISIS fighters."

Ms Nikki de la Rosa, deputy country manager at International Alert, said the Marawi siege had been a beacon to many youths. "There are youths who are still influenced or find the ideology of Maute legitimate in terms of everyday issues they face. Discrimination. Some are graduates of universities, but they still can't find jobs. There is a feeling of unfairness, and all that."

She said Marawi "will be a litmus test for future events that will happen in Mindanao. This is a portent of new kinds of violence that will happen in other areas".

Mr Nathan Sales, the US State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, emphasised that the problem extends beyond the Philippines' borders. "While we rightly celebrate the fall of ISIS' stronghold in Marawi, we have to be mindful of the fact that some of the fighters who were defeated there are going to try to continue the jihad elsewhere."


But for now, the militants are not aiming for anything as lofty as a "province". Ms Jones said: "I don't think we will see anything for awhile. There has to be a period of regrouping. I don't think there's a likelihood that any other city could be taken over."

She said the same confluence of factors seen in Marawi - indoctrination, funding, control of territory and control of fighters at a time when ISIS was still well-established as a focal point - cannot be found elsewhere in Mindanao. "That's why we're more likely to see bombing attacks to say, 'We're still here'," she said.

Word was that families from rival clans gave information leading to the arrest of Omarkhayam Maute's Indonesian wife.

Professor Sorhaila Latip Yusoph, 40, who teaches communication studies at Mindanao State University, inside Marawi, said resentment among those who similarly lost everything is growing.

"I'm afraid if this government will not give just compensation to those who lost a lot of things, this might just be the beginning of many things here," she said.

Raul Dancel

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 31, 2017, with the headline ISIS threat continues to haunt Marawi. Subscribe