Philippine City is a Battleground in Global Fight Against Extremism

Photo: AP/Bullit Marquez1

Last week, General Eduardo Ano, the Philippines Chief of Staff, said he hoped that the city of Marawi would be liberated from Islamist militants before June 12, the country’s Independence Day.

The deadline has come and gone, but the fighting continues. Islamist militants still hold about a fifth of the city of Marawi. Fighters from an ISIS-affiliated coalition formed from the Abu-Sayyaf and Maute groups, who seized portions of the city May 23, have dug in and are now repelling sustained air and ground assaults by Philippine forces. A military spokesman in Manila said that 58 soldiers and police officers and 26 civilians have died and that 206 militants  have been killed.  The spokesmen added that 100 more fighters may remain in Marawi, and though most of the city was evacuated weeks ago, 300 to 600 civilians may remain trapped within the city.

The Philippines has struggled with insurgencies for decades. Historically, its island geography complicated Manila’s centralized authority, particularly over the southern province of Mindanao where Marawi is located.  Tensions between the Catholic majority and Muslim minority have generated religious strife. These conditions have produced several insurgent groups who ascribe to Maoist or militant Islamist ideologies.  The latter have grown increasingly bold in recent years.

Several new factors now in play make the ISIS-linked coalition different. The ISIS drive to establish a global caliphate has given common cause to formerly unaffiliated groups. Richard Heydarian, a professor at De La Salle University and Cipher Brief expert, says that the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute insurgencies have rallied “under the flag of the so-called Islamic State.” More troubling, according to Heydarian, is the “internationalization” of these groups. Foreign fighters have poured into Marawi from as far afield as Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Chechnya  and are now battling to establish a Wilayat, or foreign province, for ISIS’ global caliphate.

Experts have not assessed the strength of the relationship between insurgent groups in the Philippines and ISIS’s central command in Iraq. The Filipino insurgents may be paying lip service to ISIS, hoping to attain prestige through association.  Or they may benefit directly by receiving funding, supplies, or fighters. Either way, ISIS has used the attack in Marawi as powerful propaganda to support its call for global jihad.

When Rodrigo Duterte, then mayor of the Mindinao city of Davao, won the presidency last June, many hoped that his regional ties – he is the first Mindanaon to hold his nation’s top office —  and his strong-man persona could bring peace. Today, many fault Duterte for focusing on a war on drugs rather than on extremist violence and the religious divide that contributes to it.

In a reverse in foreign policy from his predecessor, Duterte has spurned the United States even though the two countries have shared a mutual defense treaty since 1951 and the U.S. is the Philippines’ primary partner in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. Last September, Duterte called for the removal of U.S. Army Special Forces from Mindanao, where they had served as military advisors since 2002. Colonel (ret.) David Maxwell, the former commander of Joint Special Operations Task Forces-Philippines, told The Cipher Brief  that their mission “has been Foreign Internal Defense (FID) which consists of activities by joint U.S. military forces and civilian government agencies to advise and assist friends, partners, and allies in internal defense and development programs so that they can defend themselves against lawlessness, subversion, insurgency, and terrorism.” 

Those Special Forces remained, and today they are supporting Philippine operations to retake Marawi. Military spokesman Restituto Padilla confirmed that “[U.S. Special Forces] are in Marawi, but are not allowed to join combat.” Another spokesman said, without elaborating, they are “just providing technical support.”(Philippines law forbids foreign troops from taking on combat roles on the nation’s soil.)

Though Duterte may disapprove of U.S. involvement, his military commanders do not. Through years of joint military exercises and training, the ties between the U.S. and Philippine militaries run deep. “There are Special Forces Noncommissioned Officers who have worked with Philippine General Officers since they were lieutenants and captains,” Maxwell told The Cipher Brief.

The Philippine military has acknowledged the presence of U.S. Navy P-3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft that have provided vital targeting intelligence for Philippine airstrikes.  “We don’t have adequate surveillance equipment, so we asked the U.S. military for assistance. It’s noncombat assistance,” Padilla said.

Though the tide of battle appears to have turned in the government forces’ favor, a victory would not bring an end to Islamist extremism in the Philippines.  There is a real danger that the attack on Marawi will serve as a template for other extremist groups in the Philippines or worldwide to perpetuate violence in ISIS’ name.

On a more hopeful note, years of joint training between U.S. and Philippine troops and their cooperation in the battle for Marawi is also a template for how joint operations are a better option than fighting ISIS and its affiliates alone.

View our expert commentary on this topic:

U.S. Special Operations Troops Advising Philippines Forces on Insurgents by Colonel David Maxwell, Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University

Philippines Security Shaken as International Jihadists Seek Safe Haven by Richard Heydarian, a professor at De Le Salle University in Manila. 

Will Edwards is an Asia-Pacific and defense analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @_wedwards.