The recent attacks in Lanao del Sur which escalated to 10 days of military offensive operations was an attempt by supporters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to inflame the war in Southern Philippines amid a waning truce between Muslim rebels and the Philippine government.
Thanks to peace advocates behind the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro and Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro and its supporters, the 15,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was prevailed upon not to be involved in the skirmishes.
The recent clashes destroyed property and displaced thousands of civilians that the local government units have pledged to exhaust capabilities to rebuild the devastated areas.
The attempt at inflaming war failed after MILF members refused to rescue other Moro militants who fought the government soldiers in the towns of Butig and Wato-Balindong in Lanao del Sur.
The firefights broke-out a few weeks after ISIS’s Al-Furat Media Foundation made public a video recognizing the baiah or pledge of allegiance of Filipino mujahideen (fighters) that vowed support to their group.
The ISIS has been planning an Islamic caliphate extension in other parts of the world including the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries since 2014.
Rodolfo Mendoza, one of the founders of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said that a “regional process of establishing the Islamic caliphate here [Philippines] is being processed,” pending possible “big, bold [lone wolf]attacks” to impress the international extremist group.
Despite the claims of the Philippine government and the United States that the jihadist group has no direct ties with the ISIS, the group’s supporters in Mindanao have grown in numbers as seen in the Butig clashes.
The supporters in Lanao del Sur include other hard-line jihadist movements – Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Abu Sayyaf Group – which has reached more than a thousand, according to the military.
The Khilafah Islamiyah Movement (KIM) started with less than 20 members under auspices of its covert unit Ghuraba (Stranger) and Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ) in its early stages from 2011 to 2013.
Marawi city-based Philippine Army’s 103rd Infantry Brigade commander Col. Roseller Murillo admitted that the militants they fought in Butig were inspired by ISIS but belied the group’s direct link to the ISIS.
Authorities, however, were certain that the ISIS-inspired militants have ties with the Southeast Asian terror network Jema’ah Islamiyah (JI) and the local terror group Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM).
Cleric leads child warriors
On Feb. 20, more than 300 militants carrying an ISIS flag stormed Butig town, a known MILF lair, and attacked the military detachment in Bubong (Poblacion).
The attackers, including child warriors with ages ranging between 12 and 18 years old, were reportedly led by cleric Abu Jamal, a native of Butig who runs an Islamic school in Marawi City.
Abu Jamal together with other clerics are known for their supportive propaganda on local TV and radio stations preaching extremist ideology.
The military retaliated by launching massive offensive operations and engaged the Maute group, led by brothers Omar and Abdullah, who are relatives of the late MILF founding member Alim Abdulaziz Mimbantas.
The Mautes, who have alleged ties with the Jema’ah Islamiyah and the Rajah Solaiman Movement, were also blamed in previous atrocities in Lanao alongside members of the Khilafah Islamiyah Movement (KIM).
The Mautes have been earlier linked to Dino-Amor Rosalejos Pareja, one of the RSM leaders, who was arrested in 2009. In 2012, troopers killed a leader of the JI named Sanusi and recovered several high-powered firearms at an abandoned house allegedly owned by the Mautes.
On Feb. 23, as battles raged in Butig, other forces of KIM ambushed the responding army at the vicinity of Wato-Balindong, near one of the MILF camps in the province, but the attackers escaped the pursuing troopers.
After over a week of firefights in Butig, the jihadists released a statement admitting their initial defeat and blamed the MILF leadership for not joining in their struggle.
The KIM presumed that the MILF commanders, particularly Abdullah Macapaar alias Bravo, commander of the Northeastern-Western Fronts, would join them amid the non-passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) in Congress.
Macapaar claimed that they were asked by KIM militants to join their forces but declined after consulting with majority of Muslim clerics in the province.
He said Jamil Yahya had visited his office for a meeting and did a group prayer that turned out to be a baiah. “I did not pledge my loyalty (to them),” he said.
Macapaar had earlier led his forces against the government for the failure of the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain (MOA-AD) in 2008.