AS of July 1, an estimated 303 militants taking part in the uprising in Marawi City against the government, have been killed. To us, they are terrorists or the enemy; but to their comrades-in-arms, relatives and sympathizes, they are martyrs. Their children, siblings and other relatives are prospective recruits, as revenge is a common ground for recruitment by terrorist groups in Mindanao.
“Unfortunately, we can safely predict that the outcome of this episode (the Marawi siege) is a continuing, perhaps metastasizing, problem with violent extremism,” writes Dr. Steven Rood of The Asia Foundation, as “one of the most fertile sources of recruitment is among those who lost relatives in fighting” (The Asia Foundation, June 28, 2017).
Revenge, family tradition or both. Members of violent extremist groups in Mindanao are often recruited by their own close relatives. Alternative “career” paths are seldom available. Poverty itself —the lack of opportunities to earn a living—remains a strong factor in recruiting youths into violent extremist groups in Mindanao.
The victims of armed conflict could themselves become tomorrow’s terrorists; Afghanistan’s Taliban originated from ultra-conservative religious schools (madrasahs) for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The students, displaced by war, grew up in refugee camps. They were deprived of a decent, wholesome education, and the opportunity to live meaningful lives. They were radicalized or brainwashed in the schools and many of them committed horrific acts of terror in the name of religion.
Young men constitute the biggest recruitment base for violent extremist groups around the world, including the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte is aware of the need to reach out to Muslim youth. In his message at the celebration of Eid’l Fitr in Malacañang he spoke of improving the capabilities of the youth. “We will continue to support scholars…who are now studying at the Imam Muhammad Bin Saud University in Indonesia,” the President said. “They will become part of the next generation of leaders who will help develop and advance their localities towards greater prosperity and progress.” (www.pcoo.gov.ph)
The Imam Muhammad Bin Saud University branch in Indonesia was set up in 1980 by Saudi Arabia as part of its efforts to counter the influence of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran (Zachary Abuza, 2006). Saudi Arabia and Iran compete for religious and political dominance, the latest manifestation of this being the ongoing Qatar crisis. A source who is familiar with the various voices and influences among Filipino Muslims claims that most Filipinos who studied at the Imam Muhammad Bin Saud University became radicalized. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in its Turning Point: A New Comprehensive Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism (November 2016), points out that there has been an “export of extremist ideologies“ from “Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis and others” which “has helped foster a world view hostile to religious, cultural, social and political diversity, creating fertile ground for violence.” Radicalization is often one step towards embracing violent extremism.
Military operations and good intelligence were once seen as adequate to fight terrorism. However, as violent extremism has evolved, many individuals and institutions involved in researching and addressing terrorism and its effects, have seen the need for a more holistic strategy. The CSIS, for example, lays out a comprehensive strategy encompassing everything from law enforcement, social media to community level interventions.
Looking to the immediate future, CSIS sees a resurgence of al-Qaida once IS has been defeated militarily: “Those drawn to its (ISIS’) ideology will seek a new home, which will likely be al- Qaida.” No, al-Qaida didn’t die with Osama bin Laden. The center further warns that “terrorists are also likely to continue the evolution toward attacks plotted and executed by small groups or individuals, against soft targets.” A report from March 27 by Tim Lister, CNN, describes a post-caliphate IS characterized by “agile attacks, mobility and surprise.” Even long after the leaders are dead, the ideology lives on, immortalized on social media, inspiring hundreds, maybe thousands of men—and women—around the globe to conduct terrorist attacks.
Countering violent extremism requires much resources and patience. There are no easy solutions, and success is hard to measure—counting dead terrorists is easier than counting those who were prevented from becoming terrorists. The great challenge is to counter the appeal of violent extremism which, in the words of CSIS, offers “a way to reconcile religious identity and modernity … (a way) to find glory, redemption, or simply a way out of their current situation. Joining a violent extremist movement is … an aspirational social act, an opportunity to gain power, prestige and status… to participate in a utopian effort to remake the world. In this sense, violent extremists offer something universally appealing: a chance to participate in an enterprise larger than one’s self.” This we can all relate to.