THE battle is just about over. The war is just beginning.
As the Armed Forces clear Marawi of remaining terrorists, and government agencies, private firms, and foreign aid groups help 200,000 displaced residents rebuild and recover, the anti-terror war shifts to the vastness of Mindanao.
Having shown that Islamic State-driven guerrillas can take and hold sizable city districts against a full-scale military assault, IS and its cohorts will now use the Marawi conflict to raise funds and recruit fighters.
Funds will come mainly from abroad, with IS and its backers keen to show the flag and flex their might outside the Iraqi and Syrian redoubts where the terrorist group is losing ground to the armies of two regimes, backed by Western and Russian air power.
Warm bodies too are flocking to Mindanao: the Southeast Asian extremists who joined IS in the Middle East and are coming back to the region. So warned experts at a major international security conference in Singapore in April.
Why IS targeted Mindanao
The Marawi conflict shows that Mindanao offers a prime area for IS expansion. The region has millions of impoverished, poorly educated Muslim youth, who can be lured with IS cash and propaganda. Plus: indigent parents willing to let jihadists take boys supposedly for madrasah instruction, plus board and lodging.
IS-driven groups, which include Abu Sayyaf, Maute, and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, have carved out secure enclaves beyond military or police control. They can also find shelter in rebel-held areas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has extremist elements in its fold.
Not to mention the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), despite its 1996 peace accord with the government, and the communist New People’s Army (NPA), which continues to attack security forces and business establishments despite on-and-off peace talks.
Also helping fuel extremism in Mindanao are centuries-old grievances of the Muslim minority, who feel robbed of their freedoms and ancestral lands by the Spanish and American colonial regimes in centuries past, and by the Christian-dominated Philippine government and rich, powerful and well-connected Christian settlers and big businesses, including multinationals Dole and Del Monte, taking over vast lands.
Peace negotiations are supposed to blunt jihadist appeal, but the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, born of the MNLF pact, remains the most impoverished region in the country, where kidnappings, killings, and bombings are still facts of death.
Besides Mindanao’s rich recruiting grounds with guerrilla-held areas, there are the interminable and largely unsecured coastline, among the world’s longest, and corrupt or lax border controls with hardly any maritime patrols to watch for IS infiltrators on boats.
As if all that weren’t enough to get IS cells mushrooming in Mindanao, drug lords are joining forces and wallets with jihadists, as President Rodrigo Duterte tells it.
And local politicians, too, like those whose signatures appear on checks found in a terrorist lair in Marawi, part of the P79 million in plastic-wrapped wads of cash and bank checks captured by Marines.
Can the jihadists be stopped?
With all that going for the terrorists, can they be stopped?
It’s a terrible thought, but given what terrorists and rebels have done for decades, and the IS support local extremists now get, jihadists will unfortunately still wage violence and build forces, at least in the immediate future.
Think about it: After many months of sustained military offensives, the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups were still able to build forces, plan, coordinate and mount the Marawi attack, taking over much of the city, and holding out for more than a month.
And don’t for a moment think that jihadists and the young, impressionable minds they sway would see Marawi as anything but a great triumph stalemating a vastly superior enemy, helped by Western military advisers and surveillance aircraft.
Nor are they scared of the joint air and sea patrols mounted by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. The waters and beaches of Mindanao are just so vast, and the modes of concealed transport so difficult to interdict, that many extremists and weaponry can get through.
Islam can stop Islamic State
This is not to say that security initiatives can do nothing against IS-driven groups in Mindanao. Indeed, under martial law, key Maute family members, including the matriarch thought to handles finances, have been arrested. Ditto other operatives like the man who allegedly smuggled arms and ammunition into Marawi, and spirited out wounded fighters via Lake Lanao.
The fighting men and the weaponry, material and money expended by the terrorists are gone, and building up forces of the same size and power is probably no longer possible, at least for some years.
But zeroing IS recruits, funding, and arms is highly unlikely, too, just as the AFP could never wipe out the MNLF, MILF, NPA, or even the 400-strong Abu Sayyaf. IS is here to stay, at least for some years, and its cohorts will mount more attacks, though probably not another Marawi.
But for all their potency, it is not security counter-measures that will decide how far jihadists go along their bloodstained roadmap of terrorism and caliphate ambition. As we are seeing in the Middle East, what will decide how far and wide IS and other extremists reach is Islam itself.
On the sands of Arabia and now in the fields and streets of Southeast Asia, Muslims high and low are having to choose between the tenets of peace and spirituality which true Islam has espoused for centuries, and the brutal, insane perversion of Mohammed’s teachings which IS foists.
In Mindanao, Muslims are being lured by a foreign ideology that beheads innocents, trains kids to shoot and bomb, uses hostages as human shields and conscripted fighters, and forces women into sex slavery, as recounted by rescued Marawi residents.
Our Muslim compatriots must decide if that is really what Islam is. If IS ideology wins, Mindanao could descend into civil war, as President Duterte warned. If Muslim Filipinos reject it, both their religion and our republic triumph. In sha Allah. So help us God.