Part 1 – Genesis of IS
IN the afternoon of May 23, 2017, a joint police and military operation was conducted to serve a warrant of arrest on the terrorist Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the dreaded Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), in what was thought to be merely a walk in the park. A heavy firefight ensued. National security adviser Hermogenes Esperon declared that “the AFP was in full control of the situation.” This was echoed by Armed Forces Chief Gen. Eduardo Año. This was not true! The government forces were clueless. That same evening, the IS flag was flying over parts of Marawi, considered the Philippines’ only Islamic city. It was a total failure of intelligence. DU30 cut short his Moscow state visit and declared martial law in the entire island of Mindanao.
Facts intermittently filtered out through the haze of battle. The Maute, a small terrorist group headed by two brothers led a series of attacks upon the failure of government to arrest Hapilon. This was a different ball game being played by the terrorists as they have shifted strategy; from the usual kidnap-for-ransom (KFR), extortion and bombings to an all-out control of territory. The same strategy the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (IS) employed in Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. The Maute and ASG combined under the leadership of Hapilon was to establish a caliphate in Marawi under the “Emir” Hapilon. This is the first major incident that saw the emergence of the IS. It was obvious that they have been preparing for months, digging tunnels between houses and buildings and stocking up on guns, ammunition, logistics and even cash.
The government was caught flatfooted and this exacted a terrible toll. Marawi was devastated almost beyond recognition and would take months if not years to rehabilitate costing billions of pesos: 168 military personnel gave up their lives; thousands of “collateral damage” of dead civilians; and hundreds of thousands more displaced Marawi residents called “bakwit.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi liberated, from the terrorists’ influence that marks the beginning of rehabilitation,” Duterte proclaimed on October 17, the 148th day of the Marawi fighting. This prompted former President PNoy to later gloat, comparing statistics. The Mamasapano encounter, on which Pnoy’s reputation was tattered, lasted 24 hours, exacted 44 lives of the Philippine Special Action Force (SAF) that went in to capture the terrorist Zulkifli Abdhir. No city was obliterated and there was minimal displacement of residents.
Al-Qaida and IS
According to a book co-written by US journalist Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, a Syrian political analyst, the pedigree of IS comes from various strains of faith-based Islamic groups, various terrorist fundamentalists and nationalists of many shades coming from the Levant around the Mediterranean basin.
In the aftermath of al-Qaida’s September 11, 2001 attack on New York’s Twin Towers, America with its NATO allies decided to invade Afghanistan to capture Osama bin Laden and destroy his al-Qaida network. They failed but toppled the terrorist’s sponsor, the Taliban government. Subsequently, a US-led coalition in 2003 invaded Iraq, the region’s sponsor of terrorist groups, although it was not involved in the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks, under the pretext that it had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the fear that it was going to farm these out to international terrorists like al-Qaida.
After the blitzkrieg invasion, Iraq was tragically managed by the conquering armies. The collapse of the Ba’athist government and the execution of President Saddam Hussein produced a vacuum that precipitated sectarian violence between the minority but politically dominant Sunni (Saddam was a Sunni) and the Shias. Saddam’s disappearance from the scene wreaked havoc on the fragile balance of political accommodation that for years had kept the peace between the two major Islamic strands. In the chaos, various Sunni, Shia and other ethnicities formed sectarian militias principally to protect families, clans and tribal interests against the others. The expulsion of the invading US-led Western “infidels, unbelievers and enemies of Islam” (jihad) was a common goal. But later, the appearance of a deadlier extremist Islamic jihadist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, working in tandem at first with Osama bin Laden, expanded Islamic extremism and reoriented their targets. IS champions Sunni minority in Iraq, the persecuted Sunni majority against the Alawite dictatorship in Syria and the encroachment of Russia, the Gulf States and the US, the Shias in Iran and “Iran’s satrapy in Baghdad.”
IS was bent on the elimination of national boundaries, redrawing the map and bringing back the 13th century idea of the Sunni-led caliphate of an Islamic empire “reaching Spain again and defeat the armies of Rome.” IS spokesman Abu Muhamad al-Adnani declared that killing disbelievers abroad, including Muslims allied with the West or against the Islamic State and salafism (irreconcilability of Islamic Faith with western-style democracy and modernity) are core tenets.
The two founders of these deadly Islamic extremist groups were both assassinated by the Americans; al-Zarqawi in 2006 through an F16 laser- guided 500-lb bomb and Osama bin Laden in 2011 by the Special Forces and Seal Team Six. They are now gone but they have spawned a coterie of zealots, a cancer that could metastasize worldwide by establishing franchises swearing their allegiance to IS.
The swift sacking of Mosul, a province in Iraq of two million, and Raqqa, a predominantly Sunni populated city in Syria, redirected the attention of the jihadists towards IS; which reflected the declining influence of al-Qaida’s brand and the ascendancy of IS. Also, Al-Zarqawi understood the power of the marriage of mass media and horror. Images of public televised beheading became the “de rigueur” in its propaganda and recruitment. These tools of terror were employed to establish a pattern for IS to hold territories and their people; although it held these areas only for three years (2014-2017), IS established a modicum of government administration extending public services and even health care for the remaining citizens. It was in Mosul that al-Zarqawi’s heir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed the birth of the Caliphate. But deadlier was the influx of foreign jihadists to Mosul and Raqqa to fight for IS. This was perhaps the IS template for future expansion of the Islamic Caliphate.
This loss in IS territories and the marked contraction of the caliphate produced an unintended chilling effect. Foreign jihadists (those from other Muslim countries outside of Iraq and Syria) heeding the call of the caliphate came in droves to train and fight in Iraq and Syria. The highly trained and motivated survivors may now have to use their deadly skills; skills to bomb, maim and kill, where it is needed most. A new battlefield—in a new country.
Among the dead jihadists in Marawi were those from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Chechnya, Yemen, Indonesia, Malaysia. (Part 2—IS in the Philippines—Marawi aftermath)