Islamic State: Marawi and beyond

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MARIT STINUS-CABUGON

FOUR months and P4 billion later and the battle for Marawi City is not yet over. Thousands have fled, and hundreds killed and wounded. As President Rodrigo Duterte said it: “All of us lost in Marawi.”

“Every Moro that died, or every soldier that died, breaks our heart. They’re all Filipinos,” he added.

The war in Marawi is generally a war on fellow Filipinos but several foreigners, especially Indonesians, joined the fighting on the side of the Islamic State.

One of the chief architects of the siege is Malaysian university lecturer Dr. Mahmud Ahmad. He has been responsible for the recruitment of foreigners to join the fighting in Marawi City, and for getting funds from IS Syria and various pro-IS sources. Mahmud, according to Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), channeled tens of thousands of US dollars from Syria to the fighters in Mindanao. Money was sent through Western Union or delivered directly to Mahmud in Mindanao. Malaysian newspaper The Star on August 1 reported that Malaysian and Indonesian couriers have traveled to Mindanao since 2014 with money donated by supporters of IS. The money would be dropped at an agreed place and someone trusted by Mahmud would then pick it up.


Dismissed Police Supt. Maria Christina Nobleza received at least P1 million in money transfers from Rahaf Zina, the widow of a top IS Syria official, before both women were arrested in April and March, respectively. Were these remittances intended for the Marawi siege?

The group behind the Marawi siege was able to raise substantial amounts from local recruits. “Tracing the local funds may provide clues to one aspect of the fighting that has been all but ignored by Philippine authorities – the degree of local support beyond traditional clan ties,” according to IPAC in its July report on the Marawi siege. “Muslim youth in Mindanao were attracted no less than their counterparts elsewhere in the world by the appeal of a state that” implements shariah, abolishes borders, destroys nationalism and racism, among others. In other words, while it is convenient to believe that drug lords funded the siege, evidence points to IS supporters here and abroad as a significant funding source. Recruitment of fighters and supporters happened in university campuses and among alumni. These recruits were contributors, not recipients, of funds. Those still holding out in Marawi City obviously are very motivated. It is hard to believe that money is the main motivator in this suicide mission.

On the subject of funds, the P80 million in cash and checks discovered by the Philippine Marines in a vault in a house in Marawi City in early June apparently belonged to a moneylender who lent money to local government executives (IPAC, July 2017). There appears to have been no connection to Maute.

Prior to May 23, Mahmud arranged the training of Filipino and Indonesian militants in weapons handling and bombmaking in Basilan. Before he fled Malaysia in 2014, Mahmud was mentoring wannabe terrorists in his native country. One of them, a 21-year old Malaysian, was arrested recently by Malaysian counter-terrorism police together with two other IS supporters. According to The Star (September 29, 2017), the three men planned ‘lone wolf’ attacks on non-Muslims in Malaysia and Southern Thailand.

In two separate operations in August and September, Malaysian police arrested nine Filipinos and six Sabah-based Malaysians of Filipino descent, all suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf Group. One of them was 25-year-old Hajar Abdul Mubin, or Abu Asrie, who reportedly met with Mahmud and two other Malaysian militants in Basilan before traveling to Malaysia in December 2015. The three Malaysians were wanted by Malaysian authorities and had found a sanctuary with Isnilon Hapilon in Basilan. Malaysian counter-terrorism officials had warned then –in late 2015— that the three were “planning to form an official faction of [IS] in Southeast Asia by bringing together terror groups in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines” (Straits Times, November 15, 2015). It was also in late 2015 that four groups—not including the Maute Group— in Mindanao united under the IS banner with Isnilon Hapilon as their leader.

Why Abu Asrie and the other eight Filipino suspected ASG members arrested in Malaysia were living there, most of them working as security guards in Kuala Lumpur, still has to be established. Were they hiding from Philippine authorities? Were they there as part of Mahmud’s grand design for the Islamic State in Southeast Asia? Were they in Kuala Lumpur to carry out terror attacks on the recently concluded SEA Games and Malaysia’s National Day parade? Does this reflect a region-wide, coordinated IS-inspired terror threat?

If the Marawi siege has taught us anything, it should be that we should not underestimate the appeal of Islamic State and the capabilities and determination of those who believe in it. We can’t afford another Marawi.

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