MARAWI City will soon be under the full control of government again when the last of the Islamic State jihadists will either have been killed or fled. This is inevitable as the Armed Forces of the Philippines is superior in manpower, skill, equipment and discipline. However, will this be a pyrrhic victory, a victory where our losses are as great as those of the enemy?
Almost the entire population of Marawi City has been displaced since fighting started on May 23 when the military tried to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, reportedly the IS-anointed leader for Southeast Asia. Destruction has been massive; 59 soldiers killed and scores wounded. The direct cost of the war effort alone—the bombs dropped, the ammunition spent, the fuel of helicopters, fighter jets, and tanks—must be significant.
The government—national as well as local—is burdened with the care of thousands of evacuees who need shelter, food, medical attention and more.
Will the terror threat end with the retaking of Marawi City? Sydney Jones of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) warns that unless the Philippine government comes up with a “comprehensive strategy to fix the social, economic and political problems that have led Islamic State ideologues to exert so much appeal in Mindanao,” terrorism will not go away. Radicalization and Muslims’ joining the pro-IS coalition forged by the Mautes, Isnilon Hapilon and various violent extremist groups, will continue regardless of martial law, the ever-greater use of force, arrests and detention, Jones wrote in a June 4 commentary published in The New York Times.
Since 2014, local and foreign terror groups and individuals have been planning to establish IS in Southeast Asia, specifically in Mindanao. Former university lecturer Mahmud Ahmad—wanted by Malaysian authorities for recruiting Malaysians to join IS in Syria—and two fellow Malaysians fled to the Philippines in April 2014, joined Isnilon Hapilon’s Abu Sayyaf Group in Basilan, and set up a terrorist training camp there. On November 14, 2015, Malaysian newspaper The Star wrote that “Dr. Mahmud was not content with just being involved with the ASG” and “his ultimate goal is to officially form the Southeast Asian IS.” Ahmad, however, was required to travel to Syria and swear allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS.
Around the same time, the Zamboanga City police confirmed that indeed Mahmud and three other Malaysians tried to travel to Turkey (the point of entry to Syria) via Manila. However, they aborted their plan (Philippine Daily Inquirer, November 18, 2015).
Mahmud may have failed to make it to Syria, but Zamboanga City-born Mohammad Reza Kiram, his wife—a Balik Islam—and their daughter made it in May 2015. Kiram was 25 years old then and part of the Sarangani-based pro-IS group Ansarul Khilafah Philippines. Kiram gained worldwide notoriety about a year ago when he, as Abdulrahman, appeared in a recruitment video for IS wherein he, together with Indonesian Mohammed Karim Yusop Faiz alias Abu Walid and Malaysian Mohammed Rafi Udin, beheaded three men. They called on Muslims in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia to join the jihad, if not in Syria, then in the Philippines (Rappler, January 27, 2017).
Faiz, as it happens, was one of three Indonesians arrested in Zamboanga City in December 2004 for allegedly bringing a $21,000 donation from a Saudi source (Asia Crisis Group, December 2005) to set up a terrorist training site in Mindanao (IPAC Report No. 33). They spent the next nine years in prison. Sydney Jones, incidentally, warns that “prisons, dilapidated and overcrowded, are a prime recruiting ground for terrorists.”
Finally, in 2013, Faiz and his companions were tried before a Quezon City judge. They were acquitted. Their arrests were unlawful and the explosives found in their possession inadmissible as evidence. IPAC reports that Faiz left for Syria immediately after having been deported from the Philippines in March 2014.
Going back to Kiram, the police is hunting him in connection with the attack on Marawi City (Sun Star Cagayan de Oro, June 16, 2017). So, he did make it back to Mindanao from Syria. Did he take the same route via Sandakan, Malaysia, as other jihadists? Just four days ago, Malaysian police arrested two Indonesians and one Malaysian in Sandakan. “We believe the three … were planning to go to Marawi City to fight for the terror group,” Malaysian police said (The Star, June 17). Disturbingly, pro-IS forces in Marawi City are able to continue their recruitment despite their imminent defeat in the city.
Will revenge motivate the children, siblings and other relatives of the more than 200 killed jihadists, to take up arms against the government? Will the effort to establish Islamic State in Southeast Asia end with a defeat in Marawi City? Or, will it simply take new forms with new recruits replacing those killed and arrested?