BY today, there are at least 523 Mindanao martyrs to the cause of Islamic State, the brutal terrorist group based in war-torn swathes of Iraq and Syria, which aims to establish a caliphate following strict Muslim laws and tenets, and waging war on infidels everywhere.
That’s the enemy body count put out by the Armed Forces of the Philippines over the weekend. Add to that terrorist list the hundred or so terrorist leaders and suspects, including members of the Maute clan, arrested or hunted by the AFP and the Philippine National Police.
Once the clans, cohorts and communities of these casualties, detainees and fugitives learn of their fate, it’s fair to assume dozens, if not hundreds of families across Mindanao, plus many thousands of friends and fellow villagers of the dead, detained or hounded terrorists will not only be praying for them, but also extolling their supposed sacrifice for Islam and Allah. And many a relative, friend or neighbor will be inspired to follow down the same IS-charted path.
This “Islamic martyr” cult is part of the extremist propaganda, fund-raising and recruitment campaign, not just in Mindanao, but across Southeast Asia and even in the Middle East. And if the nation is to defeat terrorism, we and our allies must counter this next phase of IS caliphate-building strategy.
It’s the propaganda, stupid
In truth, Islamic State’s goal was never Marawi, but messaging, men, and money. IS leaders told the Maute group to assault the city, knowing the terrorists could not hold it and would suffer massive casualties against the vastly superior AFP.
But with the unexpected length of the Marawi siege, IS has shown its power far away from its Middle East base. That will likely impress financiers and potential fighters, boosting the flow of money and men into its Southeast Asian foray.
And even the high body count will translate into far more recruits of much greater radicalism and willingness to fight, sacrifice and die. Is there any doubt that for every one of the 523 terrorists killed in Marawi, there will be at least one family member, one close friend, and one youth in the casualty’s community who will want to kill and be killed for what the terrorist died for?
So, by this calculation, after losing some 600 fighters, the IS-driven Maute, Abu Sayyaf, and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters would reap 1,800 willing recruits, probably more. And that’s not even counting the terrorists wounded, captured, and escaped, all with war stories to regale impressionable youths keen for great struggles, plus a generous stipend from IS.
As for propaganda messaging, the hours of news and cellphone footage from Marawi — terrorist snipers picking off government troopers, improvised bombs blasting advancing soldiers, terrorists tending to the wounded, mounds of looted cash and valuables, and daily prayers amid air strikes, and far more — will feed IS social and online media, and stir the hearts and fancies of recruitables.
Then there is the eye-popping news of looted wealth running beyond a billion pesos, by one estimate of an unnamed AFP officer. With money sure to gush into IS from financiers wowed by Marawi, there will be more money offered for fighters, firearms and firebombs.
Assuming just $3 million goes to IS after Marawi, at a modest $200 a month for every fighter, the presumed funds could fund a 1,000-man terrorist force for six months, or that many attackers organized in small bands for city attacks.
And for all those propaganda, recruitment and financial gains, IS lost just over 500 men, 400-odd guns, and P79 million in cash and checks seized by Marines. Is that a steal for Islamic State or what?
Countering the IS message
What can the government and our allies do against that masterstroke strategy, turning the carnage and casualties of a nearly three-month siege into a powerful messaging vehicle to add fighters, firearms, and financing to IS-driven forces.
In Lanao del Sur, of which Marawi is the capital, AFP Western Mindanao Commander Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez will meet local officials to mobilize them against IS recruitment.
And at the other end of the power spectrum, children among Marawi evacuees will get counseling after some expressed admiration for Maute fighters, and a wish to become like them when they grow up.
But really, such efforts, while certainly necessary and laudable, may not go far against counter-messaging by IS and those inclined by youth, disposition or economic need to fall for its propaganda, They will dismiss any government messaging as, well, propaganda, just as we do the Islamic State deception.
What’s needed is for Muslim Filipinos to have their own narrative of what’s right, true and holy for them as a people, to defeat the lies propagated by IS.
The extremists paint a bloody landscape of war against oppressive Christians. Filipino Muslims must hold fast to aspirations of Bangsamoro advancement even in a Christian-majority republic.
Against IS dreams of victory, Muslim rebels know from past decades of fighting that extremism would only drive the Philippines and its allies to wage more war in other Marawis. Terrorism will be endless carnage, not eventual triumph.
And to the Islamic State mantra of death to infidels, Mindanao ulamas can espouse even more loudly that Islam is a religion of peace, and declare a fatwa on those exploiting the faith and grievance of Muslims for violence.
To defeat IS lies, Muslim Filipinos must speak the truth and peace of Islam.
In sha Allah!