SPECIAL REPORT

Poverty, discontent fuel extremism in Mindanao

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First of a series
(The Manila Times takes a deeper look into the armed struggle for control of Marawi City and the root causes of the IS-linked extremism in Mindanao in the following series, which opens today.)

WHEN government troops finally rid Marawi City of terrorists, and when they have taken out all the unexploded ordnance and booby traps, the government will have to confront two problems at once—rebuilding the ruined Islamic city and snuffing out the embers of extremism in Mindanao.

Addressing the first is easier since government officials have allotted a huge amount for the reconstruction of Marawi. But taking on the second challenge will be difficult, if not near impossible.

The audacious takeover of a big city, considered the center of Islam, is not the sole handiwork of a new, rising criminal group. It is the result of a deadly cocktail of resentment, discontent and poverty, according to analysts and experts.


The IS-linked Maute Group, led by brothers Abdullah and Omarkhayam as well as Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, could not have mounted such a daring attack and sustained clashes that lasted more than five months without outside help, analysts believe.

Armed Forces spokesman Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the “ground zero” of the armed conflict resembles the city of Mosul in Iraq, which was seized by the Islamic State or ISIS in 2016. Iraqi forces were able to liberate Mosul after nine months of heavy fighting.

Datu Hj. Abul Khayr Alonto, head of the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA), said the rise of the Maute and other extremist groups in Mindanao is tied closely to festering issues such as poverty and discontent.

Two conflicts
Alonto explained that there are two types of conflicts prevailing in the Southern Philippines — horizontal and vertical.

The horizontal conflict, he said, is between the national government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Both groups are “asserting their right for self-determination while the national government insists on the preservation of their territorial integrity and national sovereignty.”

“With deep historical roots, a political solution to this conflict would require the rectification of historical injustices through the grant of genuine autonomy,” Alonto said.

However, previous administrations have failed to end the conflict despite the forging of four international peace agreements between the two parties.

“Their approach to the resolution of this type of conflict are only band-aid solutions, disregarding the deeply-rooted issues that needed to be addressed,” Alonto said. “However, we are fortunate with the victory of Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, a gallant and true blood Mindanaoan, the first Moro president, who has a deep understanding of the historical roots of the Mindanao conflict and who is committed to putting things in its right perspective and provide peace with justice for the Bangsamoro and the national cultural minorities.”

The conflict that arose from the MILF and MNLF “spawned a plethora of issues and conflict in the affected areas,” said Alonto, who was once the vice mayor of Marawi City and one of the founders of the MILF.

“This is defined as the vertical type of conflict that includes, rido, drug related issues, political feuds, land issues, criminality and many other,” he said.

The latter problem prevails in Lanao del Sur, where Marawi is located.

“Despite the abundance in natural resources, Lanao del Sur is one of the most impoverished areas in the region where there are huge gaps in society,” he said.

Lanao del Sur, Alonto said, is the “poorest province which hosts the poorest municipality and the poorest barangay” in the country. But in the province, political warlords, drug syndicates, kidnap-for-ransom groups and other armed groups thrive.

Poverty, failure of governance, the growing desperation over the non-implementation of the peace agreements and the non-resolution of the conflict in Mindanao “led to the proliferation of these radical groups,” he said.

“For them, ISIS ideology presented itself as the best alternative to achieving the peace and justice that they seek, no matter how perverse or brutal the results are,” Alonto added.

Three factors
Richard Heydarian, a security expert, sees three factors that led the Maute group to embrace the IS. The group used these factors to recruit fighters, including teenagers, to strengthen their force.

“One is, and very important, grievance, because of decades of conflict, poverty, underemployment and of course the deadlock in the (peace) negotiation in Mindanao since (the) Mamasapano (incident),” Heydarian said.

He was referring to the botched operation to capture top terrorists in 2015 by the Philippine National Police that left 44 police commandos dead. The second factor, according to Heydarian, is mobilization.

“It’s one thing for people to be angry but they have to be mobilized. And mobilization means organization, (it) means certain hierarchy. Certain authority. And this is where ISIS comes to the picture. So, you have ISIS in the Middle East, you have the Maute brothers like a warlord family.”

The third element that propped up the Maute group is ideology. “The thing is that the al-Qaeda style of terrorism lost its attraction the moment ISIS came into being because al-Qaeda was always about, you know, 9-11 type of attacks while ISIS promised here on earth a caliphate state where people can actually come and live according to the supposedly pure principles of Islam.”

“So, this shows that the grievance, especially in the light of the deadlock in the peace negotiations, has affected many people who used to support the peace process. Now they see it going nowhere so they defected to the more extreme persons like the Maute,” he said.

“So, the Maute group was able to use the ISIS ideology to make themselves more than just a warlord militia. To make themselves a bonafide kind of a revolutionary force. At least that is the view of people who support them. People who support them see them as revolutionaries who have the means to fight against injustices,” Heydarian added.

(To be continued)

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