TLDR UpFront: Fighting continues in the city of Marawi on day six of the Philippines crisis. Even as a fog of war obscures the battle in the city which once held 200,000 residents the strains of the crisis across the rest of the province are becoming clearer. Declaring martial law across Mindando Province because of Marawi, to put in perspective of size of land and population, is like occupying the entire state of New York to control a situation in Rochester. It may be necessary upstate, but it’s not going to play well in Queens or the Bronx where most of the people are. Already, human rights abuses far from the battlefield are being reported. A vital truce ending 47-years of conflict with the New People’s Army (NPA) fell-apart as the communist rebels took up arms again in reaction to the imposition of martial law. The crisis in the Philippines and Manchester bombing provides ISIS a narrative of achieving strategic chaos as it enters its Ramadan offensive. Typically, the most violent month of ISIS attacks, in complete opposition to Islamic tenents, has already begun with suicide-bombing attacks in Indonesia, Egypt and Iraq.
Where all this is going on.
Full Context in the Back: Fighting between the Philippines military and ISIS militants continues into Sunday morning. Four days after President Duerte on Thursday made good on his promise to root ISIS from Marawi city by sending in heavily armed military forces. The conventional forces in the city include infantry backed by armored vehicles, tanks, attack helicopters and towed artillery.(1) For nearly six days now the city has been gripped by violence since a botched police raid attempted to capture ISIS Emir Isnilon Hapilon. The raid was repulsed by a counterattack consisting of what is now estimated to be 100-500 salafi-takfiri militants. Known locally as the Maute Group or Abu Sayyaf among other names – these former local insurgencies pledged affiliation with the so-called Islamic State in July of 2014 and have been joined by foreign-fighters that have been confirmed to be in the city. (2)
The Duerte government has claimed that most of the 200,000 residents of Marawi had been successfully evacuated before the military moved in, and a cordon around the city had been established. If true would actually be an effective response. Isolating civilians from insurgents allowing heavy weapons to neutralize the militants without having to play cat-and-mouse in an urban environment is a way of minimizing military casualties while also avoiding the blowback of collateral damage.
However, the governments claims must be taken with a grain of salt. A timeline of events from the GMA News of key events and statements during the initial crisis made clear that both local and national government officials refused to honestly assess or communicate the depth or severity of the crisis:
“May 22nd 9:30pm Wesmincom chief Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., says in an interview at State of the Nation with Jessica Soho that the situation in Marawi is “under control.” Minutes later, however, the military places the troops on red alert.2pm A clash between military and the Maute group erupts in Mindando State University Compound in Brgy. Basak Malulut.
May 23rd 10:00pm The military calls on the public to “refrain” from posting information on social media that would just aggravate the situation in Marawi City.
May 24th In a phone interview on “State of the Nation with Jessica Soho,” Marawi City Mayor Majul Usman Gandamra echoes the remarks of the government security forces that the area is already under control.
May 25th Marawi City Mayor Majul Usman Gandamra reports that there have been no sounds of gunfire Thursday morning…also tells dzBB that troops have isolated the guerillas, who are holed up in buildings, but are not engaging them.
May 25th 2:00pm The army sends in about 100 soldiers, to retake the buildings and streets, with two helicopters with machine guns to back them.” (3)
The same timeline from GMA also revealed a jail break orchestrated by a heavily armed ISIS force on the first day of fighting:
“At least 107 inmates have been freed by 50 heavily armed members of Maute group who barged into Marawi City Jail and Malabang District Jail Tuesday evening…the armed men also carted away assorted issued firearms of the BJMP personnel, two SUVs, two motorcycles, and mobile phones owned by the jail guards on duty…“Two prison vans were also commandeered by the armed men and according to our sources, they were using said vehicles as they moved inside the city,” Cuy said in a statement…reported that the terror group took away a Rosenbauer fire truck from Marantao Fire Station…used the said fire truck as their getaway vehicle to the national highway” (4)
It’s unlikely either that ISIS would’ve just released common street criminals. Orchestrated attacks on jails holding detained militants and insurgents has been a time-proven tactic of salafi-takfiri. It’s not just the influx of extra bodies – militants in jail tend to be much more experienced, have formed social networks of connection with one another. Even if they were previously from different groups. Jails and prisons in this way are like insurgent graduate school, and a jail break is graduation day. The very successful Al-Queda global campaign “Destroying the Walls” focused on this tactic for two-years, sending a wave of highly experienced and able-bodied militants to Syria. Militants which inevitable ended up in ISIS, which was aligned with Al-Queda at the time, and may have given the group a highly skilled cadre of members, disproportionate to its small size in crucial early months.
In Marawi, if ISIS did commit five squads to attack the jail – it wasn’t by accident. So to the original estimates of 100-500 ISIS militants could be added up to 107 militants freed from jails. Meaning there now could be anywhere from 100-700 armed salafi-takfiri in Marawi. Turning what was being portrayed as a ‘clearing’ operation into a true urban battle that could take weeks, if not months. It also makes the government initial claims of sending in only “100 soldiers” to face this number of militants highly suspect. As the operation is described as ‘street-by-street” clearing it’s likely the number of soldiers in the city vastly exceed that amount.(5)
Since the military operations began on Thursday it’s been hard to get a clear picture of what’s going on. Local sources often provide at best only snapshots of information sometimes even from social media videos. For example – reports of air raids by attack helicopters in Al-Jazeera (6) seemed to be corroborated by Facebook video of what appears to be a local structure that has been hit by some kind of missile. In another video a towed short-barreled artillery piece is clearly seen as it maneuvers around evacuees.(7) In these videos of course there’s no independent confirmation or vetting, no sourcing other than the social media account. One also has to be careful trawling the hashtags on social media. For example there is some utility in looking at ISIS’s propaganda. This video purportedly shows one of the ISIS squads and what appears to be one of the police vans (either from the jail break or acquired elsewhere) moving through the city. Date and time are uncertain, but they certainly aren’t moving in a hurry. (8) On the same page is a slickly produced recruiting video meant to draw in would-be-soldiers to the so-called Islamic State. Although like most military recruiting videos, its high on production value, stirring songs and low on the actual conditions one faces in war-time, there are a lot of useful items of note. The kit of the soldiers, how it is worn, consistency of placement – again a trademark of ISIS versus many other insurgencies and terrorist groups, implies at least the desire to project a disciplined focus more often seen in a conventional first-world army than a terrorist group. (9)
One doesn’t need social media as much outside the city to understand the impact of martial law. What may not be immediately apparent is the relative sizes of the city of Marawi where the fighting is occurring and the entire province of Mindando over which martial law is occurring. The province consists of roughly 40,000km^2 and holds about 21M people, whereas Marawi is just a municipal township in this huge island of some 200,000. For comparison, this is about the same landmass and size of population as New York State. Indeed thinking of President Duerte’s declaration of martial law as the US Government sending military troops to occupy all of New York state for an outbreak of violence in Rochester may help foreigners better put the situation in context. What may be needed in up-state New York is a much harder sell on the island of Manhattan where a teeming metropolis of several million people is going to be much more difficult to control militarily, and is far from any battlefield.
That is what is playing out now on the island of Mindando, on which Marawi lies in the west, far away from the main cities. Also the historical context of martial law in the Philippines is important. Ferdinand Marcos, who was originally elected as President in 1965 and again in 1969, placed the country under martial law in response to a campaign of bombings and increasing insurgencies in 1972. That martial law would last for nine years as President Marcos, acting effectively as a dictator wielding increasingly authoritarian power. Martial law was lifted in 1981, and Marcos finally deposed in 1986 after marred elections. The period of Marcos rule impacted the nation’s psyche deeply with political assassinations, massive human rights abuses and a new Constitution specifically created to prevent the military from being used in such a way again. However, it was to Marcos that President Duerte invoked a return when he declared martial law after ISIS seized Marawi. (10)
How does one say “stop & frisk” in Filipino?
Indeed, the martial law has already opened two new strategic fronts for President Duerte to contend with. The first is on the legal and political stage as reports of human rights abuses far from the battlefield begin emerging. Complaints of soldiers forcing citizens to evacuate homes and even missile attacks, sometimes as far as 100km away from Marawi have been reported, as well as more mundane violations associated with martial law. With protests just beginning the civilian pressure on Duerte is only likely to increase. (11) A more dangerous response to the martial law can be found in the renewed rebellion of the New People’s Army (NPA). A former military wing of the communist party that has conducted a military insurgency across the Philippines for some 47 years, the NPA rebellion was only just brought to a truce by Duerte this year in a cease-fire.(12) Now the NPA accuses Duerte of using the martial law as a pretext to violate the cease-fire and is taking up arms again and vowing resistance.(13) Although the salafi-takfiri presence in the Philippines has ever only enjoyed luke-warm popular support, Abu Saayaf prior to joining ISIS at its peak commanded 1,250 terrorists, the communist army is a different matter altogether. At it’s peak the NPA was able to deploy 25,000 soldiers, and although this was several decades ago – it was also during the last period of extensive martial law.(12) If it can garner at least a modicum support and begin conducting operations again – it will be another headache for Duerte to deal with.
This has always been part of ISIS’s grand strategy. Conquer through division. Never strong enough to take on a country on its own – it has succeeded where nation-state actors are already divided into three or more factions by civil war (Syria) or ethnic division (Iraq.) The goal of ISIS now is to hold out in the city of Marawi past the initial 60-day window of martial law President Duerte set for Mindando. Or to hope some other aspect of violence, either by themselves, the NPF or some crackdown by the army, creates greater division in the country.
Aftermath of Jakarta suicide bombing.
Even if unexpected and the result of a botched police raid, the Marawi fighting helps ISIS reset a narrative in its favor. After being pressed in Iraq (Mosul is on the brink of falling) and Syria (Ar-Raqqah is the same) the Marawi narrative helps ISIS as relevant as it launches its annual Ramadan offensive. The annual campaign of attacks coincides with Islam’s holiest month, a month where all Muslims are commanded not only to fast and reflect, but forbidden from partaking in any sinful or obscene acts. Already there have been twin suicide bombings in the Muslim-majority Indonesia targeting bus-stations and the police. (14) An attack on a bus in Egypt carrying Coptic Christians, where gunmen executed nearly two dozen, has also been claimed by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham. (15) It was at the close of Ramadan last year that ISIS conducted one of its bloodiest ever terrorist attacks in the Karrada shopping mall of Baghdad, slaughtering over 300 mainly Shia Muslims after sundown and wounding over 200 more. (16)
Obscene acts indeed.
(8) WARNING: ISIS propoganad page. https://www.facebook.com/815137821973638/videos/816667578487329/
(9) WARNING: ISIS propoganda page. https://www.facebook.com/815137821973638/videos/815400991947321/