The siege is the flash-point of what terrorism research expert professor Rommel Banlaoi says is a problem we shouldn’t have ignored when the Maute group first made their presence felt
“Downplay the threat, and you underestimate the capability of enemy forces. You are not prepared to confront a situation that may have started small, but is now big.”
So observes Professor Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research and director of the Center for Intelligence and National Security Studies. He is referring to an incident in 2015, when a black flag now commonly linked to ISIS was waved on the grounds of the Marawi State University in a demonstration of support for the international terrorist group.
The Maute Family of Lanao del Sur was pointed as the instigator, and Banlaoi says that the family also used the rally to recruit for what would become the Maute group, who with members of the Abu Sayyaf Group and other Islamist groups in Mindanao, and as recent reports have noted, some foreign nationals who our military believes are jihadists, is responsible for the Marawi siege.
“Some of those recruited were responsible for the Davao City bombing in September 2016,” Banlaoi says.
Banlaoi uses the word “downplay” because, until President Rodrigo Duterte himself declared on May 30, a week after fighting began in Marawi, that ISIS had been supporting the Maute Group, it had been the government’s stand that the MG was merely a bandit group trying to get the attention of ISIS in hopes of getting support, not least of it in terms of money. But Banlaoi, who has spent the last 17 years studying the phenomenon of terror and violence in Mindanao, saw it as a warning when the nascent MG began to make headlines back in 2015.
“The Maute group made it to the national consciousness when they openly declared allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015. After which they began to kidnap Christian workers and behead them a la ISIS, which prompted the military to raid their camps in Butig Lanao del Sur in November 2016. The whole Maute family supports the whole group that pledged allegiance to ISIS,” says Banlaoi.
The Maute family is not only a radicalized Islamist family, they are also a wealthy family.
“The Maute’s wealth comes from landholdings and other real estate property. But they are also suspected to be involved in illegal activities, including extortion, illegal drug trade, and illegal arms trade,” says Banlaoi.
Banlaoi explains their ties to extremism:
“The Maute family is related to a well-known commander of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front who became its vice chairman of military affairs, the late Alim Abdul Aziz Mimbantas. Omarkhayam Romato and Abdullah Maute, brothers and leaders of the Maute group, are first cousins of Azisa Romato, wife of Aziz Mimbantas.
“Aziz Mimbantas coddled one Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah militant, Ustadz Sanusi alias Ishak. They coddled him in a town in Lanao del Sur called Butig. In 2012, Philippine Law Enforcement authorities raided the town of Butig, looking for Sanusi. During the raid they discovered improvised explosive devices and materials associated with ISIS and at the same time a black flag associated with ISIS. At the time the authorities had no idea of the meaning of the black flag.
“Sanusi radicalized the Maute family. Sanusi was killed by law enforcement authorities in 2012, in Marawi City. At the time, the brothers Omar and Abdullah went to school in the Middle East where they imbibed the ideology of ISIS. So when they went back to Lanao del Sur, they propagated the ISIS ideology,” says Banlaoi.
How do we make sense of all this?
Banlaoi asserts that Marawi has always been special in the strategic radar of many violent extremists.
“Marawi City is meaningful for Islamist extremists because it is the only Islamic City in the Philippines. No other city in the Philippines, dominated by Muslims, has acquired that status.
In fact as early as the ‘90s when Al-Qaeda was still the dominant terrorist group in the world, Osama bin Laden selected Marawi City as a place to establish an Islamic center to train future jihadists in the Philippines.
“This center was indeed established in Marawi by Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, the brother in law of Osama bin Laden. The center was called Darul Imam Shafi’I, where many of the commanders of the Abu Sayyaf group, as well as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, trained,” says Banlaoi.
Banlaoi sees the threat of ISIS will not immediately disappear. “Remnants of fighters in Marawi City I think will disperse, and through this dispersal they will operate in various places in Mindanao (according to government intelligence accompanying an article the professor wrote for news site Rappler, there are 14 groups in Mindanao who have pledged allegiance to ISIS). And unlike the current situation, they will mount intermittent violent actions through bombing operations, not conventional battle with government forces. To me this is more challenging and difficult to confront than the ongoing Marawi incident.”
Banlaoi also says that based on his research there is reason to fear that ISIS may have already recruited Filipinos outside of Mindanao. “They have sleeper cells. Mostly from social media recruitment. If it’s in Luzon or Visayas, they target Muslim converts, age range 13-25. First through Facebook and eventually through face-to-face interactions. Like the case I studied of the Davao bombers in 2016, one of the suspects was recruited through Facebook, then a series of exchanging links eventually hooked him to violent extremism associated with ISIS. The FB friend decided to meet him in person, and through constant meeting, encouraged and convinced the person to undergo training to become a jihadist in Butig, Lanao del Sur. Then he was deployed to bomb Davao.”
What does the future hold for Mindanao?
“The problem of terrorism in the Philippines, particularly with ISIS, is not only a military problem. Martial Law is just addressing the military aspect of the problem. But we need a more comprehensive solution because the problem of terrorism in the Philippines is deeply rooted in a lot of issues: political, social, economic, religious, cultural issues that cannot be addressed by Martial Law. It can only be addressed by good governance,” says Banlaoi.
But good governance is such a big word.
“Precisely. But we have to start by improving leadership at the local level. Improve local government and people will not be enticed by the ideology of ISIS. But if there is absence of government at the local level, there will be a sense of anarchy and terrorist groups like ISIS will take advantage of the situation. That’s why they consider the Philippines as ripe for the propagation of ISIS ideology because there is a political situation conducive to its spread. And that is poor local governance, warlordism, and local grievances.
“The people on the streets of Marawi know the ideology—and they reject it. They even reported to local authorities about the threat of ISIS in the Philippines prior to this incident, but our authorities downplayed the threat and even dismissed that ISIS has penetrated the country,” says Banlaoi.
And will Mindanao ever fulfill its promise?
“It will continue to be a long journey to fulfill that promise because the problem is so complex that the solution requires a long struggle. You need to rectify centuries of historical injustice commited against Muslims in Mindanao. You have to rectify the centuries-old problem of relative deprivation, and the problem of exclusion generated by marginalization,” says Banlaoi.
But what if—and this is something that has not been talked about for so long—an independent Mindanao is actually the solution?
“That’s for the future generation to determine. But right now the current generation cannot imagine a Philippine Republic dismembered into pieces. But who knows? Because that was also the problem of the Malayan Federation—the generation of the federation did not imagine Brunei and Singapore seceding, but the generation after them made the supreme decision to determine their own course. Brunei and Singapore proclaimed independence. Even Indonesia did not imagine East Timor becoming separated.
“We have to appreciate the fact that the problem of terrorism in the Philippines is not only local, but it also has international dimensions. Although many of the issues are local in origin, like grievances, external influences provide justification for more acts of violence. External influences also provide ideological reasoning for the persistence of violent activities by resistant groups. We have to understand that we are not dealing with a purely local problem, but it is integrated into the worldwide problem of violent extremism.”
Illustrations Con Lachica
This feature originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of FHM Philippines. Minor edits were made by the FHM.com.ph editors.