On May 23, militants from the Abu Sayyaf (ASG) and Maute Groups stormed the city of Marawi in the southern Philippine province of Lanao del Sur, Mindanao. The conflagration was sparked by a raid conducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines which intended to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of ASG. Maute reinforcements were called into the city shortly afterwards, eventuating in the current crisis.
Having declared allegiance to the Islamic State, the actions of the Maute Group and ASG have drawn Western media attention in a somewhat apocalyptic light, linking the fighting to the international effort against IS. The ABC’s report began: “militants linked to the Islamic State group torched buildings, seized more than a dozen Catholic hostages and raised the black flag of IS.” Similarly, the Sydney Morning Herald’s lead stated simply that IS-linked militants “threatened to kill a priest and other Christian hostages.” A Reuters headline put it plainly as a “rebel rampage claimed by Islamic State.”
While the assault has undoubtable implications for human life and minority groups in the south, permitting an outsized appreciation of the Maute Group and ASG capabilities would be unhelpful for policy thinking. The recent upsurge in Marawi does not necessarily herald the spawn of a Philippine Raqqa, a caliphate wherein terrorists can freely roam and assail the rest of the archipelago.
The Maute Group and ASG operate in a distinct manner, and are empowered and constrained by unique contextual factors in the Philippine south. Firstly, the two terrorist organisations must be characterised by their relatively small size and limited controlled territory that forces them to operate surreptitiously in rural areas. ASG has been persistently hunted by the Duterte Government, and although a recent Congressional report places the Maute’s strength at 263 armed members, it remains outsized by rival Islamic, ethno-nationalist, and Communist armies on the island.
Moreover, both groups face resource limitations – this challenge drives ASG’s long-running fixation on kidnap-for-ransom operations, and similar extortionist behaviour from the Maute Group. While the aforementioned report also implied that the Maute Group was receiving funding from IS – a legitimate cause for concern – how well this will translate into battlefield advantages, especially in the face of a heavy-handed government counter-offensive, remains to be seen.
Most importantly, such unrest is not new to Mindanao. Armed groups have long exploited the central authorities’ inability to effectively govern and extend coercive influence over far-flung regions in the south. Opportunities are also opened by crushing poverty and pro-autonomy sentiment from a Bangsamoro Muslim population seeing itself as ethnically and culturally distinct, enmeshed in a history of maltreatment by Manila.
The Maguindanao Massacre of 2009, wherein 58 civilians were killed by a private militia as part of an electoral feud, illustrates this. In a similar vein, the Moro National Liberation Front occupied Zamboanga City for nearly three weeks in 2013, attempting to establish a breakaway republic. The current siege of Marawi is more an extension of a trend than an exceptional outburst of IS in Asia.
However, implicit in these opportunities are considerable threats to the Maute Group and ASG. These two organisations were not the only armed groups to rise out of deficient central governance. Much to their disdain, a number of Mindanao’s non-state forces – namely the MNLF, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and the New People’s Army – contrast with the IS-linked militants ideologically and are engaged in talks with the government at present. The MILF even assisted Government forces in disrupting Maute and the ASG as part of their ceasefire negotiations.
More so, both the MNLF and MILF have a deeper history in carrying the banner of Muslim and Moro autonomy, and are generally more popular as a result, as outlined by Filipino scholar Eric Gutierrez. Adding insult to injury, both Fronts also denounced the terrorists’ assault on Marawi. The Maute Group and ASG would struggle to capitalise on wider Muslim discontent in Mindanao while surrounded by more experienced and entrenched competitors, regardless of the funds it allegedly receives from IS.
IS influence in the Philippines and Southeast Asia is a real threat, but it should not be overly inflated. Nor should it be forgotten that the Maute Group and ASG differ from the core IS organisation in the Middle East. Mindanao’s home-grown jihadist groups have a unique modus operandi, and exist under circumstances that stem from entrenched local issues, particularly the difficulties facing the Philippine state in bringing order and equitable development to the distant south.
In recognising these distinctions, more realistic and targeted policy options – especially from the Philippines’ Western allies – can be rendered that pinpoint specific vulnerabilities in the Abu Sayyaf and Maute Groups. More broadly, there is greater wisdom in restraining current and future policymakers from defining regional threats in broad strokes when localised, surgical approaches would prove more fitting.