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Islamist militants resist week-long military assault in southern Philippines

Ted Aljibe, AFP | Philippine soldiers walk past Islamic State (IS) group graffiti in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on May 31, 2017.

A full ground- and air assault by Philippine forces against pro-Islamic State (IS) group militants entered its second week on Wednesday, a reminder of decades of deadly violence in the country’s restive southern provinces.


The unexpectedly-long standoff by Islamist rebels in Marawi City has been fuelled with stolen weapons and ammunition, and fighters who had escaped from jail, military sources reported on Wednesday.

The government has deployed planes, attack helicopters and ground troops in a campaign to encircle members of the Maute militia into a downtown area, but admitted the rebels continued to hold about a tenth of the city.

“Soldiers are searching for terrorists inch by inch, making sure that they are not hiding in houses,” the army said in a statement on its website. It reported 89 militants, 19 and 21 civilians had been killed in clashes so far.

The hard-line Maute fended off the military with rifles and ammunition stolen from a police station, a prison, and an armoured police vehicle, according to military spokesman Restituto Padilla. Militants who had been broken out of a local jail also reportedly joined the fight.

‘Appeal’ to the IS group

Officials said the Maute group staged the battle to prove itself to the IS group and try to win its endorsement as its affiliate in Southeast Asia.

The standoff in Marawi, a mainly Muslim city of 200,000 people in the southern island of Mindanao, has gained extra attention with social media images of black-clad fighters holding flags and wearing headbands typical of the IS group.

Elsa Clavé, a Philippines expert at the Frankfurt-based Goethe Institute, said the Maute were only one of several armed groups in southern Philippines competing for international recognition, but questioned the group’s motivations for the attack.

“I don’t think it was planned,” she said. “It appears they were surprised and got caught [in the standoff] mainly by chance.” The violence erupted last week after soldiers launched an unsuccessful raid to capture militant leader Isnilon Hapilon.

Lacking legitimacy

The threat of an IS group affiliate in the Philippines is nothing new, but a structured and enduring jihadist force has failed to materialise.

Abu Sayyaf, a southern Philippine terrorist group, was founded in the early 1990s and some of its leaders have sworn alliance to the IS group in recent years. But it has struggled to form a coherent unit since the killing of its founders in 2006 and 2007.

“Abu Sayyaf exists when someone is kidnapped and the people responsible adopt the name and demand a ransom,” Clavé explained. “But it’s little more than a label to gain a certain legitimacy.”

“It suddenly exists, and just as quickly disappears,” she noted.

The academic said there was no doubt the Maute is an extremist group that believes and uses Islamic ideology, but that there is no proof of a direct link between the group and the IS leadership in Irak and Syria.

“They use the flag of the Islamic State to gain legitimacy, internationally but probably also locally,” she added.

Decades of unrest

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is widely popular in the southern Philippines among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, has declared he would not allow IS militants to gain traction in the country.

He changed his mind on last week’s offer of dialogue with Maute, saying he “will not talk to the terrorists”.

Mindanao has been the stage for a Muslim separatist rebellion for decades, although lasting peace between Manila and the main Muslim rebel groups appeared within reach in recent years.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) have said they would give up their separatist ambitions in return for a measure of autonomy.

The Goethe Institute’s Clavé said that Duterte has presented himself as being more committed than his predecessors to delivering peace with the MILF and MNLF, but so far has “failed to take any concrete steps” in that direction.

More than 120,000 people have died as a result of uprisings in southern Philippines since the 1970s.

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