"We don't see any diminution of the terrorist threat in the island, with or without martial law."
Close on the heels of the recent extension of martial law in Mindanao for another year starting January 1st, we ask: Was it justified? And will it lead to elusive peace and development in Mindanao?
We recall that the political opposition stoutly opposed this move of the Duterte administration, pointing out that there was no actual rebellion or lawless violence in the island that required emergency rule.
Martial law was first declared over the whole of Mindanao after the outbreak of the Marawi siege in late May 2017 by an estimated 800 to 1,000 members of the Islamic State-influenced Maute Group. When the siege ended in early November after five months of fierce fighting, martial law was extended until the end of 2017, then extended again for the whole of 2018 to mop up the remnants of the Maute Group and prevent them from regrouping. The third extension, the government said, was necessary as various rebel groups continue to pose a threat to peace and order in the island as a whole.
That we still have an unstable peace and order situation in Mindanao cannot be denied. This is clear in the Dec. 31 bombing of the Southseas shopping mall in Cotabato City that led to the death of two people and the wounding of 37 others. Another improvised explosive device found near a lottery outlet on the second floor of the establishment was deactivated by bomb experts about an hour later.
The bomb attack took place after the deaths of four members of a local Islamic State-inspired group in an encounter with covert military operatives last Dec. 22 in Maguindanao province. Two of the fatalities in that incident were foreigners, one a Singaporean and the other, an Indonesian.
Local officials and traditional Moro elders in the three towns identified one of the two other fatalities as the younger brother of a radical cleric named Abdulmalik Esmael, more known as Abu Toraife, figurehead of the third faction of the outlawed Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Abu Toraife’s group has been blamed for the deadly Aug. 28 and Sept. 2 bombings in Isulan town in Sultan Kudarat that left a total of five people dead and injured more than 30 others.
The threat from IS-linked groups appears very real, from where we sit. The Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research believes that there are up to 100 foreign fighters in Mindanao who want to pursue their goal of putting up an east Asia wilayah (or Islamic State province). The foreign fighters in Mindanao are said to have mainly travelled not only from neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia but also from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Middle East.
The armed forces also believes that there are about 40 foreign fighters remaining in the country, with 40 others in their watchlist.
The presence of foreign fighters is likely to embolden local pro-IS groups in their bid to declare a caliphate in Mindanao.
The continuing terrorist threat is borne out by the suicide bombing by a foreign fighter from Morocco in July that killed 11 people. It was claimed by IS as a “martyrdom” operation.
The terrorist threat in Mindanao is also underscored by the apparent establishment of a pro-IS coalition composed of at least three factions of the BIFF, Abu Sayyaf, Ansar al-Khilafah and the Maute Group.
The problem is that Mindanao’s borders with Malaysia and Indonesia are porous, thus allowing foreign fighters to easily cross over to the island. Hence, the Philippine government is working with both Malaysian and Indonesian authorities to block the border through joint maritime patrols and sharing of intelligence.
A keen observer of the Mindanao conflict, Zachary Abuza, Southeast Asia analyst at the National War College in the US, concludes that based on the Marawi experience, foreign fighters “play a very important role in bridging the parochial divides between Filipino groups.” He shares the view that there could be around 40 foreign fighters in Mindanao at present, perhaps doing training for locals and waiting for the right opportunity to do another Marawi. He stressed the serious threat they posed, amid what he feels is increased support especially among the youth for pro-IS groups in Mindanao.
To the question of whether martial law can immediately restore peace in Mindanao—or a modicum of it—within the year through military operations and vigorous law enforcement, we think that’s not likely given the extent of the terrorist threat and the pervasive poverty in Muslim Mindanao that can be exploited by the Mautes and similar groups to draw more recruits to their cause. In short, we don’t see any diminution of the terrorist threat in the island, with or without martial law, in the next few years.