Romeo Ranoco / Reuters A bomb explodes during a government air strike in Mindanao, June 2017.

Crisis in Mindanao

Duterte Battles ISIS

After a year in office, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is confronting a full-fledged crisis on his home island of Mindanao. For almost a month, government soldiers have struggled to liberate Marawi, the largest Muslim-majority city in the country, from fighters affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS) and led by the notorious Maute Group, a Filipino jihadist organization that laid siege to the city on May 23. The assault was likely a revenge attack, coming shortly after a botched government raid on a safehouse belonging to Isnilon Hapilon, a Filipino terrorist who was recently declared emir of ISIS fighters in Southeast Asia.  

The siege of Marawi is part of a wave of attacks by ISIS-affiliated groups seeking to establish a wilayat, or province of the Islamic State, in the Philippines. In recent days, other groups with ties to ISIS, namely the notorious Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), have launched simultaneous strikes in other parts of Mindanao, raising the prospect that terrorism will spread beyond Marawi. Duterte has even warned about the possibility of a civil war in Mindanao, if and when Christian communities choose to arm themselves against Muslim extremists as they did during previous rounds of sectarian conflict on the island.

Given the strong presence among Maute’s ranks of foreign fighters, including jihadists from Arab nations and the Russian Caucasus, the Philippine government has portrayed the crisis in Mindanao as a foreign invasion—and responded accordingly. In May, immediately after the first attacks in Mindanao, Duterte declared martial law across the whole island and granted extensive legal leeway to the security forces to crack down on terrorists. (He also threatened to extend martial law across the country to “protect the people” against terrorism.)

Yet within days of government troops entering Marawi, the fighting between them and the terrorists had turned into a slow-moving urban battle, echoing the horrific scenes in Aleppo and Mosul. Philippine forces have struggled to dislodge the jihadists, who have made effective use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and snipers. The government’s extensive use of air raids has also raised concerns about friendly fire and civilian casualties. According to official figures, at least 70 soldiers and 290 militants have been killed in battle.

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