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.

The Philippine government has portrayed the crisis in Mindanao as a foreign invasion—and responded accordingly.

Having vowed to pursue an “independent” foreign policy, Duterte initially declined to seek military assistance against ISIS from the United States, the Philippines’ sole treaty ally, and the country’s main partner in its decades-long counterterrorism operations in its troubled south. As the fighting went on, however, it became increasingly clear that the Philippine military, which is largely trained in open-field and jungle (rather than urban) warfare, desperately needed help. Eventually, the military asked the Americans for aid, which they granted. Whether he wanted to or not, Duterte had no choice but to agree. In this strange twist of events, fears over the prospect of a distant caliphate in Mindanao brought estranged allies back together.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

For decades, the island of Mindanao has witnessed bloody clashes between the central government in Manila and various rebel groups, both Islamist and communist. The long-running conflict has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, displaced millions more, and condemned large portions of the island to desperate poverty and underdevelopment. This has created fertile ground for radical ideologies and extremist groups. The latest spate of violence in Mindanao, however, marks the troubling convergence of two key factors.

The first is ISIS’ pivot to Asia in light of its heavy military setbacks in the Middle East. Thanks to tighter border controls in southern Turkey and expanded U.S.-led military operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, it has become increasingly difficult for ISIS sympathizers to migrate to the caliphate. In response, the group has called on its supporters to establish satellite caliphates in their own regions, particularly in South and Southeast Asia, home to the majority of the world’s Muslim population. ISIS is thus following in the footsteps of its forerunner, al Qaeda, which expanded to Southeast Asia in the 1990s as it came under pressure in its main stronghold, Afghanistan.

Members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force in Malawi City, June 2017.
Romeo Ranoco / Reuters

Mindanao in particular has long been a highly attractive destination for transnational jihadist movements, thanks to its poverty, unemployment, and the marginalization of the island’s Muslims, who make up 20 percent of its population. Equally important, Mindanao has porous maritime borders with the Muslim-majority nations of Malaysia and Indonesia, both of which have large populations of ISIS sympathizers.

The second factor behind the current crisis is the troubling deadlock in peace negotiations between the Philippine government and local Muslim rebel groups, particularly the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which boasts as many as 12,000 soldiers and controls large portions of central Mindanao. As the first president from Mindanao, Duterte, who promised to represent Filipino Muslims, initially supported a swift and decisive end to the conflict through federalization, which would grant greater political autonomy to the island’s Muslim-majority regions.

Yet Duterte has not been able to carry through on his promises. He dedicated much of his first year in office to a brutal campaign against illegal drugs, in the process undermining his diplomatic relations with the West and spooking foreign investors concerned about rule of law in the country. The Filipino president also prioritized resuming long-stalled negotiations with communist rebels, which have, however, produced few results to date. To be fair, Duterte also inherited the failures of his predecessors. In particular, the 2015 Mamasapano massacre, in which Islamist rebels allegedly slaughtered 44 policemen during a botched counterterrorism operation, undercut public support for peace negotiations with the group responsible for the massacre, MILF. Since then, the lack of progress in Mindanao has provided fertile ground for ISIS affiliates to expand their footprint and mobilize support among disaffected rebels and civilians.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

Following the attack on Marawi, U.S. President Donald Trump was quick to reach out to his Filipino counterpart, vowing to provide “support and assistance to Philippine counterterrorism efforts” as a “proud ally” of the Philippines. Weeks later, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis expressed “sympathy and support” for the country and reassured Filipinos that Washington would “stand with the Philippines” in the fight against terrorist elements in Mindanao. In response, Duterte’s spokesperson, Ernesto Abella, said that the Philippines “is open to assistance from other countries if they offer it.”

But the Philippine president, known for his frequent anti-American rants and an earlier threat to expel American forces from Mindanao, has stated that he “never approached America” for assistance, implying that his country’s military unilaterally sought it without his approval. As I wrote in Foreign Affairs in April, Duterte has repeatedly had to defer to his country’s pro-U.S. defense establishment on sensitive national security issues, including relations with Washington, and this seems to be the case here as well. In June, Duterte even half-jokingly lamented that Filipino soldiers “are really pro-American, that I cannot deny.” The military thus seems to have gained greater influence in shaping the country’s defense and foreign policy, especially now that Duterte has appointed a large number of former military and law enforcement officials to senior government positions.

And indeed, despite Duterte’s skepticism, Washington has, since early June, been aiding the Philippine military’s operations in Marawi, providing Manila with a new cache of advanced weapons and tactical intelligence that was gathered using drones. A contingent of U.S. Special Forces is also providing urban warfare training to its Filipino counterparts. Other Western allies, particularly Australia, have also stepped up their military assistance to the Philippines. In, June, Canberra deployed two AP-3C Orion surveillance aircrafts to Mindanao to aid counterterrororism operations in the area. Buoyed by the assistance, the Philippine army has managed to retake much of Malawi, pushing the militants pushed into a few neighborhoods.

Despite Duterte’s best efforts to reorient Philippine foreign policy and reduce its dependence on the United States, the crisis in his home island has forced him to reassess relations with the West. Slowly but surely, Manila and Washington are patching up their differences, as the United States downplays concerns over Duterte’s human rights record and the Philippines welcomes greater U.S. military assistance against a common enemy. The slow-motion reset in Philippine–U.S. bilateral relations could set the stage to revive cooperation in other, broader areas of strategic concern, including in the South China Sea. After an early presidency defined by hostility to the United States, Duterte’s foreign policy thinking may be undergoing yet another evolution.

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