On October 23, after five months of intensive fighting, the Philippine military announced that it had recaptured the Muslim-majority city of Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao, from militants affiliated with the Islamic State (or ISIS). This victory marked the end of the Philippines’ longest and bloodiest conflict in recent memory. According to current estimates, nearly 800 militants, 158 government troops, and 47 civilians lost their lives in the fighting, and much of the city has been reduced to rubble.
Most of the ISIS-affiliated leadership in Mindanao was killed during the siege, representing a major setback for regional jihadist groups, which had hoped to establish an ISIS province (wilayat) on the island. Instead, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte—aided by China, Russia, the United States, and neighbors in the region—has managed to nip the prospect of a Southeast Asian caliphate in the bud.
The end of hostilities in Marawi, however, should not be cause for complacency on the part of the Philippine government or its allies. If anything, bigger and more complex challenges lie ahead. Specifically, Manila must do three things in the coming months: prevent terrorist attacks by ISIS remnants, reconstruct the devastated city of Marawi, and revive peace talks with non-ISIS Muslim rebel groups in Mindanao. Absent a resolution of these problems, the country could descend into a new cycle of violence.
The Philippine military had been working for months to break the siege of Marawi, but the tipping point came in mid-October, when government forces killed the last of the top rebel leaders—Isnilon Hapilon, ISIS’ emir in Southeast Asia, and Omar Maute, a local military commander and head of the so-called Maute Group who had pledged his allegiance to ISIS. (Omar’s brother Abdullah, also an important Maute Group leader, was reportedly killed in September.) A triumphant Duterte declared on October 17, one day after the deaths of Hapilon and Omar Maute, that “Marawi city [is] liberated from terrorist influence”; the military, taking a more circumspect approach, waited until
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