By Lennart HOFMAN, Forgotten War Correspondent, De Correspondent
The bridge over the Agus River leading to the center of the Southern City of Marawi is closed by fence with a text “Closed. War Zone.” Behind it are lifeless streets and high up weeds.
Less than two years ago since Marawi was a lively trading city with about 200,000 inhabitants, almost equal in area to Utrecht (a municipality in Netherlands). But insurrected insurgents entered the city, after which the Philippine army took overwhelming violence to expel them.
I am here to investigate to what extent IS has really been defeated, or that the movement can revive in the country. The latter is certainly not being excluded, I will get to hear.
It was learned from angry Saawiya Ibrahim Amate (48), with whom she stands on the roof of a building on the other side of the river. The walls of the concrete flats of three (3), four (4) floors on which they are looking completely torn to pieces. No wall is intact.
Amate points to the minaret of the old mosque, which has miraculously survived from the attack of the army and the shelling. Her house is nearby. She was born there, just like her parents and her generations.
Amate’s husband was allowed once to visit their house under the guidance of the army. There is virtually nothing left. The fighters had punched holes in the wall to move through the blocks of houses, there were wastes everywhere. The only thing he could save was few signs, “Everything was stolen or destroyed.”
Of course she was angry to the IS fighters who began the violence but she is angrier to the government. She says “because was it really necessary to destroy the whole city to drive them out?” Amate: “If he did not declared Martial Law, if the army had not heavily attacked the city, it might have turned out differently. If they had found ways to take out the IS, this might not have happened.”
OATH OF ALLEGIANCE TO ISLAMIC STATE
The wave of violence starts on May 23, 2017, when Philippine security forces in the middle of Marawi encounter Isnilon Hapilon, one the chief leaders of the local terror group Abu Sayyaf. In the 2014, Hapilon sworn allegiance to the Iraqi IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, after which he had united a number of Islamic fighting groups in the southern Philippines under the banner of IS.
A firefight breaks out. Soon, IS-affiliated warriors from the region, led by the brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, came to their aid. The two have already taken far-reaching measures to take over the city, it turns out afterwards. As example, they would have received over one and a half million dollars from the leadership of IS in Syria and Iraq to purchase weapons and food to prepare the fight in Marawi.
IS know how to drive the army out of the streets and hoist their black flag. Almost immediately they placed the news in different languages on Telegram channel that is widely used by IS followers. That is where the statements of support from all over the world come in. The conquest is world news within a few hours.
A shock of dismay goes through the Philippines – and the rest of the world. The army has been fighting for decades against all sorts of militant Islamic separatist movements in the south of the country that feel deprived by the Christian rulers in the capital Manila. But although some groups increasingly associated with IS, the army always proclaimed that name was only used to reinforce the reputation of those groups.
The conquest of Marawi proves them wrong. In June 2017, IS dedicated its magazine Rumiyah which almost entirely to the fighters in the Philippines and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Hapilon appoints ’emir’ of IS in Southeast Asia. That is one step for official recognition as a province of the caliphate. Fighters from across the region are being called to travel to the Philippines to support the fight.
Three hours after the capture of Marawi, President Rodrigo Duterte invokes the Martial Law on the entire island of Mindanao. And three days later a series of devastating air strikes begins on the city. Some 300,000 inhabitants of the city and surrounding villages are on the run.
Five months later, Duterte calls for vitory, but among the people of Marawi are predominantly anger. It was the fourth (4th) times since 2008 that armed men took over the city, and local leaders always convince them to withdraw peacefully. But this time, they did not get the chance.
Now, a year later, 230,000 people are still displaced, according to the Red Cross. No one is allowed into the city because of the unexploded explosives that would still be everywhere. The foundations of most houses that are still standing are so badly damaged that the city probably needs to be rebuilt in its entirety. The plan is to make a kind of new Dubai with the help of Chinese investors.
TICKING TIME BOMB
These plans met with many residents. Marawi is the most important city for Muslims in predominantly Catholic Philippines. Many are suspecting the authorities of abusing the opportunity to take their city off once and for all.
But hardly anyone dares to say this openly. The Martial Law is still in force, allowing you to be arrested or even killed without charge or suspicion. Some more critical residents already received text messages that threatened them with arrest if they did not keep quiet.
That is what Drieza Lininding, chairman of the Moro Consensus Group, says, a local peace organization, which we meet in a café in the town of Iligan, near Marawi. He is one of the few who dare to openly criticize the government, but his gaze is tense and he constantly rubs nervously in his hands. Yet he takes the risks for granted: his city is too important to disappear, he says.
“The community in Marawi is our identity, we cannot just be placed elsewhere”
Lininding: “The community in Marawi is our identity, we cannot just be placed elsewhere. Marawi must be rebuilt as it was, in its original form. That is what we want. Nothing more and nothing less.”
The worries about the city come on top of the frustrations that are already there, he continues. The state used disproportionate violence: schools, hospitals, virtually everything people possessed were destroyed. Hundreds of civilians were killed because the army did not warn them in time for the air strikes, but these abuses have never been investigated.
If the authorities do not take these concerns seriously, it can go wrong again, Lininding warns. “Some, many perhaps, may decide to join terrorist groups to take revenge for what we have lost in Marawi. The situation is a ticking time bomb.”
HOW BIG IS THIS DANGER?
No one knows whether that fear is justified. IS suffered heavy losses in Marawi and their main leaders were killed, including Hapilon and the Maute brothers. Countries in Southeast Asia also work closely together to prevent IS from expanding its influence in the region. They conduct joint air and maritime patrols on the Sulu Sea and security services exchange information with each other.
In addition, President Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) at the end of July which should provide more autonomy for the region and put an end to nearly fifty years of conflict. The law is supported by the two largest Islamic secessionist movements in the region, the MILF and the MNLF. The people of the region can speak about this in a plebiscite next year.
But there are also indications that the warriors connected to IS in the Philippines are regrouping, and with the support of IS fighters from Syria and Iraq are preparing for anew large-scale attack. In Marawi they made tens of millions of dollars, which they now use to recruit new fighters, says Reuters News Agency based on sources within the army.
In addition, there are still weekly fighting between warriors connected to IS and the Philippine army, and there are regular bomb attacks. On 31 July, IS demanded a suicide attack on the South Philippine island of Basilan, carried out by a Moroccan, via its own media channel Amaq. It was the first attack claimed by IS in the Philippines, carried out by a non-Asian, and the first suicide bombing in the country.
Yet the army claims to gain ground: since January more than two hundred extremists have been killed, according to Gerry Besana, spokesman for the Philippine army. But the fights continue.
THE CENTER OF THE WAR
The center of the battle is set on the Sulu island group, home to the Abu Sayyaf battle group, which also included Hapilon.
Abu Sayyaf started in the nineties with the support of Al-Qaeda as an Islamic independence movement, but is now more known as a group of criminals held together by family groups who mainly excels in brutal sieges for millions of euros of ransom.
In the past three years, twenty hostages have been beheaded, including two Canadians and one German. The Dutch birdwatcher Ewold Horn has been in their hands since 2012. After the last IS fighters were expelled from Marawi, the main remaining leaders probably fled to Sulu. They would hide in the dense jungle of the mountainous area around Patikul, just outside Jolo, the capital of the eponymous island.
After a long urging we get permission from the governor of Sulu to visit the island. It is the perfect place to answer the most important questions with which we travel: how big is the influence of IS in the Philippines? And what does this mean for the inhabitants of the island, and the course of the struggle in the region?
From the window of the small plane we see dozens of paradisiacal islands with bright white beaches. But when we have landed, about twenty heavily armed police and military personnel are approaching us. ‘Welcome to Sulu’, says their commander, who guides us to three waiting pick-up trucks. A minute later we drive in convoy honking the small asphalt landing strip.
Journalists are a rarity here. Since 2000, at least 23 mostly foreign journalists have been kidnapped. Although the army has increased pressure in recent years, Abu Sayyaf is still supreme. Even with thirty soldiers as personal guards, we do not stand a chance if the group would take us outside the city, says a soldier.
In the military hospital of Jolo, the effects of the violence are clearly visible. Seventeen pale youth in green overalls are scattered in beds in a white stucco room. They were wounded a week earlier when they found a couple of armed men in a house in the jungle, after which a gunfight arose.
Lieutenant ‘Liger’ (24) ordered the attack. “After we had observed them for a while and we knew for certain that they were armed, I gave the order to attack. They reacted immediately by firing back grenades. Most of us were wounded by shrapnel.”
As he speaks, he is staring ahead. It is his first month on the island and his first gun fight ever, he says softly. In a short briefing he was told that his enemies are well armed and sometimes hide among the population. But he does not know exactly what they are striving for and why they do it.
What he also does not know is that, according to the local human rights group Suara Bangsamoro, seven young men from a neighboring village who were harvesting fruit at the time were at the confrontation. Army spokesman Gerry Besana denied this later and called it ‘pure propaganda’, meant to thwart military operations on the island.
This kind of messages – whether they are true or not – cause a lot of tension on the island. Many soldiers, like Lieutenant Liger, are very young and often hardly know how to distinguish between fighters and civilians. In order to prevent civilians from ending up in military operations, they must report any movement across the island to the authorities.
Yet it sometimes goes wrong, which causes a lot of anger and grief in the next of kin. They often see the army as occupiers, and often swear revenge. Abu Sayyaf, who can always use new recruits, offers them that opportunity. This keeps the cycle of violence going, says Octavio Dinampo, professor of political science at Mindanao State University in Jolo.
NO OTHER CHOICE
That sigh for revenge also drove Ahmed (34) to Abu Sayyaf. We speak to him in a military base in Jolo, a week after he surrendered. Ahmed is only willing to talk under a pseudonym. To be unrecognized by his former comrades, he wears sunglasses and a headscarf.
Ahmed joined Abu Sayyaf in 2013 after his family quarreled with a family that had close ties with the military and accused them of being part of Abu Sayyaf. It put him ahead, he says. “We had two options: let us arrest and possibly kill by the army, or call in the help of Abu Sayyaf.”
“We knew they were strong and were wanted by the army,” he continues. “But they were the only ones who could help us. And we would rather fight back than let ourselves be defeated. ”
The five years that followed, he spent mainly in the jungle. But he did not get much of what happened outside of it. His leader told him about the war in Syria and Iraq and IS, but he never knew that Abu Sayyaf leader Hapilon had sworn allegiance to IS leader Al-Baghdadi.
He calls Hapilon a brave fighter, because he takes on the army. But he did not take part in the battle for Marawi himself, he says. He knows it mainly from TV.
“Only our leaders know what is going on,” he replies after some insistence. ‘They are in contact with each other, who knows who has been held hostage, which foreigners are on the island and are immersed in ideology. Most fighters do not care about that. They join in because their families do the same, because of the money, or because they want revenge. ‘
ARE THESE IS’s NEW FIGHTERS?
Professor Octavio Dinampo also states that most of the fighters in the region are driven by personal motives, which are mainly related to local living conditions. The IS ideology is spreading mainly through their leaders, he adds.
Dinampo: “That started a few years ago when Al-Baghdadi sent a delegation to recruit Hapilon. He then swore allegiance to Al-Baghdadi and received a lot of money in return. That money was used to prepare for the attack on Marawi.”
We speak Dinampo in a classroom on the campus of the university in Jolo. He wears a small, gray kufi hat and black sunglasses.
‘IS fighters quote Qur’anic verses about martyrdom and virgins in paradise. This way they can convince especially poor yong people’
Dinampo was part of a predecessor of Abu Sayyaf in the 1980s, which still opposed the deprivation of the Muslim population. When his comrades drifted more and more from those ideals to deal with kidnappings for the ransom, he laid down the weapons. But he still keeps in touch with some leaders of Abu Sayyaf.
The introduction of the IS-ideology changed the character of the struggle in the region, he says. Hapilon succeeded in uniting the various combat groups in the region and bridging the differences between the clans and their militant leaders.
The IS ideology that tied them did not only respond to hardened militants from disadvantaged regions such as Sulu, but also to young, ideologically driven Muslims from the urban middle class, such as the Maute brothers who helped Marawi conquer.
This is a danger for the future, he warns. The hardcore idealists have a lot of influence on their troops, and are by no means all killed in Marawi, he emphasizes. In addition, after the battle for Marawi, several foreign IS fighters traveled to the Philippines to join them and spread the IS ideology, he heard from his contacts.
Dinampo: “There may not be many, but they carry a dangerous ideology and have money. They quote verses from the Quran about martyrdom and virgins in paradise. With that they can convince many, especially poor, low-literate youngsters to join them. They are sensitive to stories like that.”
“You can already see how successful they are in this”, he continues, putting one finger in the air. “In Sulu, the fighters all make this gesture on the videos they distribute. That means that there is one God, with Muhammad as his prophet. And that there is only one kind of mujahedin , and that is IS.”
HOW DO YOU PREVENT THE IS IDEOLOGY FROM TAKING ROOT?
In order to prevent violent, extremist ideology from being heard, you must first of all prevent reasons for ‘coming into opposition’, says Esmael Mangudadatu, governor of the province of Maguindanao, about five hours south of Marawi.
Since taking office in 2010, he has offered fighters from local extremist combat groups the opportunity to surrender their weapons in exchange for work and education. Most people – also fighters – mainly want an ordinary life, he says.
In the early years, this approach met many hawks in the army, but since the battle of Marawi, many provincial leaders followed suit, he says in his office in Buluan, Maguindanao.
Mangudadatu: “The realization that extremism can not only be fought with bullets and violence is perhaps the only positive consequence of the battle for Marawi.”
We speak to him briefly at a meeting on how to tackle extremism in the region, where army officers, civil servants and religious leaders speak. Outside his office local village elders wait for him, for weekly meetings, on a wall behind him hang pictures of his visits to the villages in his province.
Mangudadatu: “Most people join the battle groups because they experience injustice and want a better life. They often opt for financial reasons. So we have to offer policymakers their more. Like work for themselves and their partner, education for their children. “
Since his arrival, three thousand students have graduated and dozens of social and economic projects. We visited a banana plantation where former fighters and their families were offered work. Everywhere in the region there are posters on which the Bangsamo Organic Law is advertised as the most successful road to peace.
But the question is whether this will be timely. For example, some projects suffer from corruption, he acknowledges. And he knows the rumors that foreign IS fighters roam the province to persuade local leaders and militants to join them.
Mangudadatu: “Confidence between the army and the population is fragile. That can only be restored by listening to the community and working well with her. We must show that we have more to offer than the extremists.”
‘IS COME TO OUR VILLAGES’
Mohammed (31) commented on the offer of the authorities. At the beginning of this year, he deposited his weapons in exchange for work and training for him and his children.
In a small concrete school building just outside Buluan, surrounded by rice fields and palm trees, he and his sixteen former warriors from militant groups trained as carpenters.
In 2003, Mohammed joined the ISB band Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), after promising him 3,000 pesos ($60 USD ) per month. But he is fed up with the harsh, violent life, he says. “I want to change my life so that my children get a better future.”
But if we send out one of our security guards to continue the interview in isolation, he says he did not get everything the authorities promised him. According to him, this is the main reason why some of his former comrades have not yet put down their weapons: they do not trust the authorities, he says.
When we ask questions, he calls another development. After the fall of Marawi there were once a dozen foreign fighters in his village. They wore headscarves and long beards, and talked about Islam and the religious duty to oppose injustice. They are connected to IS, he resolutely says.
He sits up straight and continues seriously: “They have money. Lots of money. They use that to recruit new fighters.”
How does this work out?
Whether that money and their ideology are enough to re-ignite the violence, or whether the authorities can offer residents in the region a suitable alternative in time, is hard to say. But if you look over the total destroyed Marawi, you realize that a relatively small group of ideologically motivated fighters set the destruction of the city in motion.
And it is worrying that the local population blames the authorities in particular. Because it is precisely those feelings of injustice that allowed IS to grow in the region.
Now that the caliphate in Syria and Iraq has almost disappeared, these are the kind of latent conflicts that IS is focusing on. Before July 2017, long before the Iraqi city of Mosul fell, hundreds of Southeast Asians traveled to the self-proclaimed caliphate. Now the survivors probably return home, with their ideas and war experience.
Mindanao is still a fertile breeding ground for those ideas. Not only among the ruined inhabitants of Marawi, on the neglected Sulu or among young, frustrated Muslims from the urban middle class. She also hears the hardened leaders of heavily armed militant groups that exist by the grace of war and violence and turn against the final peace agreement and the resulting Bangsamoro Organic Law.
In Marawi, they have shown that they have managed to transcend clan differences and personal interests for a common goal. Now they have money, a reputation and a ruined population that gets impatient every day.
Saawiya Ibrahim Amate also does not know what the future will bring, she says, looking out over the ruins of Marawi. As she also did not see that her hometown would fall prey to so much violence.
She knew the rumors that IS fighters were in the city, and saw the scarce reports in the media that warned about this. But they did not realize that they would herald the end of her city.
Amate: “How could we understand that? We lived together here in peace. Everyone knew each other and there was always someone who could help you. It was not the time for jihad (Holy War). And now look. Everything has been destroyed. That will never come back.”
I could not have made this story without the help of Moh Saaduddin, journalist of The Manila Times. During our two-week reportage trip, he took care of our safety and arranged transport and permission to visit normally inaccessible areas. He also made a number of photos with this article. To my great sadness, he was died a week after this trip during a motorcycle accident.
We received financial support for this story from the Postcode Loterij Fund for journalists. (Lennart Hoffman / De Correspondent)