Philippines: Explanation for the conflict in Mindanao, including ISIS


December 31, 2017 – Fort Russ News – Paul Antonopoulos – Translated from Descifrando la Guerra.

MADRID, Spain – Mindanao, the southernmost archipelago of the Philippines, has been for centuries in an ethnic and religious conflict for the self-determination of the Moro people, of Muslim belief. In the last decade, it has attracted increasingly extremist actors such as the Islamic State, which has led to the recent Marawi battle between the Philippine government, the independence movements and the Islamic State.

The historic struggle of the Moro people for independence

The Moro people boast of having resisted against all kinds of invading agents for 400 years, from Spaniards, Americans, Japanese or Filipinos in defense of their historical past of the sultanates of Sulu, Maguindanao or Tawi Tawi. It was during the Spanish colonization that this group of Muslim ethnic groups were baptized with the name of Moors, fruit of the same name that they gave to Berbers and Arabs in Castile. The footprint left by Spain today, 80% of the Philippines is Catholic Christian, the influence of Castilian is noted in Tagalog, the main language of the country among the 170 that stretch across the archipelago. Also in the Christian colonies that settled in Mindanao and that today have led to political and religious conflicts for the counterweight they make to the Muslim community.

After the disaster of ’98 Spain lost its last enclaves, among them the Philippines that happened to American hands. The fighting of the Moors continued against the new settlers with suicide attacks and harassment. Nor were the Japanese welcomed in the Second World War despite the requests for collaboration adducing “the eastern brotherhood”, and relying on the communist insurrection fought against the occupation.

With the victory over Japan in 1945 the Philippines fell back into American hands. With the decolonization came the first local Philippine government that united all the islands as a single country, and with it also the insurgency against a government that from Mindanao was seen as a puppet of the USA. In addition, the governments were tremendously unfavorable for the south that soon found itself backward and poor against Luzon or the Visayas. The social struggles during the 50 ‘and 60’ were led by the communist party, which had strength in Mindanao, these soon led to a struggle not only social, but also nationalist claiming political autonomy to the Muslim majority.

Peace Agreements

The state, unable to meet the demands, and represented in the different governments by political families from Luzon soon found a strong federalist movement in Mindanao by broad layers of society, and with pro-independence sectors among the Muslim community that wanted establish the Bangsamoro. Bangsa is a Malay word that means nation, along with Moor acquires the sense of “Moorish nation”. These social dynamics gave rise to splits of the communist party, which, although they were following the social struggle, did so for the Moro people. In 1969, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was founded by Nur Misuari.

The first peace attempt was made with the Tripoli Agreement (1976), which would establish the precedent of an autonomous region for the Moorish people, however not all of them in the MNLF would be happy and a split called the Islamic Liberation Front would be provoked (MILF). But after these failed to negotiate new agreements, the MNLF agreed in 1996 to establish the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which does not cover all historically Muslim territories. While the agreements with the MILF would not arrive until 2016 once they abandoned the idea of ​​independence for federalism. On this occasion, the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region would be agreed upon, still in the process of being created and everything agreed in the negotiations be applied.

Radicalization towards fundamentalism

From 2002 to 2015 the United States supported the Philippine government under the “Operation Enduring Freedom” in the framework of the War on Terror initiated by Bush. The targets were those organizations considered terrorists such as Abu Sayyaf, Fighters for Islamic Freedom of the Bangsamoro (BIFF) or the Maute group. During this period the Islamist groups went from a guerrilla war to the increasingly prevalent terrorist tactics against the population as a bargaining chip, and to the use of kidnappings or piracy to finance themselves.

That is, it was thanks to the entrance from the 60s of the Saudi Koranic schools and mosques together with the pilgrimage of many workers to Mecca with trips paid by local benefactors that these more radical groups have emerged.

Islamic State (IS) would soon be set in the Philippines since it was formalized in 2014 and they would choose Mindanao as the wilayat (IS administrative region) to settle in Southeast Asia. All they needed was to choose the right Emir that would bring together all the regional groups, be loyal, have leadership and give a blow of strength to show the world and its followers. Once this was done, Mindanao could be formalized as a new government or wilayat of the Islamic State.

The elected was of course the most loyal, the first to announce his loyalty to the Islamic State and the oldest of the jihadist groups, Abu Sayyaf, who was born in 1991. Isnilon Hapilon, its leader, was responsible for ending all opposition to the Once it attracted important allies such as brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, founders of the Maute group, created with capital from their influential and wealthy family from Lanao del Sur. The Maute made their loyalty official in April 2015 one year after Abu Sayyaf. With the financial and logistical support of the Islamic State together with a good use of social networks such as Telegram or Facebook, it was relatively easy in a few years to gain ground to the MILF, the largest of its competitors. Not only did they manage to overcome them in qualitative advantages, but they also had a discourse that cracked their foundations. After 4 years of negotiations between the MILF and the government (2012-2016), and the signing of the Bangsamoro agreement, no real results were seen; Bangsamoro did not exist, the territory of the ARMM has not been extended, the Basic Law of Bangsamoro (LBB) has not been approved by the congress and while a new president has been elected (Rodrigo Duterte in 2016).

The speech is clear: “the government does not comply or plans to do it, the state bureaucracy is slow and those plutocratic politicians do not move a finger neither to help the Moorish people nor to take forward the LBB, and the MILF are the ones who agree with them ” Negotiations also led to a ceasefire, so while it is negotiating even if the government does not comply with the MILF, it has its fighters demobilized and at the mercy of both propaganda and the attacks of these jihadist groups. And yes, the agreements also provide benefits such as the possibility of reintegrating into civilian life and leaving the guerrillas, but the only way out that was agreed upon was to join the ranks of the Philippine army and there is still a long way to go before the peace process ends. Also, as a direct enemy, they are Abu Sayyaf, BIFF or Maute have had skirmishes with both the MILF and the MNLF. In this way Abu Sayyaf has attracted MILF fighters with ease to their ranks.

Another problem is the already slow pace to put into practice the peace agreements, the congressional committees discuss, stagnate and negotiate which terms are approved, besides the change of government did not help when in 2016 Rodrigo Duterte took the presidency and started his war on drugs, pillar of his electoral campaign and having won with a support amount in Mindanao and the Muslim community, one of the most affected areas. Rodrigo Duterte muddied the administration with a tough war against drug trafficking, which although it was necessary the way it was done unleashed an internal struggle in society that overshadowed the pressing problem that was being created in Mindanao with an imminent coup d’état Islamic.

Isnilon Hapilon would be proclaimed by IS as Emir of Southeast Asia on June 21, 2016 calling on the mujahideen to join the jihad in the Philippines. Preparations began for the coup d’état that Islamic State wanted to give, the date chosen was May 26, 2017, the day of the beginning of Ramadan, and the target would be the city of Marawi.

The battle of Marawi

A few days before the attack, the Philippine army would acquire information about the location of Isnilon Hapilon, beginning a race and persecution that took the security forces to the heart of Marawi. Hapilon before the unforeseen was not only forced to take refuge in the city but to advance 3 days the operation having to start on May 23 the Islamist uprising of the city, causing a strong confusion between the command of the army, poorly prepared and that unforeseen he found an army occupying the streets of the city, taking hostages, expelling them from Marawi and unexpectedly for them many were of foreign nationalities such as Malays, Indonesians or Bruneians.

The need to advance the operation of the Islamists undoubtedly affected them negatively, but in the movements that they did, it can be seen that the preparation was finished and it was only necessary to strike the right day, three days from the date they had chosen. they lacked logistics, materials or cash. The immediate actions were the taking of the 3 main access bridges to the more fortified neighborhoods of Bangolo and Raya Madaya, the control of the Amai Pakpak hospital, the release of prison inmates and the capture of police posts. The deployment of snipers at the key points delayed the entry of the army, especially those stationed in the great mosque of the city.

The response of the army was immediate, Rodrigo Duterte who was on a state visit to Russia, framed in his plan to reorder the Philippine relations board, had to return to the country where he declared martial law on the territory of Mindanao. The army would liberate a large part of the city in a relatively short time; but from then on they would stagnate.

One of the problems of the army was to underestimate the threat, which now had urban combat tactics used by IS in Syria and Iraq, unlike the guerrilla tactics in the jungle that the army was accustomed to when fighting these groups; the declaration of the army was that by June 12, the day that the independence of Spain is celebrated, the city would have been completely liberated and the flags of the Philippines would wave throughout Marawi. Nothing could be further from the reality of the battle until October 23.

Marawi would become an unprecedented humanitarian disaster, the city of 200 thousand inhabitants would soon be besieged, its citizens trapped between the Philippine army, which carried out continuous bombings, and the Islamist groups, giving rise to a large part of the population exiled . Rodrigo Duterte in this situation would ask for help from the MNLF, the MILF and the communist guerrilla to put an end to the Islamist threat, control the surrounding areas and secure the “Corredor de Paz” to provide the population with humanitarian aid from Malabang to Marawi. The MNLF would provide it but the other two groups saw the imposition of martial law as an attack against them, and the memory of the last time the state did something similar aggravated the idea of ​​allowing it. It must be understood that martial law allows the army to carry out almost any action within the territory, and the fear that it spread to the rest of the country was also present. The MILF finally agreed to collaborate, the communists only agreed to help after negotiating the exclusion of their territories from martial law.

The problem is that the army is very closely linked to the United States and functions as a political identity of its own under its interests that the government often can not control. Therefore, the response of the military to the government negotiations was: “We can not accept these sons of bitches to shoot us in the back”. The army preferred to look for its allies on its own and called the US special forces from the Zamboanga military base that provided logistical and combat support, President Duterte could not do anything, which showed the little real control he has over this institution.

The final result of the operation was a bloody battle that has reduced the city to rubble, worn out a lot to the Philippine armed forces that at no time expected such resistance and in which they lost some 165 soldiers. The positive thing is that they decapitated the IS in the region, both Emir Isnilon Hapilon and the Maute brothers died, as did most of those who participated in the battle, about 1,000 troops. But the propaganda victory for the fundamentalist groups is irreparable and their resistance for 5 months in a besieged city throws doubt on the performance of the army, besides worrying the level of approach of an attack of these dimensions to survive without hardly receiving supplies from abroad.


After the battle of Marawi the government and army have realized that they must make changes in the face of the new threat in the making. As a result of this experience, the military has decided to revise its doctrine and it has already been said that there will be changes in the operational guidelines of the armed forces, especially for the ground forces involved in anti-terrorist operations, and in particular, what refers to urban combat. The military fears a similar performance by extremist groups in new cities of the archipelago, with Cotabato being the most likely target. This fact, together with the breakdown of peace negotiations with the communist guerrillas, has put the Eastern Mindanao Command on alert for possible attacks.

In spite of the threat, the big cities should not worry, because the struggle and reorganization of the Islamic State forces is taking place in the jungle and the islands of Tawi Tawi, Sulu or Basilon. Until a new Emir is chosen as Hapilon’s successor, and the rest of the dome is replaced, a large-scale attack is unlikely. Five possible candidates are rumored:

Amin Baco, aka Abu Akmad, reinforces his being married to the daughter of Isnilon Hapilon; but that really is the successor is difficult because its situation is uncertain and of Malay origin.

Owayda Benito Marohomsar, aka Abu Dar, would have escaped from Marawi with a considerable amount of money from the looting, was seen in areas of Lanao del Sur.  Ali Amintao, aka White Lawaan, is believed to be a major funder of groups like Maute.

Zacaria Romato Maute has strong connections that would give him the chance to take over as the uncle of the Maute brothers, as well as men loyal to him who participated in Marawi.

Najib Calimba Pundog, a close foreigner allied to Omar Maute. And one of those in charge of recruiting young boys and children for the battle of Marawi.

As for the MILF last Monday, November 27, they made a great act for the approval of the Basic Law of Bangsamoro (LBB) to which hundreds of thousands of people came in support and where Rodrigo Duterte himself attended to demonstrate his commitment to the approval of a greater autonomy for Bangsamoro, his words were that it was “a historical injustice to correct”. Rodrigo Duterte is also a fervent defender of the federalization of the state, one of his flagship proposals during the electoral campaign. But while Duterte plays a very good role in Mindanao, where it comes from, in Manila it is difficult for him to move and if he will be able to approve the LBB it is somewhat uncertain, to which members of the MILF have already warned that they could return to the armed struggle by breaking the ceasefire if it continues to be postponed.

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