Despite defeat in Marawi, IS-Maute threat persists

In Photo: In this June 9, 2017, file photo, a mosque is silhouetted against a setting sun near military operations in Marawi City.

NINE months after the government stopped the bloody—and absolutely destructive attempt—launched by the Islamic State and its local affiliate the Maute Group, collectively referred to as the IS-Maute Group, to establish an Islamic caliphate in Southeast Asia by laying siege to Marawi City, the band is now attempting to stage a comeback. The strategy: fill up their decimated ranks with recruits coming from madrasahs, or Islamic schools, in the country.

In this October 17, 2017, file photo, hundreds of evacuees are housed in a multipurpose hall at Balo-i, Lanao del Norte, after fleeing the besieged city of Marawi.

The recruitment scheme by the badly beaten terrorists was uncovered by the military in the flurry of surrenders by their colleagues, showing evolving and shifting tactics in the terrorists’ effort to once again beef up their membership in preparation for a possible showdown with the government again in the future.

In light of the recruitment activities by the terrorists, the role of madrasahs in the growth and spread of Islamic extremism, particularly in Mindanao, was again put in the spotlight.

In the past, some Islamic schools in the country have been accused by the Armed Forces of the Philippines of helping beef up the ranks of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the regional terror group Jema’ah Islamiyah (JI) and the other terror cells that operate in the region by serving as the platforms for the extremist indoctrination of some misguided Moros.

‘Good vs evil’

According to Col. Romeo Brawner Jr., deputy commander of the Joint Task Force Ranao, the recruitment effort of the IS-Maute Group was uncovered during the debriefing of surrenderers from the terrorist group.

By his latest count, at least 48 members of the group have already yielded to the government, most of them coming from Lanao provinces.

Brawner said a terrorist who was debriefed claimed to have come from a madrasah from upland Baguio City. There, in the country’s summer capital, he was indoctrinated with extremist teachings.

Displaced residents fleeing to safer areas on a convoy of vehicles stop at a roadside as government troops battle with Muslim militants on May 29, 2017, in Marawi, Southern Philippines.

“We have one in Baguio City,” the military official said in confirming the presence of an Islamic school there. Brawner incidentally traces his roots from the same city.

The other terrorists who have also yielded to the military had come from other selected madrasah schools in Mindanao and in other parts of the country, thus raising fears that the IS may no longer be confined in Mindanao, a possibility which Brawner dismissed.

The military official said they have been working to stem the recruitment of the IS-Maute Group with the help of imams and other moderate Moro preachers by visiting madrasahs, wherein they expound on the evils of extremism and, at the same time, on the goodness of Islam as a peace-loving religion.

“We are working to stop it with the help of moderate imams and other Muslim preachers by visiting the schools,” Brawner said.

‘Money, ideology and defection’

The effort to reinforce its ranks, through the help of Islamic schools, is apparently being taken by the IS-Maute Group, as it also recruits in Moro-dominated regions, with particular focus on Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur.

It also recruits members from the ranks of evacuees pushed out of their homes by the battle in Marawi last year. Thousands of families have yet to be permanently resettled by the government and most of them are housed in shelters in neighboring Lanao del Norte.

“They recruit using money and by the call of ideology and defection,” said Brawner, with the recruitment being centered on children and those made orphans by the Marawi siege.

Children are reportedly being encouraged to join the IS-Maute for an enlistment fee of P70,000 and a monthly pay of up to P20,000. The call is also issued to the relatives of Maute members who died while fighting soldiers during the bloody operation.

Army chief Lt. Gen. Rolando Joselito Bautista said earlier that the recruitment of the terrorist group is not only confined in Lanao provinces, but is also being undertaken in Central Mindanao, with Maguindanao and its neighboring provinces as the centers of the activity.

Bautista declared that it would take years for the terrorist group to carry out an attack similar to the scale they have embarked upon in Marawi even with its current phase of recruitment.

In Maguindanao, however, three groups that have broken away from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters led by battle-hardened commanders are already fighting under the shadow of the IS, with which they have aligned themselves.

Two of these groups are headed by Commanders Esmail Abdulmalik and Salahuddin Hassan, who calls his group Jamaatu al-Muhajireen wal Ansar.

Abdulmalik is the right-hand man of Malaysian Jema’ah Islamiyah leader Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, who was killed in a counterterrorism operation in January 2015, where 44 police commandos also died.

No more than 50 fighters

Brawner said the continuing operations by the military and the successive surrender of members have pared down the number of the IS-Maute Group to not more than 50 fighters, and they are operating under Owaida Marohombsar, alias Abu Dar.

The military claimed Marohombsar assumed the leadership of the group after Isnilon Hapilon, a former ASG commander and the acknowledged leader of the IS in Southeast Asia, was killed in Marawi last year.

Before he retired, then Philippine National Police chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa, however, claimed that Mauiyah, a Singaporean jihadist and top leader of the JI who has long been in the country, became the head of the IS after the death of Hapilon.

Dela Rosa based his statement on information that were ferreted out during a debriefing of Maute Group members who were successively arrested in Metro Manila, where they earlier sought sanctuary.

An earlier report by the military claimed that some 300 terrorists, including 10 of their subleaders, have escaped the raging battle in Marawi, and at least three of them were arrested in Metro Manila during dela Rosa’s term with the PNP.

A couple of days ago, the government arrested Nafisah Pundog, wife of Marohombsar, during an operation in General Santos City.

IS threat, a top regional concern

While the IS may already be on the retreat in the country, its aborted attempt to establish a caliphate in Marawi in collaboration with the Maute Group has both confirmed its presence in Southeast Asia and the creation of its East Asia division.

As such, it not only threatens the country, but the whole of Southeast Asia—something noted early this year by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when the island city-state hosted the first meeting of Asean leaders.

Singapore, as this year’s host of the regional grouping, declared that terrorism is a “very real threat,” and is already at the top of the region’s security concerns.

The statement followed concerns aired by experts who had also met in Singapore that Mindanao may yet be the perfect base for terrorists in the region, including returning IS fighters who fought abroad, because of its unstable condition and porous border.

The sentiments were aired as the government admitted that there are at least 18 other active terror cells in the country.

Whatever is the true number of the IS remnants, and how successful they have been in drawing new blood from the orphans of Marawi and certain Islamic schools, is something that the State forces have yet to determine with certainty. Meantime, the threat of them unleashing yet another wave of terror hangs over the heads of those tasked to secure the troubled south. It’s an endless, thankless, perilous task. And one can only hope the few good men and women on this mission will never fail.

Image Credits: AP/Aaron Favila, AP/Bullit Marquez

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Rene P. Acosta covers defense, law enforcement and national security for the paper. He had written for a number of publications, including abroad before he joined BusinessMirror. His works had appeared in the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Asia Pacific Defense Forum, both in the US. He took up regional security with the International Visitor Leadership Program, US. He is currently the chairman of the board of the Defense Press Corps of the Philippines which he had headed in 2009.

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