The S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) of Nanyang Technological University of Singapore publishes the research findings of their fellows on various topics of regional and global import. The publications also come as briefs to which that I fortunately subscribe. I sometimes post these briefs on my Facebook page.
One brief that I feel compelled to write about and quote extensively is on the Marawi City Siege (No. 153/2017 dated 22 August 2017, “The Siege of Marawi City: Some Lessons”) by Jasminder Singh & Muhammad Haziq Jani. The brief makes worrisome points that must goad our government and people to action from national to local levels, and we as communities and individuals.
The brief states that as “the Western Mindanao Command closes in on the dwindling number of IS militants in Marawi, various terrorist tactics learned from the wars in Iraq and Syria are being replicated to worsen the conflict in southern Philippines and spread IS influence in the region.”
Our AFP has recaptured most of Marawi back at the time of the brief’s publication (Aug. 22). The siege highlighted some weaknesses. One is the AFP’s “lack of familiarity with urban warfare and the terrain.” “(I)t missed the deadline for retaking Marawi fully or wiping out terrorism from Mindanao by June 2017.”
Why the PNP SAF, better trained in urban warfare, was not used still has to be explained. Was it lack of comprehension of the nature of urban warfare; a lack of coordination within government; or was it another of the vexing turf battles fought within government? A yes to any one of these is already troublesome. A yes to all is disastrous.
Messrs. Singh and Jani believe that for the Maute and other terrorist groups in Mindanao, Marawi’s loss will not be a setback. It will be the beginning of bolder military moves to briefly “capture territory to demonstrate their fighting capability and rally support for the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the region, especially in the wake of IS military defeats in Iraq and Syria.”
“Terrorists like the Mautes have different conceptions of victory from professional militaries,” the authors write. IS strategists “aim to turn the residents of Marawi against the military, the government, and countrymen; expose the state’s inability to protect its citizens; and slowly weaken the state’s resolve to secure its peripheral territories.”
These objectives are achieved when they have managed to trap the AFP in protracted battles, create humanitarian crises with evacuations and displacement of people, drawing limited government and private funds into relocation and rehabilitation programs away from key development programs. This lack of progress on the economic and social fronts further underscores government’s weaknesses.
The Maute strategy is two pronged.
“Firstly, instead of fighting in the jungles and hills, ISP drew the military into an urban environment which they had prepared for in advance.” This was done earlier by an MNLF faction in Zamboanga. The ISP “pulled deeper into Marawi” making the fighting “much harder and forced the military into bombing houses to clear sniping positions and tunnelled strongholds.”
The terrorist hoped that the AFP would be blamed for the destruction. They planted the seeds of this with a few posts in social media. Meanwhile, Marawi has been devastated, evacuations centers filled up, complaints rising, and all these will get bigger when the evacuees return.
The Mautes have resorted to the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) within buildings. “Every surviving building has to be cleared by the military, and the Mautes, learning from IS in Syria and Iraq, have turned this to their advantage. As a result, the closer the military gets to a victory, the bloodier the battlefield becomes.”
The tactic targeted the morale of the soldiers and their families and communities. Hostages add pressure on the military which is forced to clear houses systematically, enhancing the terrorists’ advantage of time.
The Mautes resorted to “suicidal” attacks. They charged out into clusters of soldier to lob grenades losing their lives. “Such attacks are termed as istishhad (Arabic: martyrdom operations). They are viewed as heroic acts, to gain another narrative advantage against a powerful enemy. The person who carries out such an act will be celebrated by terrorists and their supporters as shahid or a martyr.”
“On July 22, the Commander of the Western Mindanao Command, Lt. Gen. Carlito Galves had predicted that the terrorists in Marawi City were planning to conduct suicide bombings inside and outside the city.”
This observation must not be taken lightly. Possible terrorist bombings have been a seriously considered probability for some years now. I think that many of the rumors of bombs planted in malls, transport hubs, and other public places where many people gather were scattered by the terrorist themselves in an attempt to get people inured to the rumors. The rumors when not realized tend to make people careless. When this happens, the actual bombings will be perpetrated.
Suicide bombings are game-changers for terrorism in Mindanao. Continued suicide bombings “could demoralize the troops, terrorize the population, create further instability in the state and delegitimize the political leaders.”
For terrorist strategists, “human ‘smart bombs’ are cheap, use low-technology, require little training and are difficult to stop.” Suicide bombers can “reach their targets with ease.” They “compensate for the asymmetry of a powerful” AFP and PNP, “and can have the desired negative and disastrous psychological impact” on the nation.
The Mautes were considering using hostages not just as human shields but also as suicide human bombs against the military, complicating hostage rescue, by strapping bombs on non-combatants, terrorizing everyone else.
“While this could be seen as an act of desperation, this tactical innovation, if implemented, would draw out the conflict much longer and make it increasingly bitter for the non-Muslims in Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines,” wrote the authors.
“ISP’s anti-Christian tactics in Marawi — holding them hostage, executing them, destroying their places of worship and schools, and distributing videos of their atrocities — were obviously meant to provoke Christians and sow inter-religious discord, while at the same time win support from extremists.” I am glad Christian leaders moved fast to neutralize this.
It is necessary to assess the impact of the battle on the AFP and the PNP, the government, Philippine society, and the region. A government victory in Marawi does not ensure peace, security, and stability anywhere in the country. “More needs to be done to neutralize the militants and address the factors that have allowed them to grow into a political and military menace.”
IS-aligned terrorists in the region learned well from the Middle East experience. Small numbers can cause great physical and social damage, especially when they are committed, suicidal, to their cause. “Marawi can herald the start of a new ISP approach to capture territory opportunistically, sow inter-religious discord and create a volatile environment that would draw fighters from the region and beyond,” conclude Singh and Jani.
What Singh and Jani call possibilities have a high probability of happening.
We have to seriously prepare for at least containing, or better yet, averting these. It starts with how our people regain faith in the ability of our government and society to take care of those who were badly affected; in restoring Marawi at the shortest possible time, with the involvement of Christians, Muslims and other Lumads alike; and in our society’s ability to ensure progress and prosperity for our people.
Is our government prepared and ready for these tasks? Are we as a people prepared and ready for these trials?
Mario Antonio G. Lopez is a member of Manindigan! a civil society group that helped topple the Marcos Dictatorship.