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Duterte ignored IS threat amid focus on drugs war

It was classic bravado from the Philippines’ tough-guy president, Mr Rodrigo Duterte.

Mr Duterte had twice set deadlines for Philippine troops to retake Marawi but without success so far. The army predicts that the government will retake the city. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Duterte had twice set deadlines for Philippine troops to retake Marawi but without success so far. The army predicts that the government will retake the city. PHOTO: REUTERS

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It was classic bravado from the Philippines’ tough-guy president, Mr Rodrigo Duterte.

The Maute Group, a militant Islamist band fighting government troops near the southern Philippines city of Marawi last year, had asked for a ceasefire.

The president rejected the overture.

“They said that they will go down upon Marawi to burn the place,” Mr Duterte recounted in December. “And I said, ‘Go ahead, do it’.”

He got his wish.

Hundreds of militants belonging to the Maute Group and its allies fighting under the black flag of the Islamic State (IS), also known as Isis, seized Marawi three weeks ago, leading to a battle with the Philippine armed forces and the biggest test yet of Mr Duterte’s leadership during his tumultuous first year in office.

A president who has focused on a deadly anti-drug campaign that has claimed the lives of thousands of Filipinos seems to have been caught unprepared for a militant threat that has been festering in the south for years.

“The government has largely been in denial about the growth of Isis and affiliated groups,” said Mr Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington who specialises in South-east Asian security issues.

“Duterte has been preoccupied with his campaign of gutting the rule of law by using police and other security forces for the extrajudicial killing of drug pushers.”

Government forces have been unable to dislodge the militants despite deploying ground troops and bombing the city of 200,000 people from the air.

More than 200 people have been killed, including 24 civilians, 58 soldiers and police officers, and at least 138 militants, according to the Philippine military. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled, and much of the city centre lies in ruins.

The military says that it has cleared 90 per cent of the city but that militants remain in three neighbourhoods in the centre. Analysts say the military has less experience fighting on an urban battlefield, where the militants are mixed in with hundreds of civilians.

Mr Duterte has declared 60 days of martial law for the southern island of Mindanao, which includes Marawi and his hometown, Davao City.

He has twice set deadlines for troops to retake Marawi, the country’s largest predominantly-Muslim city, but each deadline has passed with the battle still raging.

On Friday, Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla predicted that the government would retake Marawi by today, Philippines Independence Day.

On Saturday, 13 Philippine marines were killed in a clash with militants there.

The militants’ seizure of the city, a bold attempt to establish an IS caliphate in South-east Asia, marks a significant advance for the Middle East-based terrorist group as well as an apparent reordering of the militant threat in the southern Philippines.

For the first time, it puts the Philippines on the map with failed states such as Libya and Afghanistan as places where the IS’ allies have sought to seize territory for a caliphate, giving the group another regional flash point in its effort to spread its influence globally.

The IS has urged fighters who cannot reach Syria to join the jihad in the Philippines instead, said Mr Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. Fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, Chechnya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia were among those killed in the battle for Marawi.

Mindanao has long been a hotbed of insurgencies, with numerous armed groups operating outside government control.

The Marawi siege also heralds the rise of Isnilon Hapilon, a longtime leader of Abu Sayyaf who had grown more ideologically minded over the years.

Last year, Hapilon, 51, was named by the IS as its emir in South-east Asia. Previously based on the island of Basilan, he is on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s list of most-wanted terrorists, and the United States has offered a US$5 million (S$6.9 million) reward for his capture.

Various factions have come together behind Hapilon, notably the Maute Group, led by the brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute.

The Mautes are believed to be responsible for bombing a market in Davao City in September that killed 15.

Mr Duterte is the first president from Mindanao, and he ran last year as the candidate who could bring peace to the region.

The bombing of his hometown may have inspired his angry challenge to the Mautes in December.

“It’s the usual Duterte brand of bravado,” said Mr Roilo Golez, a national security adviser to former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who left office in 2010. “It’s a way of intimidating the opposition. It works most of the time.”

It has not with the Islamists in Mindanao.

After a clash between the military and Abu Sayyaf in April, Mr Duterte suggested that the way to stop the militants was to eat them. “Make me mad,” he taunted. “Get me a terrorist. Give me salt and vinegar. I will eat his liver.”

In May, the Philippine military got a tip that Hapilon had arrived in Marawi to join up with the Maute brothers.

When soldiers raided the house where Hapilon was believed to be, hoping to capture him and claim the US$5 million reward, they were surprised to find dozens of well-armed militants arrayed against them.




Muslims make up only about 5 per cent of the country’s population overall but a larger proportion, estimated at 20 per cent to 40 per cent, on Mindanao.

Historical grievances among the Muslim Moro people there, widespread poverty and large lawless areas have helped create an opportunity for the IS.

A peace process pursued by Mr Duterte’s predecessor, Mr Benigno S Aquino III, faltered in 2015 and has remained deadlocked under Mr Duterte.

“It was not the spread of Isis in Iraq and Syria that fuelled Isis cells in the Philippines, but the collapse of the peace process,” said Mr Abuza, the National War College professor.

The growing threat in the south will most likely compel Mr Duterte to improve his relations with the US, a process that had already begun with the election of President Donald Trump.

Mr Duterte has raged against the US for daring to criticise his anti-drug campaign and, when Mr Barack Obama was in office, called for a “separation” from Washington.

But Mr Trump has shown a willingness to overlook the killings and has praised Mr Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem”, according to a transcript of a call between the two leaders. Leaders of the Philippines armed forces prevailed on Mr Duterte not to reduce military cooperation, including a long-standing US programme to provide training, equipment and intelligence to fight terrorism.

Since 2001, the US has maintained a rotating force of 50 to 100 troops in the southern Philippines to combat Abu Sayyaf.

US Special Forces are assisting the Philippine military in Marawi, the US Embassy said on Friday, although officials would not provide further details.

If the battle in Marawi ends today, as the military hopes, the rebellion in the south is still far from over.

The audacity of the rebel takeover, even if it ultimately fails, will probably draw recruits from across the region, including members of other Islamic militants groups still disaffected and dissatisfied with a moribund peace process.

“If Duterte doesn’t deal with that, then this whole problem is going to fester for a very long time,” Mr Abuza said. The “ungoverned space” on Mindanao, he said, “is a regional security threat, not just a Philippine security threat”. THE NEW YORK TIMES




Richard Paddock is South-east Asia correspondent for The New York Times.

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