REVISTED PERSPECTIVE ON CONFLICT Unanswered Questions on the Marawi Siege and Violent Extremism in the Philippines

by Dana Batnag

If there is anything that the Marawi siege proved, it is that the government can control the flow of information, and mainstream media can do little about it.

ON OCTOBER 23, 2017, the government declared an end to the Marawi siege. The government claimed victory, but it only meant that government forces were finally in control of Marawi City; it did not mean an end to the fighting, and definitely not to the threat posed by the Maute group, and other ISIS-inspired groups in Mindanao.

This was made clear in December, when President Rodrigo Duterte asked Congress to extend martial law in Mindanao for one more year, as the presence of ISIS-inspired groups was one of the reasons mentioned. “We are seeing that the rebellion has not stopped, it just moved to another place,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told Congress. Until January 2018, more than three months after the government’s declaration of the end of fighting. President Duterte told businessmen in a visit to India to “avoid Mindanao…There’s something there in the South that’s quite virulent.”

Eight months after the Marawi siege began, the government narrative on the conflict continues to change. Unfortunately, there is no other narrative available.  From the beginning, the government has been in control of the story in Marawi, and with that the dominance of its official view on terrorism.

Foreign and local journalists cover a military convoy in Marawi City on June. 28, 2017. | Photo by Froilan Gallardo

On May 23, when the fighting began, the first reports were that either it was an ambush by the Maute Group on the military, or an attempt to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group.

By the end of the day, the military said it was “in full control of the situation,” and that the armed men were not ISIS but were members of a local terror group. Before midnight, however, Lorenzana, together with then Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella and Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano announced in Russia that President Duterte had declared martial law, precisely because of ISIS’ attack on Marawi City.” It was only then that the military acknowledged the presence of ISIS in the Philippines, and even then the term they would use was “ISIS-inspired.”

Now, President Duterte is linking what happened in Marawi to the war on drugs.

If there is anything that the Marawi siege proved, it is that the government can control the flow of information, and mainstream media can do little about it.

Para kaming aso, waiting for military feedback,” said Froilan Gallardo, who covered Marawi for MindaNews. When the military declared Marawi City a controlled area and banned civilians from entering, Gallardo said reporters were forced to wait for the regular Monday and Friday briefings to get news. Those who go into the conflict areas in Marawi without permission could be banned if caught, he said, and that frightened reporters into submission. “If I get arrested, out in the field, I’ll be banned. They will ask my office to send somebody else. Ang mga reporters, takot dun.”

The first refugees from the fighting in Marawi is another case to demonstrate the government’s control on information. In the beginning, around June or July, authorities said there were at least a thousand refugees from Marawi. By the time the siege was over, however, no one seems to know where they are. Gallardo, who wanted to write about those who were rescued in the first few months of the siege, or were able to leave shortly after the fighting began, said he could not find any of them. He wanted to see how they were doing, emotionally and psychologically.

Ilan talaga ang hostages? Sabi nila, 1,000. One thousand din ang rescued. They don’t have the names. The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), isang buwan na ako, they don’t want to give me the names,” he said. The DSWD staff, he said, won’t even return his call.

This chokehold on information holds back the appreciation of the challenge posed by terror organizations. Leaving this only to the military is unwise, because terrorism is not only a military problem. It involves societal, perhaps, even cultural issues, and requires a comprehensive approach to be addressed.

When Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based security analyst who has been closely following terror groups in the Southeast region, spoke before a group of foreign correspondents days after the government declared itself in control of Marawi City, she asked very basic questions.

“Some of the major unanswered questions still are who are the foreign fighters in Marawi, how many were there? That’s a critical question because it bears on how international this initiative actually was. Secondly, what happened to the other big names after the death of the Mautes and Isnilon Hapilon, there were a lot of people who were in Marawi, some of whom were in that planning video, and we’ve heard nothing (about) whether they’re alive or dead. These have not been answered,” she said.

A foreign journalist prepares to fly a drone from a top of a building in Marawi City on June 24, 2017. Journalists are increasingly relying on drones to get images but unfortunately in the hostile environment, authorities are banning its use. | Photo byFroilan Gallardo

Reporters have been asking the same questions since the military made those claims, but up to the present, no answers have been given.

Every now and then, Jones said, there were reports of “foreign-looking fighters” killed during the siege, but there were no details or follow-up stories about these people.

“What’s a foreign-looking fighter? There was one case where there was announcement that a Singaporean had been found, and then it turned out it was a fighter who had died, who was a little bit Chinese-looking,” she said.

Jones also noted that there is no report tracing the routes that foreign fighters took to get into Mindanao, or even Marawi.

“I think it’s really critical to try to pin down from the people who were arrested in Marawi exactly how many foreign fighters were there and what countries they were from, and how they got to Marawi,” Jones said.

While it is true that the Philippines have weak border controls and a long coastline, Jones noted that some terrorists entered through airports, and not through the backdoor. Gallardo said none of the Tablighi, an apolitical group, who were in Marawi when the fighting began joined the Maute group; they were all accounted for, eventually.

In her latest report about Marawi, Jones said that as of November 2017 only 47 suspects linked to the Maute Group and Ansarul Khalifa Philippines (AKP) were in detention, “out of 600 suspects detained for links to other violent extremist groups.”  The report was based on interrogation reports of seven individuals involved in the Davao bombing in 2016, who were part of a pro-ISIS cell in Cotabato.

“The sobering conclusion is that even with the decline of the ISIS ‘brand’, the narratives used to recruit violent extremists remain powerful, particularly among educated, urban Muslim youth,” Jones said, noting that many of the Cotabato cell members were “university students, not driven by poverty or lack of opportunity.”

“The report notes the striking role in the pro-ISIS coalition played by Muslim converts from Luzon, giving the movement a reach that extends far beyond Mindanao. Together the radicalised converts and the urban recruits suggest a possibility of sleeper cells not only in and around Marawi but in Cotabato, Cagayan and Manila.”

There are other angles that could be pursued, she tells the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP): the role of women in terror organizations, the participation of foreign fighters and their entry routes into the country.

The seige damaged proerties in the city of Marawi, the main battle area between the government and the Maute forces. | Photo by Mark Saludes

Media reports, however, have mostly focused on the violence caused by terrorism, often treating terrorism as if it were a simple crime story, with the reporting focused mainly on the victims, the perpetrators, and the organizations. There are very few analytical reports on the difference between the terror organizations in the past (the Abu Sayyaf Group and Jemaah Islamiyah) and those at present (the Abu Sayyaf Group and ISIS).  Few journalists have reported on how groups recruit their members. No one has explored the role of social media or the bases of the communities’ support for them.

One reason is that there is no available data. Fermin Adriano, a consultant for the World Bank, said that there are no comprehensive studies on Muslim youth or their susceptibility to extremist views, or even of Muslim communities, and their views on extremism.

Yet terrorism is one of the biggest stories for Philippine media in 2017. It was the reason for the declaration of martial law in Mindanao.  Until now, Duterte warns of possible terror attacks. While it is understandable that the security agencies keep some information confidential, the media must go beyond informing the public about terror attacks.

Coverage must also help the people understand better terrorism as a phenomenon, not just as something that happens to us, but as something that we can also prevent from happening. This can only be done with more, not less, information. Vigilance on the part of the media means more than reporting the events; it also means explaining to the people why these are happening, and how these can be prevented.