The flames of conflict that have raged around once little-known Marawi City in the predominantly Muslim province of Mindanao in the southern Philippines threaten to ignite a wider jihadist insurrection in archipelagic Southeast Asia unless they are quickly doused.
The raising of so-called Islamic State’s black flag in a province that long has had a reputation for sectarian violence and Muslim resentment towards the central government in Manila has come as a rude shock to President Rodrigo Duterte, the maverick Philippine leader who prides himself on his tough approach to law and order. But it is also a wake-up call for Australia and the region.
Longstanding fears that Islamic State may seek to extend its caliphate into Southeast Asia are in danger of being realised as its bastions in Iraq and Syria crumble under sustained military pressure from the coalition of forces aligned against it, which includes Australia. Among the 300 jihadists believed to have been killed so far in fighting around Marawi are foreign fighters from Malaysia and Indonesia, as well Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Yemen. On Thursday Australian journalist Adam Harvey, who was covering the conflict, was struck in the neck by a bullet, later removed without serious damage.
The scale of the fighting and the substantial military, logistical and financial planning that has allowed several hundred militants to hold out against thousands of Philippine troops is a clear indication that the Abu Sayyaf-Maute rebellion is qualitatively different from the largely criminal activities of the old Abu Sayyaf group. This could be the beginning of a full-blown Islamic State-inspired insurgency against the Philippine government with the potential to spread to other parts of Muslim Southeast Asia, including southern Thailand, Malaysia and, critically for Australia, Indonesia.
The leaders of this audacious and dangerous insurgency, the Maute brothers and Isnilon Hapilon, whom Islamic State proclaimed its Southeast Asian “emir” last year, are committed jihadists intent on establishing a Southeast Asian caliphate from sanctuaries in Mindanao.
Marawi was to have been The Philippines’ equivalent of Raqqa, Islamic State’s Syrian headquarters from which the lightning strikes into Iraq were successfully planned and executed in 2014.
The group reportedly had plans to stage “uprisings” in at least two other cities in The Philippines before it was forced into premature action by an operation by the nation’s armed forces to capture Hapilon. However, such a strategy is unlikely to be successful without large numbers of committed supporters.
The question is, will the incipient Marawi uprising resonate more broadly in Southeast Asia and attract sufficient numbers of recruits to sustain and expand a region-wide jihadist insurgency?
Nobody knows for sure. But during the past decade there has been a discernible shift towards religious conservatism among Muslims, which jihadists believe provides fertile soil for their fundamentalist teachings to take root.
And there are plenty of Muslim grievances, real and imagined, for them to exploit.
A successful Islamic State-inspired insurgency in The Philippines could quickly attract a fresh wave of international jihadists, as well as returning foreign fighters, facilitating transnational tactical alliances with like-minded militants in other parts of Southeast Asia.
Separatist sentiment in Thailand’s three Muslim provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat has become increasingly violent in recent years.
In Malaysia, five terrorist organisations have declared their support for Islamic State. And Indonesia has suffered several terrorist attacks perpetrated by disparate groups of hardline Islamists radicalised by Wahhabist and Salafist ideas imported from the Middle East.
Indonesia is the key to determining whether a caliphate can successfully entrench itself in the region because of its large Muslim population and strategic position at the maritime crossroads of Southeast Asia. If Indonesia remains a secular, tolerant, democratic state, it will be more difficult for jihadism to spread. An avowedly Islamist Indonesia, or one racked by religious turmoil and conflict, would be a security nightmare for Australia.
Societal, cultural and linguistic differences have made Indonesia a difficult country for Australians to read, so it’s not surprising that Indonesia watchers are split on whether the global trend towards greater piety among Muslims makes Indonesia more vulnerable to radicalisation.
However, it is a possibility that warrants serious analysis in the wake of Marawi and the recent jailing of the ethnic-Chinese Christian former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, on blasphemy charges.
Former Department of Defence secretary and ASIO head Dennis Richardson, who served in Indonesia as a diplomat, made precisely this point in his retirement remarks at the National Press Club in Canberra last month. Richardson surmised that Ahok’s jailing might be an early sign that Islamist thinking was beginning to reshape Indonesia’s traditionally pluralist politics, while acknowledging that it was still too early to tell. However, the question was “at the sharp end of what we should be watching”, he noted.
Evidence for the view that Indonesia may be more susceptible to Islamist thinking is not hard to find. Contact between Indonesian and Filipino Islamists is becoming more frequent as jihadists across Southeast Asia buy into the Islamic State vision of a transnational caliphate that subsumes national identities and loyalties.
In The Weekend Australian last Saturday, Southeast Asia correspondent Amanda Hodge drew attention to Omar Maute’s time as a teacher at an Islamic boarding school in Indonesia and his attempts to imbue his students with a strict Wahhabist interpretation of the Koran. After marrying an Indonesian woman, Maute returned to The Philippines and joined his brother Abdullah in leading the Marawi rebellion.
Religious conservatism is clearly on the rise in Indonesia. It is striking how much more outwardly pious Indonesians have become. This is reflected in the proliferation of prayer groups and Koran discussion groups, the wearing of traditional headscarfs known as jilbabs by more religiously inclined women, and increasing strictures on the LGBT community.
Last month’s public flogging of two gay men in conservative Aceh province for consensual sex prompted widespread international condemnation and raised fears that sharia law could be formally extended to other parts of Indonesia.
Whether religiosity and tolerant liberalism can coexist harmoniously in Indonesia is an open question. A 2015 Pew poll found that Indonesia is the third most religious country. The growing number of Indonesian Muslims who favour a strict interpretation of the Koran largely accounts for the hostility towards the LGBT community, the existence of which is regarded by many as contrary to religious teachings.
A local poll by Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting measuring tolerance found the LGBT community was the second most disliked group (16.6 per cent) after Islamic State (25.5 per cent).
Influential Muslim umbrella organisations such as the Indonesian Ulema Council have been instrumental in pushing a conservative sociopolitical agenda, issuing fatwas — religious rulings — against liberalism, secularism and pluralism. The widespread use of social media has inflamed and amplified prejudice and fear, creating a febrile, post-truth digital world of alternative facts and false news that has been exploited for political ends.
In this highly charged atmosphere even self-described moderates have felt under pressure to concede ground to Islamists. This was evident in President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s conciliatory statements to the estimated 500,000 demonstrators who turned out in the centre of Jakarta to demand that his former protege Ahok be charged for blasphemy.
Mainstream politicians, not known for their religiosity, have been guilty of consorting with Islamists to advance their political interests. Jakarta’s governor-elect Anies Baswedan set a dangerous precedent in unashamedly parading himself as the defender of Islam in his successful campaign to replace the purported blasphemer Ahok.
And there is little doubt that former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Suharto’s former son-in-law and presidential aspirant Prabowo Subianto have both used the services of the thuggish, hardline Islamic Defenders Front to stir up unrest and discredit rivals, a classic Javanese political tactic.
Long a secular bastion against religious extremism, the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) have not been immune from the broader societal trend towards religious conservatism. The prickly and politically aware TNI commander, General Gatot Nurmantyo, has licensed the military to wear religious symbols including the jilbab.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Indonesian Muslims are more susceptible to political messaging clothed in a veneer of religious virtue.
This greening of Indonesian politics provides more space for Islamists to prosecute their agenda, fosters a climate of intolerance and plays into the jihadist narrative that nonbelievers must be co-opted, or eliminated, to guard against Islam’s corruption.
Nonetheless, there are four reasons the country is unlikely to succumb to the siren call of jihadism and become another Mindanao or Syria.
First, the trend towards greater piety and religious observance doesn’t mean Indonesians don’t support their secular, hard-won democracy.
The constitutional separation of religion and state was a foundational principle of modern Indonesia and commands broad community and elite support. So does the accompanying state ideology of Pancasila, which explicitly rejects the idea of an Islamic state because it mandates the protection and equal status of all major religions in Indonesia — Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism and Hinduism.
The reality is that Indonesians consistently have voted against parties that want to establish Islam as the official state religion — by an overwhelming majority of 78 per cent at the most recent election.
Second, it is unlikely that non-Acehnese Indonesians would accept the national imposition of Acehnese-style sharia law, complete with its morality police and mandatory wearing of the jilbab.
As the first province to convert to Islam in the 13th century, Aceh has always been regarded as atypically religious by other Indonesians. Aceh-only sharia law is the price Jakarta had to pay to end a long-running separatist conflict that at one time threatened to split the province from the rest of Indonesia, before a peace agreement was signed in 2005.
Third, Indonesia’s traditionally tolerant brand of Islam is in no small way due to the support provided by two mainstream Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, which together act as a bulwark against the spread of extremist ideas. Although the 40 million-strong NU is a conservative Sunni grouping, it rejects radical Islam and actively supports Pancasila, as does the modernist Muhammadiyah.
Fourth, the military will not permit extremist ideology and jihadism to undermine the unity of the Pancasila state, which it is institutionally sworn to respect and defend.
Fears that TNI itself may become Islamised are overblown and a misreading of the armed forces’ culture and history. Pancasila, which is inculcated into the officer corps from an early age, effectively inoculates TNI against the creeping Islamisation that has affected other militaries in the Muslim world.
There also are encouraging signs that the Indonesian government and civil society are pushing back against extremist ideology, recognising the danger it represents to political stability and the country’s vibrant but still young democracy.
On May 8, Jokowi ordered the dissolution of the Islamist Hizb-ut Tahrir organisation for promoting the idea of a global caliphate and for inciting Indonesians to overthrow secular governments.
Ten days later, following criticism that he was not doing enough to arrest the momentum of hardliners and defend democratic values, the normally mild-mannered President issued an uncharacteristically stern warning that he would gebuk, or clobber, any group that sought to replace Pancasila and the constitution.
Gebuk has a particular connotation in Indonesia’s often opaque political discourse, having been used once before by former president Suharto in 1989 to foreshadow a crackdown on detractors and alleged coup plotters.
Jokowi’s unmistakeable message to Islamists and their supporters is that they have crossed a red line and that actions deemed to threaten Pancasila and the constitution will not be tolerated by his government.
As one may expect, human rights groups have been prominent in the recent civil society campaign against fake news and hate speech, urging people to respect the rights of fellow citizens.
However, they have been joined by Islamic preachers in opposing divisive rhetoric that polarises people along ethnic and religious lines.
For example, the advisory board of JUMAT (Young Islamic Preachers Network of the Archipelago) has publicly accused Hizb-ut Tahrir of harming “the pluralistic foundations of Indonesia”.
But if worst-case scenarios of Indonesia becoming a religiously polarised or radicalised state are unlikely to eventuate, the jihadist insurrection in Marawi is a timely reminder that Islamic State-inspired terrorism is a resilient and constantly evolving threat that demands a more regionally focused and integrated counter-terrorism strategy.
Australia has an important role to play in shaping and resourcing a regional response.
We should start by offering intelligence and training support for the under-siege Duterte government. A next step would be to explore avenues for creative diplomacy in bringing together Indonesia and other threatened Southeast Asian states in the aftermath of Marawi to discuss the problem of returning foreign fighters. This is a much bigger problem than previously recognised.
Jihadists have astutely used Facebook and other social media to post blogs, videos and graphic pictures of the Marawi conflict, portraying it as a victory for Islamic State and its regional affiliates.
This is likely to inspire copycat uprisings and galvanise recruitment, complicating and exacerbating the issue of returning foreign fighters.
Indonesia already is struggling to reintegrate 500 fighters recently returned from the Middle East out of an estimated 800 who have fought in Iraq and Syria with Islamic State.
Another way in which Australia can contribute to a co-ordinated regional response is to help build a detailed intelligence picture of the communication links between jihadist groups in Southeast Asia, their modes and routes of travel, and the source and flows of their money and weapons.
We need to understand how the Abu Sayyaf-Maute group could acquire the logistics, weapons and financial support to threaten a city of 200,000 and defy The Philippines’ armed forces for nearly a month.
Taking a leaf out of the Islamic State playbook, the Marawi jihadists have shown a surprising ability to conduct sophisticated, information warfare in support of their aims. Videos posted on social media showing putative military successes appeared within days of the first battles, along with an online propaganda magazine depicting the mass execution of Christians in the city.
There must be renewed pressure on Facebook, Google and the controllers of other social media platforms to find more effective ways of reducing the ability of jihadists to use the internet to spread their propaganda and hate messages.
Finally, containing and defeating the jihadist contagion will require closer bilateral counter-terrorist co-operation with Indonesia. The last thing Australia or Indonesia needs is for the Marawi contagion to spread beyond the borders of The Philippines to infect our own communities and add to the multiplying security challenges we face in Asia.