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After Hapilon’s death and the ‘liberation’ of Marawi

Marawi won't be truly liberated until it's safe for displaced residents to return.

Philippine soldiers in Marawi, October 2017 (Photo: Jeoffrey Maitem/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Philippine soldiers in Marawi, October 2017 (Photo: Jeoffrey Maitem/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Published 19 Oct 2017   Follow @sidneyIPAC

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared the 'liberation of Marawi', and the Philippines military says Isnilon Hapilon, the Abu Sayyaf militant seen as Islamic State group's leader in southeast Asia, and Omar Maute, another senior militant, are dead. But ISIS has not been wiped out in Southeast Asia and Marawi won't be truly liberated until it is safe enough for some 200,000 displaced residents to return. Yet the contours of ISIS activity will shift as fighting winds down. Any of the following could happen:

1. Attempted retaliatory bombings in other Philippine cities to show ISIS continues to exist

This could include Manila, Davao, Cotabato and Zamboanga. Philippine embassies abroad could also become targets, just as the Myanmar embassy was targeted in Cairo due to anger over the treatment of Rohingya Muslims.

2. A break-up of the pro-ISIS coalition into its regional/ethnic component parts

The largest component is composed of the ethnic Maranaos who joined Abdullah and Omar Maute in Marawi. Surviving fighters could join young men among the displaced to produce a militant Maranao Islamist insurgency that could draw on the same clan networks that the Mautes did. The new group would keep its distance from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) but evolve over time into something that more resembles an ethno-nationalist movement than a wing of the global jihad.

3. Pro-ISIS fighters on Basilan, largely ethnic Yakan, returning to kidnappings for ransom

Hapilon led an Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) faction that from 2014 onwards had largely left kidnappings to other factions – almost certainly because it had access to other sources of income. Between 2014 and late 2016, when action shifted to Marawi and the surrounding area, the island province of Basilan was the main ISIS base in Mindanao. It was where Malaysians and Indonesians went to train, assist Hapilon with recruitment and fund-raising, and purchase weapons.

With Hapilon dead, his once close associate Furuji Indama could become the new ASG leader on Basilan. Furuji could easily decide to leave ISIS and return to kidnapping, or return to kidnapping but focus on foreigners in revenge for Hapilon's death. Furuji stayed in Basilan throughout the Marawi siege, as far as we know, and there were unconfirmed rumours that he had split with his former commander. Whatever the truth, he reportedly does not take kindly to a 'number two' role, and this could spell the end of Basilan's involvement in the pro-ISIS coalition.

4. The anointing of a new amir

Much media speculation has focused on who could succeed Hapilon, from a Maute relative to Dr Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian who for the last three years has been part of the ISIS inner circle – and who is reportedly still alive.

The problem is that Dr Mahmud does not have the family networks to be able to command fighters or territory, and that could be a drawback. On the other hand, a leader who stands outside traditional ethnic divisions might have a better chance of keeping the weakened coalition intact. Among Filipinos, a possible contender could be Esmael Abdulmalik (alias Abu Torayfe), the head of a pro-ISIS splinter of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) that has been fighting the MILF in central Mindanao. As far as we know, however, he lacks the international ties, language skills and charisma that made the Mautes so potent.

5. Major battles of revenge focused on land

Dozens of intense battles between armed groups (known as 'rido' conflicts) could break out around Marawi as different clans seek revenge for losses inflicted on them during the Marawi siege. There is likely to be major payback against the extended Maute family, in a way that will complicate reconstruction. More than ever, a strictly enforced ban on firearms and ammunition is needed, but that would entail challenging entrenched political interests.

6. An attempt by the remnants of Khatibah Nusantara in Syria to take charge

The top Southeast Asian ISIS leaders in Raqqa who survived the final assault on ISIS there are believed to have regrouped to Deir az-Zour in Syria. They might be considering a return, and the Philippines could be an attractive option – there they could find refuge, stage attacks, inspire the Marawi survivors or attempt to open a new training camp.

Two Indonesians, Bahrumsyah and Abu Walid, could be the most likely to get the green light from the ISIS leadership to attempt a return, especially as the fighters in Marawi seem to have seen Bahrumsyah as their senior in the chain of command. If one of these two men made it back, it would ensure a high level of interest of Indonesian extremists in joining their ranks. If, on the other hand, Indonesians in Syria are no longer able to send small amounts of money to help fellow mujahidin in Java or Sumatra buy air tickets, the trickle of fighters trying to leave for Mindanao could dry up completely. Money still counts.

7. Ongoing recruiting and radicalisation among Muslim youth in Mindanao

Whatever happens, the 'liberation' of Marawi does not mean an end to radicalisation. Philippine authorities do not seem to have ever understood how deep the indoctrination was, where it was taking place, or how long it had been going on. There is now at least a recognition in some quarters that the government needs to know more, especially about the support ISIS was able to marshal among university students. How much that recognition will translate into concrete programs to confront it remains to be seen.

8. Bitter fights over the reconstruction of Marawi in a way that aids the Islamist cause

Many displaced residents are angry at the destruction of their homes, angry at the conditions in evacuation centres, and angry at their inability to return. Media reports suggest that some youth see the Mautes as heroes. If reconstruction aid is mismanaged, skimmed, or overly politicised, Islamist recruiters could have more success in exploiting that idolisation. There are many organisations around the world with experience in reconstructing urban areas after conflict, and it would be useful to help Marawi community leaders get to know them. Australia is home to one of the best – Architects without Frontiers in Melbourne.

All of this suggests that the deaths of Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute do not herald the beginning of the end of violent extremism in Mindanao. It may be just the beginning of a new phase. It should also be the beginning of a new phase in international aid, focused less on winning the war against the Mautes and more on strengthening local communities, improving social services, fixing the appallingly defunct criminal justice system and outlawing private armies.

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