Yet some MNLF members were unhappy with the agreement—Manila did not allow true autonomy or include all the provinces the Moros wanted—so they joined the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which continued the violence. Other more extreme splinter groups also emerged and became known for kidnappings, bombings, and assassinations, as well as associating with foreign groups like al-Qaeda. Mindanao also faces attacks from the New People’s Army, a communist insurgent group, which is also in the process of peace talks with the government.
From 2002 until 2015, U.S. special operations forces assisted and advised the Philippine army in fighting extremist groups such as Abu Sayyaf, led by 51-year-old Isnilon Hapilon, a terrorist on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list. As part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the troops successfully captured major leaders and weakened the groups, although Hapilon eluded capture. A small contingent of the special operations forces stayed behind and is currently assisting the Philippine military in Marawi without engaging in combat.
Since ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of a caliphate in 2014, four splinter groups from different parts of Mindanao—Abu Sayyaf, Maute Group, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and Ansarul Khilafah Philippines—pledged allegiance to ISIS. In 2016, ISIS named Hapilon the emir or chief leader of Southeast Asia’s ISIS fighters.
In a region where clan ties often result in divisions within rebel groups, ISIS’ ideology has the dangerous effect of bringing groups together, noted a 2016 report by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. The report said ISIS has also “widened the extremist recruitment pool to include computer-savvy university students, and opened new international communication and possibly funding channels.”
THE MARAWI SIEGE began when a group of soldiers tried to raid a safe house where they believed Hapilon was hiding on May 23. Hapilon has a $5 million reward on his head, so the soldiers kept the group small in order to receive a larger share of the reward money. They didn’t know Hapilon had the protection of the powerful Maute Group, which had planned to burn the city three days later on the first day of Ramadan.
Forced to begin the siege early, Maute fighters freed more than 100 prisoners, destroyed buildings, and took hostages. The Philippine military countered with airstrikes and gunfire, as they tried to help civilians get to safety. President Rodrigo Duterte placed the island of Mindanao under martial law, setting a curfew on cities closer to the violence and increasing checkpoints and military presence. “We feel safer because of the heightened security,” said Liz Uyking, a Christian resident of Davao City, five hours south of Marawi.
Rebels destroyed a Catholic church, holding Father Chito Suganob and about a dozen others hostage. Authorities believe Suganob is alive, as a military spokesman told reporters that soldiers had seen him June 25 in a rebel-held part of the city. The Maute Group also killed nine civilians at a rebel checkpoint after the civilians identified as Christians, according to Philippines’ GMA News. (The term “Christian” in Mindanao is used for any non-Muslim, many of whom are nominally Catholic.)
Yet amid the pitting of Muslims against Christians, stories have surfaced of Muslims protecting Christians from the pro-ISIS groups by hiding them in their homes. One respected politician, Norodin Alonto Lucman, hid 71 people in his house, including 50 Christians. When he received a text about a major bombing campaign in his area, he led the civilians out of the city, carrying a white flag and pretending they were all Muslims. As they walked, more trapped civilians joined them, and all 160 made it out of the city unscathed. In another neighborhood, five Muslim police officers hid five Christian construction workers for nearly three weeks, refusing to flee the city in order to protect the Christians.
By late June, the fighting had killed 280 rebels, 69 soldiers, and 26 civilians in Marawi City. The rebels managed to last this long because they possess high-tech equipment like drones to find the military’s position. ISIS spokesman Aboulhassan al-Mouhajer announced the group’s pleasure with the attack in June: “Children of the caliphate in eastern Asia, we congratulate you for taking Marawi.”
Walker does not think the fight will continue much longer, as U.S. special operations forces had already weakened Abu Sayyaf, and most notably, the larger and more powerful MILF has not joined under the ISIS banner, as they wish to continue engaging the government in peace talks. Duterte recently announced he would work with MILF on a peace deal contingent on the group helping neutralize the pro-ISIS splinter groups. Yet MILF has little influence over the groups besides providing financial incentives, Walker said.
As Marawi residents flee the city, Philippine authorities fear that fighters are also escaping and infiltrating nearby cities. Villano, the professor in Mindanao, noted that 1,000 evacuees from Marawi have come to his General Santos City, about eight hours away. He noted that most of the evacuees are women, children, and the elderly, which raises the question, “Where are the men?” Because of this suspicion that these are the families of terrorists, some Christian groups have refused to help the evacuees, as they believe the children will one day grow up to become terrorists themselves.
Yet Villano disagrees. He mobilized his students in the college fellowship to raise money for the Red Cross in the conflict area. Other Christian groups are at work on the ground as well: One ministry is providing food and medical aid to both Muslims and Christians fleeing the violence. Another ministry in Davao works to educate, train, and evangelize indigenous people who are relatives of the Muslim tribes in hopes that they can reach out to the Muslims. It plans to send groups of indigenous people to Marawi after the fighting ends to help rebuild the city.
Walker, meanwhile, started an organization to provide the Muslim population with education, scholarships, healthcare, and small-business development. At the same time, he also works on ministering to the Muslim population and holding Bible studies for those interested.
Villano said that because open evangelism is often not an option for Christians wishing to reach Muslims, actions can be powerful as well: “Even for the family of terrorists, our obligation is to help them and pray for them as we need to have them see the love of Christ.”