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Asian beachhead

An ISIS battle in the Philippines reflects radical Islam’s growth in Southeast Asia

Asian beachhead

Soldiers patrol a street as smoke billows from gunfights and aerial strikes in the Philippine city of Marawi. (Associated Press)

Plumes of smoke now regularly rise above the coastal town of Marawi in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao as ISIS-linked gunmen clash with the Philippine army in an attempt to establish a wilayah or province of the Islamic State. For the past month, the sound of machine-gun fire and explosions from Philippine air force bombers rang out in the nearly empty streets, as most of the city’s 200,000 residents have fled.

On May 23 rebels raised the black flag of ISIS over Marawi, the only Muslim city in the majority-Catholic country. Gerry Villano, a college fellowship leader and sociology professor at Mindanao State University-General Santos City, remembers seeing the stark image in the news: “I’m a patriotic person—I love the Philippines and Mindanao like how Christ loves us. So it hurt me to see the ISIS flag up.” He assumed the government forces would crush the rebels in a few days, yet as of late June, the rebels still controlled 10 percent of the city. The fighters barricaded themselves in, using civilians as human shields and strategically stationing snipers atop the minarets of mosques.

The monthlong battle in Marawi is part of ISIS’ attempt to expand into Southeast Asia as it loses ground in Syria and the Middle East. ISIS’ ideology of creating a global caliphate has brought together Islamic extremist groups in the region, and in the Philippines created a force able to pull off such a prolonged fight, an anomaly even in the violence-prone island of Mindanao.

About 15 percent of the world’s Muslim population lives in Southeast Asia, with Indonesia claiming the title of the largest Muslim nation in the world. Indonesia and Malaysia have been touted as models of tolerance and pluralism, yet recently they have shown signs of radicalization: In recent months, a Jakarta court sentenced the city's Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or “Ahok,” to two years in prison on blasphemy charges, while in Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur, Pastor Raymond Koh has been missing since he was kidnapped in broad daylight back in February.

Indonesia’s government believes ISIS cells now exist in every province of the country. In addition, about 700 to 800 Indonesian and Malaysian extremists have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the fighting, creating a group called Katibah Nusantara. Still, this is fewer than the number of French and Russian foreign fighters, which are about 1,700 and 2,400 respectively.

The fact that ISIS’ first major offensive in Asia is happening in the Philippines, Asia’s only Catholic nation, is unsurprising given Mindanao’s history. Spanish and American colonizers allowed Christian Filipino settlers to claim land originally belonging to local Muslim tribes, called Moro, causing great resentment among the Moro and other indigenous peoples.

Discrimination against Muslims continues to the present day, says James Walker, a missionary who has lived in Mindanao since 1998. It’s difficult for young men with Muslim-sounding names to get jobs in the predominately Christian cities, and Muslim areas often don’t have access to good healthcare, education, or government resources, said Walker. (WORLD changed his name for his protection.) Imams use this dissatisfaction to recruit rebels.

Since the 1970s, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) insurgents have fought the Philippine central government for autonomy. Peace talks in 1996 ended the fighting and named MNLF leader Nur Misuari the governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, consisting of five of the island’s predominately Muslim provinces.

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.”

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.