End Near for Mindanao’s Islamist Militants?
The fading fight of Dawlah Islamiyah in the Philippines
By: Michael Hart
In mid-December, Philippine troops launched a pre-dawn operation in the far south targeting what remains of the Maute group in a remote forested area of Marogong, Lanao del Sur province. Locals had reported sighting 30 to 40 armed men near their village, but the militants fled before soldiers arrived to discover a hastily abandoned training camp and bomb-making site. The military revealed intelligence reports had placed Maute leader Faharudin Hadji Satar (alias Abu Zacaria) – the alleged emir of “Dawlah Islamiyah” or the Islamic State in East Asia – in the area along with a small band of followers. This could be all that remains of the extremist group, which has operated in the shadows since most of its hundreds-strong fighting force was killed in the Marawi siege five years ago.
Further south, makeshift camps of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom fighters (BIFF), also under the Dawlah Islamiyah banner, were captured in the marshlands of Maguindanao in the final months of the year. Like the Mautes, the BIFF’s strength has been severely weakened by the military since the Marawi siege. The decline of these groups has coincided with the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which in the last four years has seen moderate separatist rebels in the southern Philippines lay down their arms in return for self-governance. With the tide turning towards peace, is the fight of Dawlah Islamiyah in Mindanao nearing its end?
Decline of Maute in Lanao del Sur
The Maute group suffered heavy losses attempting to take over Marawi city in 2017 alongside Abu Sayyaf. Their bid to establish an Islamic caliphate ended after five months, when Philippine troops retook the city and killed its leaders, brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute. Their successor, Owaydah Marohombsar, alias Abu Dar, was killed in a shootout with the military in Tubaran, Lanao del Sur, in March 2019. The remaining Maute fighters have laid low, with little activity reported since an aerial military offensive targeting a remote jihadi camp in Maguing in early 2022 left seven fighters dead.
Around that time, the Philippine armed forces identified Abu Zacaria as leader of the Mautes and as the Islamic State’s new chief in the region. A propaganda video released online by the militant group later showed a masked figure standing in front of 34 armed rebels, purportedly filmed in the jungles of Lanao. The jihadist claimed to represent the East Asian wilayat, or province, of Dawlah Islamiyah, and pledged allegiance to Islamic State in the Middle East. Additional propaganda materials denoted areas of activity in the western Mindanao provinces of Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, and Bukidnon.
The recording called on all Muslims in the Philippines to join Dawlah Islamiyah. While the identity of those featured in the video was obscured, it likely depicts Abu Zacaria and his followers. The footage corroborates recent military estimates indicating that the Maute group has few active members left.
After the Maguing offensive, the Philippine army remarked that Maute presence was geographically limited to remote areas of Lanao del Sur, but that they were “trying to recruit more members.” Last month, after seizing the training camp in Marogong, the military said that around 40 rebels had been monitored in the area. Some were believed to be remnants of the 2017 Marawi cohort, while others were new recruits, including teenage-looking rebels brought to the secluded site to receive training.
BIFF under pressure in Maguindanao
The BIFF is also running short on fighters. Immediately after the Marawi siege, its ranks swelled as it welcomed foreign recruits and former Maute members. It clashed regularly with government forces in 2018–2020 and carried out high-profile bombings targeting shopping malls in the urban centers of Isulan and Cotabato. Yet repeated aerial bombardments by the Philippine military have killed scores of BIFF rebels, and limited its operating space to Liguasan Marsh and adjacent municipalities in rural Maguindanao. The BIFF’s manpower may have fallen from 300–400 in recent years to less than 100.
Three factions of the group remain. The most radical faction, affiliated with the Islamic State, is led by Esmael Abdulmalik, alias Abu Toraife, while the others are commanded by Ismael Abubakar (Imam Bongos) and Ustadz Karialan (Imam Minimbang). All three BIFF factions – which cooperate in a loose strategic alliance and have no centralized leadership – are considered by the army to be members of Dawlah Islamiyah. The military has also tagged a faction of Abu Sayyaf, led by Mundi Sawadjaan and active in the nearby island province of Sulu, as another local group still affiliated with the Islamic State.
The BIFF retains the capacity to construct crude improvised bombs, and last year was blamed by the authorities for bombing passenger buses in Koronadal and Tacurong as part of “diversionary tactics” to deflect from the military pressure it is facing. No sustained fighting between Philippine forces and the BIFF has taken place since late 2021, indicating the group has shifted to a defensive footing after suffering significant losses. Smaller skirmishes have still taken place. In one such incident, figurehead Abu Toraife was reported to have been “seriously wounded” by artillery fire in Datu Salibo last year.
Moro youth vulnerable to recruitment
Military operations have reduced the strength of Dawlah Islamiyah, and the creation of the BARMM has blunted its support base. The separatists of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Moro National Liberation Front—which fought for autonomy for decades and remain heavily influential—have both joined the political process, sidelining the ideology of radical offshoots like the Mautes and the BIFF.
Yet a recent report by the Institute for Autonomy and Governance, based in Cotabato, warned that Moro youth remain vulnerable to the pull of extremist groups. The study, which surveyed 800 youth living in major cities and conflict-affected rural areas of the BARMM, found that half of the respondents saw jihad (armed struggle) as an obligation of every Muslim, while 68 percent agreed that “discrimination against Moros is enough justification to bear arms and fight.” Marginalized youth were found to be particularly vulnerable, with poverty and lack of education the main push factors for joining militant groups—which were reported to lure young people with the promise of cash, guns, and cellphones.
Livelihood aid provided to surrendered militants by the Philippine government, as part of programs to combat violent extremism, has served as a counterweight to these economic gains. In the longer term, however, the problem of jihadist recruitment can only be tackled by development that offers job opportunities and a sustainable alternative to militancy for marginalized youth in the BARMM.
BARMM as antidote to extremism
There are signs of progress. The poverty rate among families in the BARMM has fallen from 56 percent in 2018, before the self-governed region was inaugurated, to 30 percent in 2021. Yet the BARMM still lags behind all other regions of the Philippines, which has a national poverty rate of 18 percent. It is hoped that economic growth in the BARMM, traditionally driven by agriculture, mining, and fishing, will expand to other sectors such as banking and tourism as separatism recedes. Growth is already at 7.5 percent while investment has topped US$150 million since the BARMM was formed in 2019. This exceeds the total received in three decades by its predecessor, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has pledged continued support for the BARMM during its post-conflict transition, and the political and economic success of the region will be vital to diminish the message of the Islamic State as its campaign fades. While Cotabato city will play a symbolic role as the administrative capital, it is hoped that Marawi city—rebuilt after its near total destruction by the Mautes in the siege five years ago—can reemerge as a major trading hub and reclaim its status as the bustling “Islamic City” of Mindanao. As Philippine troops track down the remaining jihadists, a strong BARMM must emerge if the lands once sought by Dawlah Islamiyah are to remain at peace.
Michael Hart has researched for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), and is publications consultant at the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. He blogs at Asia Conflict Watch.