The Philippines’ Marawi: Next Islamic State Nucleus

Foreign nationals from Yemen, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia have been killed in the month-long struggle for the Mindanao island city of Marawi, an unsettling signal that IS, thwarted by overwhelming military pressure in the Middle East, is seeking to establish a new base in Mindanao.

That came home in terrifying fashion for 11-year-old Jasper Samiahan,11, and his family, who fled Marawi five days after being trapped in clashes between sympathizers of the Islamic State (IS) and the military. His father wasn’t with him.

Ernil Samiahan and 10 others were abducted by members of the home-grown Maute group as they tried to make their way to the provincial capital. He was only able to escape by braving the waters of the Agus River on May 29, swimming for his life. What Samiahan saw surprised him – his abductors were tall, fair-skinned, with aquiline noses and speaking English very well.

Long-nosed warriors

“It was a mixed group, those who took us – there were foreigners and Filipinos,” Samiahan said after his escape.

The Islamists attacked Dansalan College, a decades-old United Church of Christ institution, burning the main building of the school, which houses, the library, the science laboratory and the dormitory. Apparently members of the faculty and administration have been kidnapped and there are fears for their safety. Although the staff is 80 percent Christian, the student body is 95 percent Muslim.

“Yes, there are reports of the presence of jihadists,” Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera, spokesman for the military in Marawi, told Asia Sentinel. “We are coordinating with our troops to validate this information. We are taking steps to identify who these foreigners are.”

Prior to the Marawi siege, Philippine authorities arrested Kuwaitis Husayn Al-Dhafiri and Syrian Rahaf Zina, both of whom are said to have ties with IS, in the Taguig area of Manila. CNN Philippines has reported that Zina is the widow of Abu Jandal Al-Kuwaiti, the second highest commander of the terrorist group, who was killed in the Middle East.

The possibility of IS luring other extremists to Mindanao has been evident since June 21, 2016, security analyst Sidney Jones said in a June 2017 presentation “How Kampung Melayu and Marawi are Linked,” a copy of which was obtained by Asia Sentinel. IS activists have created a video encouraging sympathizers from Southeast Asia in particular to go to the Philippines.

Journalists killed

IS’s efforts have flagged dramatically in the Middle East, where this week Iraqi soldiers backed by US fighter planes have made progress in the bitter months-long battle to take back the northern city of Mosul. For two years, Iraqi soldiers have been battling IS to reclaim power over the stronghold. Two journalists, video reporter Stephan Villeneuve and reporter Bakhtiyar Haddad, were killed by an IED in the final assault.

The pushback against IS in the Middle East has put a spotlight on increasing its presence elsewhere, such as the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte acknowledged on June 20 to soldiers wounded in the fight, that IS wants to turn Marawi into its wilayat, or province.

Porous borders

The links between the terrorists in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are tight and dynamic. Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, explained that Rafi Udin from Malaysia, Indonesians named Faiz, also known as Abu Walid, and Mohd. Reza Kiram have sworn their loyalty to Isnilon Hapilon, the reported IS emir in Southeast Asia. Hapilon, a Filipino, is the leader of one of the factions of the Abu Sayyaf group, which is regarded as a kidnapping-for-ransom gang by many rather than a true Islamic force.

The military tried to arrest Hapilon on May 23, but he evaded capture as the Maute group kicked off the violence which has wrecked Marawi city and turned thousands into refugees. The city has since become an urban battleground as the Islamists and the army have slugged it out in house-to-house fighting.

Faiz, who like many Indonesians has only one name, is said to be allied with Bahrumsyah, the purported leader of Katibah Nusantara, the military unit of IS. Jones, in her presentation, said Bahrumsyah enjoys the support of IS so much so that the group funds him. In 2015, he reportedly provided the money for the acquisition of arms in Mindanao for Poso in Indonesia, its training ground.

Indonesian terrorist group sends jihadis

The main group sending the jihadists to Mindanao, however, according to Jones, is the Jamaah Ansharud Daulah, an Indonesian terrorist group formed in 2015. It has also pledged allegiance to IS.

The latest entry of suspected terrorists from Malaysia and Indonesia was recorded earlier this week, on June 19. The Philippine maritime group Task Force Tawi-tawi arrested two Indonesians and one Malaysian en route to Marawi city. They are believed to be affiliated with IS.

On the same day, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia enforced a trilateral agreement on maritime patrols on their respective borders. Foreign ministers from the three countries also held an antiterrorism meeting on June 22 in Manila to discuss what measures could be strengthened to prevent the increase of IS support in the region.

Young and brainwashed

Aside from exploring and fortifying security measures, however, these countries also need to find a way to stop the radicalization of young people. In the checkpoints lining the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte, banners are hung, containing the faces of suspected members and supporters of the Maute group.

Among them, one face stands out, that of an 11-year-old boy whose name has yet to be determined by the military. His picture, however, showed him brandishing the reported hand sign of loyalty to IS – a raised index finger.

Samiahan said that among those who abducted him and his fellow captives were 10-year-olds. “They were children, around 10 years old. They held long rifles, M-16s.”

A soldier who asked for anonymity (he does not want to be identified for safety purposes as he has yet to fully recover from wounds from the fighting), said some of those whom he fought with were teenagers. He saw them on the first day of siege as they engaged in hostilities in front of Marawi’s Amai Pakpak medical center.

“They were young. They looked keen on attacking us. They were calm but looked all conditioned to fight,” he said.

One of the Maute group’s alleged members arrested in Cagayan de Oro, a province three hours away from Marawi, was 22 years old. Almahid Pangompig Romato, a suspected bomber, was carrying a fake student ID when he was arrested by the police.

Al Jazeera reported that the Maute group particularly preys on orphans of rebel parents who have been killed in clashes with the military.

Not just Marawi

But as government forces from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines amp up efforts to secure their borders, the Philippine government has to also work double-time to first, stop the spread of Maute members and its supporters nationwide.

Those who have been arrested – the parents of Omar and Abdullah Maute, Farhana in Masiu, Lanao del Sur and Cayamora, their father in Davao city; Hapilon’s aide, Hamsi Amajad Marani in Zamboanga city, Romato in Cagayan de Oro, and three other suspected members in Iloilo city in the region of Visayas showed that the movement of the group’s members and supporters has gone beyond Marawi city.

Key to the arrests, particularly of Romato and Marani, was the cooperation and concern of the community. Local police said it was the people in the respective areas themselves who tipped them about the presence of the two.

In Balo-I in Lanao del Sur, volunteer nurse Amer Riga alerted the police about a Maute member who became his patient. “I was tending to his wounds when I recognized his face from the photos in the wanted list. We have turned them over to the provincial police,” he said.

But as members of the Maute group find a way to flee Marawi, the city continues to suffer. The siege has resulted so far in the death of at least 26 civilians, 268 enemies and 66 government forces. Around 500 trapped residents have had nothing to eat, while the number of displaced people has reached 180,000. The military said it is doing its best to seize control of the four remaining villages.

Rommel Banlaoi, a terrorism expert, said that the government must not just focus on the Maute group, however. “It’s not just the Maute group. The problem of terrorism is bigger than that,” he said. As foreign terrorists set their sight on the Philippines, that is an ominous warning.

Asia Sentinel contributor Purple Romero ( ) is reporting from the ground in Marawi City.