Mindanao (Philippines): Long road ahead for Marawi rebuilding as fighting ends

The Philippine government has officially declared an end to the siege in the southern city of Marawi, ending five months of heavy clashes against ISIL-linked fighters and paving the way to recovery for a town left with more than $1bn worth of destruction.

Defence chief Delfin Lorenzana made the announcement on Monday, just hours after troops found the bodies of the last 42 fighters belonging to an armed alliance that had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

“The Philippine security forces, aided by its government and the massive support of the Filipino people have nipped the budding infrastructure and defeated terrorism in the Philippines,” Lorenzana said.

He made the comments during a meeting of regional defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) north of the capital, Manila.

Lorenzana said that while the end of the clashes “will not annihilate the [fighters’] ideology”, it signalled the importance of regional cooperation in the fight against the “proliferation of terrorism” in the Philippines and its neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia.

’Only the first step’

More than 1,000 combatants, including foreign fighters, as well as civilians were killed in the fighting, which also displaced as many as 600,000 people in and around Marawi.

Zia Alonto Adiong, governor of Lanao del Sur province which has Marawi as its capital, said that while thousands of displaced residents are “rejoicing” at the prospect of going home, they should “not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead”.

“Achieving this victory does not mean the end of threats. Life is never free of dangers,” he said in a statement to the media.

“We must recognise that the end of this war is only the first step toward building the peace.”

The siege of Marawi began on May 23, when security forces tried to serve an arrest warrant against Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of the Abu Sayyaf armed group.

Instead of giving up their arms, Hapilon and his fighters formed an alliance with the local Maute Group - led by Omarkhayam Maute and his brothers - and took over the city by Lake Lanao.

Marawi’s capture prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law for the entire island of Mindanao.

At that time, the Philippine military insisted that ISIL had no presence in the country, contradicting Duterte’s pronouncements that the attack “has long been planned” and was “purely ISIS”.

It had also been widely reported that both the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute fighters had pledged allegiance to ISIL.

When the conflict started, the army vowed to end it within weeks, in a military campaign that included air raids.

It repeatedly set deadlines which, however, were missed and the clashes eventually lasted for five months - one of the longest active armed rebellions in the country.

Then, on October 16, government troops reached a breakthrough when soldiers stormed a hideout and killed Hapilon and Maute. A day later, Duterte declared the city “liberated”, even as sporadic fighting continued.

’Rebuilding our lives’

The Philippine government estimates that it will need up to $1.1bn to rebuild Marawi.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino, a member of the Marawi rehabilitation committee in Congress, urged the national government, local Muslim leaders and civic leaders to work to “rebuild and create prosperity in the city”.

“We fully support efforts to rehabilitate Marawi City and to bring normalcy and prosperity into the lives of Maranao families,” he said referring to the dominant Muslim ethnic group in the area.

Mikee Pantaran Maruhom, a student leader and a Maranao, said the end of the fighting is bittersweet for members of his extended family, whose houses in Marawi were destroyed by “government air strikes”.

“The Marawi siege did not only affect Marawi residents, but also the entire Maranao community,” he told Al Jazeera.

“For me, it is a great relief. I think my relatives who lost their homes also feel the same way. We can now actually move on to the next phase, which is rebuilding our lives,” he said.

But like other Maranaos previously interviewed by Al Jazeera [see below], Maruhom said the central government in Manila should address the root cause of the problem in Marawi, which is poverty and alienation.

Shidik Abantas, a lawyer at Marawi’s Mindanao State University, had said the rise of “extremism” in Mindanao “is not really caused by the ISIS in the Middle East. It is mostly caused by the historical injustices that continue to this day.”

AL JAZEERA NEWS, 23 Oct 2017

* http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/10/long-road-marawi-rebuilding-fighting-ends-171023145832089.html

 Duterte: Marawi ’liberated’ from ISIL-linked fighters

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared a southern city “liberated from terrorist influence” a day after government troops killed two top commanders of an armed alliance linked to ISIL.

Duterte made the announcement on Tuesday despite a military general saying dozens of fighters, including foreign nationals, were still battling Philippine troops in Marawi.

“I hereby declare Marawi city liberated from the terrorist influence. That marks the beginning of rehabilitation,” he said during a visit to the city.

The president did not indicate when he will lift the martial law declaration he issued for the entire island of Mindanao when fighting broke out in May.

Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, an army spokesman, told reporters the military operation in Marawi would continue “until armed elements are dealt with”.

Padilla said between 20 to 30 fighters, who he referred to as “stragglers”, remain. It is believed they are holding at least 20 hostages.

Reports said a Malaysian doctor, Mahmud Ahmad - identified as a financial backer of the group - was also on the run.

Al Jazeera correspondent Jamela Alindogan, reporting from Marawi, confirmed there were still “pockets of fighting” in the beleaguered city.

On Monday, Isnilon Hapilon - top commander of the Abu Sayyaf group - and Omarkhayam Maute of the Maute group, as well as seven of their fighters, were killed during a major assault on their hideout.

During that operation, about 17 hostages were also reportedly rescued by the military.

Both Abu Sayyaf and Maute had declared allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), later joining forces to rampage through the university town in Mindanao.

The five-month battle of Marawi has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced as many as 600,000 while levelling the historic city.

Richard Heydarian, a political analyst, said the success of the Philippine military could be partly attributed to assistance from US special forces, which provided intelligence as well as equipment during the fighting.

Australia, China, and Russia also provided military hardware to Philippine troops.

“The Philippines can now claim that the threat of an Islamic state is under control,” Heydarian said, though he warned fighters could shift to pinpoint attacks on government forces as well as civilians.

While the deaths of Hapilon and Maute and the declared liberation of Marawi dealt a major blow to the rebellion in Mindanao, a retired general criticised the government’s handling of the operation.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, the former military official, who asked not to be named, said the fighters “practically held the nation and military hostage for several months”.

“The Marawi conflict proved to be a serious challenge to the government and its security apparatus and has grave implications for the Philippines’ war against terrorism,” he said.

Meanwhile, Marawi residents told Al Jazeera that unless “historical injustices” against the impoverished Muslim communities are righted, the problem will persist.

Alindogan reported it is likely that new leaders will emerge from the armed groups.

“If we look at the history of rebellion in the Philippines, death of leaders does not necessarily mean an end to the presence of these groups,” she said.

“This is why peace negotiations with these groups are critical.”

AL JAZEERA NEWS, 19 Oct 2017

* http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/10/duterte-marawi-liberated-isil-linked-fighters-171017071213300.html

 Marawi siege: Army kills Abu Sayyaf, Maute commanders

Two top Philippine commanders of an armed alliance that has declared loyalty to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group, have been killed, according to authorities, in a major blow to an ongoing armed rebellion in the country’s south.

Isnilon Hapilon, the top commander of the Abu Sayyaf Group and Omarkhayam Maute of the Maute Group, as well as seven of their fighters, were killed on Monday, after military forces launched a major operation in the besieged city of Marawi, General Eduardo Ano, the top military commander, said in a press conference.

Ano said information provided by a female hostage, who escaped recently, led the government troops to the location of the armed fighters.

He added that the two commanders had never intended to give up arms, quoting them as telling the escaped hostage, “We will not surrender. We will die fighting”.

Hapilon had a $5m bounty on his head issued by the US government. The government of the Philippines has also offered $200,000 for his capture, and a separate $100,000 for Omarkhayam.

Ano said dozens of fighters, including foreign nationals, remain holed up in one section of Marawi, and they are believed to be still holding hostages.

But with the deaths of Hapilon and Maute, “it is just a matter of time” before the siege will be over, Ano said, referring to the five-month battle that has left over 1,000 people dead, about 600,000 others displaced, and a historic city destroyed to the ground.

The siege of Marawi started when military and police tried to serve an arrest warrant against Hapilon in May. Instead of giving up their arms, Hapilon formed an alliance with the Maute Group and launched a bloody rampage across the university town by the picturesque Lake Lanao. That prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law in Mindanao.

Hapilon’s notoriety has spanned almost two decades as one of Abu Sayyaf’s top commanders in the islands of Basilan and Sulu, where the group has been involved in kidnappings and beheadings of hostages including several foreigners.

Multiple military operations have been conducted against the group, which previously aligned itself with al-Qaeda. But Hapilon managed to evade the military dragnet several times.

Hapilon then switched his allegiance to ISIL, becoming its self-appointed Southeast Asian commander.

Earlier this year, he and his men moved to the province of Lanao del Sur to join forces with the ISIL-inspired Maute Group. The group was led by the brothers Omarkhayam and Abdullah. Abdullah and two other Maute brothers were reported killed by the military in September.

Historical injustices’

Shidik Abantas, legal officer at Mindanao State University in Marawi, said the military operation on Monday was “very significant in a sense that the end of the siege is almost here”.

“As to whether it will bring peace, it is complicated,” Abantas told Al Jazeera.

“The rise of extremism in Mindanao, especially in our locality, is not really caused by the ISIS in the Middle East. It is mostly caused by the historical injustices that continue to this day.”

As a local, he said he feels “depressed and annoyed” at the siege and destruction of Marawi, which he said were both preventable.

“The instant use of aerial bombings and the absolute abandonment of all forms of negotiation has led to the destruction of Marawi,” he said.

“The destruction of the city has brought about mistrust between the locals and the government.”

He also said that the “insistence of the government” to link locals to the armed fighters despite “zero or unsubstantial evidence” worsened the conflict.

Root of ’extremism’

Jay Batongbacal, lawyer and Southeast Asian Studies expert at the University of the Philippines, said Monday’s operation was a “major blow” to Abu Sayyaf, setting it back “for a few years”.

“But it does not mean that the Abu Sayyaf has been completely eliminated,” he said, adding that the group has shown “resilience and adaptability” since it emerged in the 1990s.

“Experience has shown that it tends to lie low and then re-emerge as a threat after a while, with new leadership,” Batongbacal told Al Jazeera.

“For as long as the social and economic conditions in Mindanao have not improved, the Abu Sayyaf will find fertile ground for a comeback.”

Meanwhile, a retired senior military commander warned that a new generation of fighters could emerge from the Marawi conflict.

“The fighting and destruction in Marawi could inspire a generation of young Muslims to consider, or even adopt the fundamentalist ideology of ISIL,” the retired officer, who asked not to be named to freely discuss the long-running rebellion, told Al Jazeera.

He said the extent of destruction of Marawi could “exacerbate” the situation.

“The Marawi conflict proved to be a serious challenge to the government and its security apparatus and has grave implications to the Philippines’ war against terrorism,” he said.

“The fact that the rebellion has practically held the nation and the military hostage for several months is a grave development.”The terrorist group in Marawi was not a ragtag one, but a formidable force, well-organised, well-equipped, and highly motivated.

“The death of the duo and the end of Marawi hostilities may signal a temporary weakening of the movement. But the threat continues and may even evolve into a more serious and radicalised one.”

’Beginning of bigger battle’

For Alia Fatma Macarambon, a student and resident of Marawi, the conflict is personal.

“This war broke my heart, every picture, every news regarding the war makes me cry, because it is not the Marawi that I know,” she told Al Jazeera.

“It saddens me that there are so many innocent persons killed. I have close relatives and friends who have no home to go back to.”

Ace Guro, an ethnic Maranao whose family hails from Marawi, said that while the latest development signals the war may be over soon, it is only “the beginning of a bigger battle” for her people.

“To be honest, some of us have considered not going back because the city is no longer the home it used to be. But those who do not have the privilege to leave will stay,” she said.

Guro said the government should have a clear plan for rehabilitation that would give “incentives” for locals to work with the government.

“We need to build that kind of trust between each other to make things work. We want to make sure that what happened in Marawi will not go down in history as a mere crisis but as a success story of how we defeated terrorism despite being accused of such.”Aside from the buildings that need to be fixed again, I think it’s important to heal the wounds that we don’t see, the spirit of the Maranaos that have been shaken by the crisis."

Ted Regencia

* AL JAZEERA NEWS,16 Oct 2017:

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