Philippines Declares Martial Law Over Southern Region

Vince Magas - 4A Management
Posted on: June 3, 2017

Marawi, the picturesque capital of the province of Lanao del Sur in the Philippines, made headlines a few weeks ago not for its tourist attractions or its industry, but rather a bloody hostile takeover by the Maute, a militant organization affiliated with the larger Abu Sayyaf Salafi jihadist extremist group.

The Botched Raid

The sudden escalation of the situation started out as what was termed a ‘surgical operation’ to capture one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, Isnilon Hapilon, who was believed to be hiding in the city. A mere three days after the attempted raid, the city was entered by tanks, helicopters, and thousands of troops associated with Islamic State (IS), turning it into an urban battleground.

The Philippine military had previously received intelligence that their target, Isnilon Hapilon, was receiving medical treatment in Marawi city after their previous run-in with him during a bombing raid in the surrounding mountains back in January.

Shortly after the raid, the nearby Camp Ranao, where the 103rd Brigade of the Philippine Army was stationed, was reportedly attacked by at least 500 Maute group militants. This further escalated as Maute fighters quickly took over the city, capturing private and public buildings alike.  The Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady Help of Christians located in the city was torched in the initial clash, where it was reported that several civilians and a priest were abducted. Gunmen also occupied City Hall while over 100 inmates were freed from the local city jail. Over 120 civilians were taken hostage and used as human shields as the militants took over the local Amai Pakpak Hospital, as well as the Mindanao State University. Black ISIS flags were reportedly planted throughout the city.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana reported during a briefing that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) “had been pummeling the [Maute militants] in the mountains, but were caught unaware when they entered Marawi.” Making matters worse, the militants received support from the locals within the city due to existing clan-ties, as many Maute militants belonged to the region themselves. Lorenza followed this up stating “the problem here is [the militants] have a lot of relatives inside Marawi City.”

The fighting caused mass panic throughout the city and led to a hurried evacuation. Thousands of civilians fled the city causing congestion of major highways and local roads alike. Both government security forces and Maute militants took over various roads leading to and from Marawi, leading to further clashes and civilian casualties.

An initial report cited the death of five soldiers, two policemen, and thirteen militants.

Martial Law & Rising Death Tolls

President Rodrigo Duterte was at the beginning of a five-day trip to Russia for a state visit to meet with President Vladimir Putin. The visit was part of an attempt to re-orient the Philippines geopolitical alliance further away from the US and towards Moscow. The trip, however, was cut short after Duterte declared martial law on his native island of Mindanao in response to the events in Marawi. Resistance only intensified as a result of the declaration.

Special task forces were mobilized to combat the Maute militants and armoured vehicles were deployed to the city as well as the surrounding region. Fierce fighting occurred across the city as AFP forces struggled to reclaim buildings and access points that were taken over by the militants.

President Rodrigo Duterte, lawyer and former mayor of Davao City (also located in the island of Mindanao) and infamous for his hard stance and vocal support of extrajudicial killing of drug users and criminals, delivered the following statement: “Anyone now holding a gun, confronting government with violence, my orders are to spare no one, let us solve the problems in Mindanao once and for all. Do not force my hands into it.” Duterte had emphasized that in declaring martial law, the Philippines should not allow under any circumstances for the Islamic State to gain a foothold in the country and that he would do anything in his power to put down extremists like the Maute group and any others affiliated with the Abu Sayyaf. Duterte further stated in a press release: “If you think you should die, you will die. If you fight us you will die. If there’s open defiance you will die and if it means people dying, so be it. That’s how it is.”

True to his words, the death toll has dramatically increased in the region. As of June 2, the estimated death toll has reached 175, 120 of whom have been reported to be terrorists. The current confirmed civilian count has risen to a total of nineteen after AFP forces found sixteen bodies across two reclaimed locations in the city. One group of eight were found near the Mindanao State University which included four men, three women, and a child. The other eight bodies were found in a ditch by a highway at the outskirts of the city. The victims had their hands tied behind their back and each featured gunshot wounds to the head. Nearby the bodies was a crude cardboard sign saying “Munafik”, meaning hypocrite in Malay. Residents reported that the men, who worked for a local rice mill and medical college, were attempting to join a stream of refugees heading towards the nearby city of Iligan, but were stopped by Maute gunmen at one of the checkpoints.

Iligan City, located 38 kilometres to the north of Marawi, has also felt the effects of the chaos. Many residents of Marawi chose to flee to the city, much to the dismay of the increasingly overwhelmed local authority. Iligan City has entered a state of containment, implementing a 10 PM to 4 AM curfew and increasing police visibility as a preventative measure against potential militants repeating what occurred in Marawi. Colonel Alex Aduca, chief of the Fourth Mechanized Battalion, announced over local radio that they have apprehended dozens of militants who have been embedded among the refugee crowds headed toward Iligan. Colonel Aduca stated, “We don’t want what’s happening in Marawi to spill over to Iligan.”

Further across the region, security forces have set up their own checkpoints. Local police and military personnel in camouflage armed with assault rifles set up barricades, checking I.D.s, searching trucks, cars, and people who travel by foot to and from Marawi, Iligan and the airport.

President Duterte’s declaration of martial law came with a flurry of mixed responses. Many praised his steadfast stance against insurgents while others criticized his declaration as an ‘exaggeration’ and warned of potential abuse, citing the memory of former president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. who ruled under martial law in 1972 to 1981. In response to the criticism President Duterte stated: “The earlier we attain the equanimity of the community, the stability, I’d be the first to clamor for the lifting of martial law.” Duterte has stated that he will lift martial law only once it has been recommended by both the police and the military.

Who Is Insilon Hapilon?

From a University of the Philippines engineering graduate to one of the most wanted terrorists in the wilderness of Mindanao, Insilon Hapilon, is also known as Abu Abdullah al-Filipini, was the spark that lit the Marawi crisis aflame during the botched arrest raid on him.

Hapilon was born on March 18, 1966 in the Basilan Province of the Philippines, graduated from a prestigious engineering program at the University of the Philippines, and can speak four different languages. Mystery surrounds his reasons for joining the terrorist extremist group Abu Sayyaf, where he quickly climbed the ranks. His association with Abu Sayyaf did not become clear until 2001 when he was involved in the kidnapping of 20 hostages from the Dos Palmas Resort in the Palawan province. The incident put him on the FBI’s radar, as the victims included three American citizens of whom one was beheaded. His capture is currently valued at $5 million.

Hapilon has evaded the capture of several large scale operations against him and last year was chosen by ISIS to lead the Islamic State group branch in Southeast Asia after his declaration of allegiance to them. In an Islamic State video titled “The Solid Structure” which was released on June 21, 2016, he is mentioned and referred to as ‘al-mujahid al-muwakkal li-qiyadat junud ad-dawla al-islamiyya f-il-filibin’ (‘the mujahid authorized to lead the soldiers of the Islamic State in the Philippines’) and al-amir (‘the emir’). He was recognized as a member of ISIL in January 2017.

Mindanao and the Abu Sayyaf

It’s no secret to any resident of the Philippines that Mindanao is the main nesting area of various terrorist groups. The island has always had a tumultuous history, where violence can trace its roots back to the clashes between supplanted natives and Philippine-American and Spanish colonization attempts in the last 400 years. Massacres on both sides of the field were not uncommon, and warring groups such as the Moro National Liberation Front (supporting the region’s Islamic and Native population) and the Filipino-Christian “Ilaga” militias have always been present in the region. Former President Estrada’s “All Out War” strategy in 2000 marked a decade of cyclical violence and peace talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front who sought to establish an independent sovereign state in the region. This often led the displacement of hundreds of thousands of locals, with the report topping at over 930 000.

The Abu Sayyaf were considered part of this collection of Moro groups that have been fighting for independence in the region. The group was purportedly founded in 1991 and gained traction through various crimes and terrorist acts. They are infamous for many linked criminal activities such as child trafficking, kidnapping, and drug trafficking, and have been attributed some of the worst suicide bombings in the Philippines and Malaysia.

They have been designated as a terrorist group by the United Nations, Australia, Canada, the US, and the UK, as well as by neighbouring countries. In 2002 the United States made fighting Abu Sayyaf part of their military operation “Enduring Freedom”, as part of their Global War on Terrorism. Abu Sayyaf is mainly based in and around the Jolo and Basilan islands in Mindanao. They have had a history of supporting Al-Qaeda prior to the Islamic State.

Marawi

Marawi, or Marawi City, is the capital and largest city of the province in Lanao del Sur on the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines, home to over 200 000 residents. The land this city is situated on consists of mountains, rolling hills, valleys, and the large placid Lake Lanao; as such the city has a large focus on the agricultural industry, mainly rice and corn. The city is 90% Muslim and is the centre of Islam in the mostly Catholic country, and features local attractions such as the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts, featuring indigenous art and ethnic music from the region; Royal Torogan Houses, a Weaving Village, the beautiful Agus River which connects to the famous Maria Cristina Falls, the outlet of Lake Lanao to the Illana Bay. The city is also home to the Mindanao State University Campus as well as the lakeside Bagang Beach.