Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s imposition of military rule in the restive, Muslim-majority island of Mindanao is “over the top”, counterterrorism experts said on Thursday, amid growing fears the controversial leader plans to use a rising tide of extremist violence as an excuse for nationwide martial law.

“If I think ISIS has already taken control in Luzon and terrorism is not really far behind, I might declare martial law throughout the country,” Duterte said late on Wednesday after cutting short a state visit to Russia to deal with the crisis in Mindanao, the second largest island in the archipelagic state.

“Anyone now holding a gun, confronting government with violence, my orders are spare no one, let us solve the problems of Mindanao once and for all,” he said.

The president imposed military rule on the island a day earlier after fighting erupted in the city of Marawi between government forces and members of the Maute militant group, which had previously pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The military on Wednesday said it had “stabilised” the situation after the initial violence in the city of 200,000 people saw at least seven security personnel killed – including a policeman who was beheaded – and dozens of others injured. Media reports on Thursday said 13 militants were killed and thousands of the city’s inhabitants were fleeing to other parts of Mindanao. Regional counter terrorism experts said the president’s reaction to the violence was overblown.

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“I think Duterte’s response has been completely over the top and certainly not proportional to the situation at hand,” said Peter Chalk, a counterterrorism expert for the US think tank RAND Corporation. “The incidents this week do not warrant the type of powers the army will now be allowed to exercise and, should it proceed, will probably do far more harm than good,” Chalk said.

He added: “If he moves to try and extend martial law across the country as a whole, there will be a huge backlash.”

LACK OF STRATEGY

Other observers said the knee-jerk decision displayed the current administration’s lack of a coherent strategy to deal with rising Islamic militancy in Mindanao, where an insurgency has simmered for decades. The Muslim-majority region is home to about 20 per cent of the Philippines’ total population of 100 million people. The majority of Filipinos are Catholics.

Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino in 2014 signed a landmark peace pact with the region’s biggest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

But smaller groups including the Maute group and others like the Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) are persisting with their aim of setting up a caliphate on the island, in line with the goals of the main Islamic State group.

The Maute group, led by a group of brothers with links to the Middle East, “has the smartest, best-educated and most sophisticated members of all the pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines” according to a 2016 report by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.

Islamic State has acknowledged these groups and views the Abu Sayyaf’s Isnilon Hapilon as their collective leader. Officials say fighting broke out in Marawi when the military launched an offensive in the city to capture Hapilon.

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“Duterte has no overall strategy for Mindanao. He is not pushing forward with the MILF peace process, which is fueling this [pro-ISIS] group crisis,” said Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia counter-terrorism expert at the National War College in Washington.

Abuza said the security action in Marawi City could potentially disincentivise the MILF from keeping the peace in Mindanao. “We need MILF assistance to effectively deal with Maute and other [pro-ISIS] groups. Duterte is sympathetic to the Moros, but I really don’t see any strategy,” he said, using the local term for the Philippines’ Muslim population.

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Human rights observers meanwhile said Duterte’s threat of imposing nationwide martial law was alarming, particularly because of the Philippines’ past history with military rule.

Martial law under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos from 1972 to 1981 saw widespread human rights abuses and some US$10 billion of state funds plundered.

The observers say the thousands of extrajudicial killings that have occurred as part of Duterte’s ongoing “war on drugs” give added weight to their fears of an escalation of rights abuse under martial law. Duterte denies activists’ claims that he is behind the killings, but says he is unapologetic for his tough stance on the drug scourge since coming to power last year.

“Given the lawlessness of Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’, in which the police and their agents have been implicated in the cold-blooded killing of more than 7,000 suspected drug dealers and users, military restraint in Mindanao may be wishful thinking,” James Ross, the legal and policy director for the US-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

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In his comments on Wednesday, Duterte invoked the memory of Marcos to tout the merits of martial law. “Martial law is martial law. My fellow Filipinos, you have experienced martial law. It could not be any different from what the President Marcos did. I’d be harsh,” he said in video posted on Facebook by his staff. He added that the late dictator’s rule was “very good”.

Ross said the “coming days and weeks will see if the Philippine Congress and courts are up to the task of keeping a wildly abusive president in check”. Under the constitution, the president is required to brief the legislature on the rationale for the imposition of martial law within 48 hours of its proclamation. Duterte’s office submitted a written report late Wednesday.