Military trucks drive past destroyed buildings and a mosque in Marawi in 2017. Photo: AFP
Joseph Franco
Joseph Franco

Marcos Jnr should look beyond jihadist ideology to stop Islamic State recruitment in the Philippines

  • A five-month Islamic State siege of southern city Marawi in 2017 killed more than 1,000 people and blighted the lives of over 1 million others
  • If Marcos Jnr wants to put a stop to such a thing happening again, he must focus not on religion but on poverty and other socioeconomic factors

If history has a habit of repeating itself, a short but deadly conflict between Islamic State-linked violent extremist organisations (IS-linked VEOs) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines should be making the administration of new Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr more than a little concerned – although those in charge would be wise to delve deep to find out what really caused the fighting.

It was 2017 when such VEOs took over the southern city of Marawi, home to around 200,000 people and the country’s only Islamic city. They wanted to establish a wilayah (administrative division) in the wider Bangsamoro region, home to the Muslim-majority Moro community. In response, the Philippine military attacked Marawi.

After a five-month long siege between May and October, during which more than 1,000 people died and over one million were displaced from their homes, the military managed to take the city back.

Could such a violent and deadly clash happen again? This is the key security question that the new government under Marcos Jnr will have to grapple with.

Many people believe the next phase of violent extremism in the southern Philippines may emerge due to developments in the Middle East and Central Asia, especially the re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But this fear is misplaced. Jihadist ideology is not the main driving force of extremist recruitment in the Bangsamoro. In fact, studies (such as those conducted by The Asia Foundation, as well as the author’s fieldwork) have shown that the main driving forces are rising poverty and a lack of local socioeconomic opportunities for Moro youth.

Philippine soldiers patrol in the southern island of Mindanao in 2017. Photo: AFP

Five years after the battle for Marawi, the underlying socioeconomic issues that triggered the siege remain unresolved and a new phase of violent extremism may emerge in the region if the incoming government does not urgently address critical concerns.

Large portions of Marawi’s centre lie in ruins. Thousands of internally displaced people still languish in refugee camps. Government reconstruction funding has prioritised showcase projects like sport and government complexes. Residential areas in the so-called most-affected area (MAA) of Marawi remain conspicuously empty and desolate.

A limited number of new homes have been built but only in inaccessible suburbs of the city, complicating efforts for displaced people to restart their pre-conflict livelihoods and seek gainful employment.

In April 2022, the Duterte administration, after much delay, finally ratified the Republic Act 11696 (RA 11696) otherwise known as the “Marawi Siege Compensation Act”. It is, however, just the start of a long and likely litigious process to compensate private property owners.

Marcos Jnr, sworn in as president on June 30, has yet to articulate how he intends to fast track the rebuilding of Marawi or to expedite compensation as promised by RA 11696. In the run up to the polls, he instead stated that the reconstruction was almost complete, without offering details.

‘I sold my son to IS’: a Philippine family, ripped apart

Beyond issues related to the rehabilitation of Marawi, legislators and officials in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) face challenges translating promised improvements to quality-of-life into reality for their constituents.

The Bangsamoro Transition Authority’s term was extended until 2025 from its original 2019-2022 period. Its critical task was to enact several laws that would enable the BARMM to manage and run the area.

To date, only three of six critical Bangsamoro laws have been enacted: the Administrative Code in October 2020, the Civil Service Code in February 2021 and the Education Code in May 2021.

However, important laws covering elections, local government, and revenue are still being worked out by Bangsamoro’s parliament. On top of these organisational issues, the region’s chief minister has repeatedly called for the national government to fulfil its promise to fund post-conflict normalisation and also buy back weapons from demobilised Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters.


Philippine government races to rebuild Marawi city before end of President Duterte’s term

Philippine government races to rebuild Marawi city before end of President Duterte’s term

These kinds of unresolved socioeconomic concerns may well drive a resurgence in extremist recruitment among Moro youth, more so than the influence of foreign ideologies. An overemphasis on the impact of foreign ideologies and over investment in counter-ideological solutions, as seen in the National Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism, could lead to suboptimal results.

First, the new president should immediately articulate his vision for the reconstruction of Marawi and particularly the MAA, beyond merely citing initiatives purportedly completed by the outgoing administration.

A key focus should be alleviating the conditions of internally displaced people as refugee camps are potential areas for VEO recruitment. Unemployed and destitute Moro youths have reported being approached by VEO members, the latter promising cash payments in exchange for membership.

At the same time, further delays to the reconstruction of Marawi may provide propaganda fodder for IS-linked VEOs. Jihadist narratives in the Philippines often paint the nation’s security forces as occupiers and destroyers of the rich religious heritage of Marawi.

Life after Islamic State: Marawi faces its next battle – rebuilding

The ongoing sight of Marawi in ruins is likely to make those individuals who are vulnerable to VEO recruitment even more receptive to jihadist propaganda.

Secondly, Manila should reiterate its commitment to supporting the BARMM in providing resources to help people return to their normal lives. Delays in demobilising MILF fighters and reducing the supply of illicit firearms in Mindanao could provide an opening for VEOs to recruit and replenish manpower lost during the 2017 siege.

If the “normalisation track” falters, former MILF fighters may end up using their weapons and know-how to engage in illicit activities such as extortion and kidnap-for-ransom activities.

Previous peace agreements with other secessionist or communist groups in the Philippines have seen similar dynamics play out. Former armed cadres and cells could either be absorbed into existing organised criminal groups or become private armies run by local politicians for the purpose of electoral intimidation.

Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. Photo: Reuters

At the same time, Marcos Jnr‘s government should extend a conciliatory hand to the BARMM. During May’s polls, the BARMM’s ruling party opted to endorse the candidacy of Leonor Robredo – then the vice-president and a prominent human rights lawyer and advocate – hinting that the Bangsamoro people should not vote for candidates that could bring back abuses seen in the past.

It was a veiled reference to the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos Snr, whose declaration of martial law in 1972 led to many abuses against Filipino Muslims and others, including murder and torture.

One way for the national government to regain the trust of the BARMM constituency is to support capacity-building initiatives, such as providing legislative and administrative support to ensure the prompt passage of the three remaining codes (covering elections, local government and revenue) essential to the functioning of the BARMM.

Ultimately, focusing on rebuilding Marawi and enabling the BARMM to govern effectively could bring about meaningful changes to the region’s socioeconomic conditions. In turn, better life outcomes for young people in Bangsamoro will mean they are better equipped to resist VEO recruitment and mobilisation efforts.

This article was first published by the Asian Peace Programme, an initiative to promote peace in Asia, housed in the NUS Asia Research Institute.