TO see why the Mindanao terrorists linked to the Islamic State could turn into the biggest threat to the Republic ever, we’d have to look at how it had become such a formidable force that it captured Iraq’s second biggest city in 2014 and declared a territory in Iraq and Syria as big as the United Kingdom as part of its Caliphate.
The Islamic State is upon us, its opening salvo the bloody attack on Marawi City by jihadists linked to it. The media calls them the “Maute Group” since the group has been led by Omarkhayam Romato and his brother Abduallah.
The group, however, calls itself Islamic State-Ranao, after the old name of the areas surrounding Lake Lanao in central Mindanao. It is not just coincidence but symbolic that the Islamic State-Ranao’s biggest battle so far has been Marawi, the only Islamic city in the country.
Before discussing in more detail what this IS-Ranao and other groups linked to the Islamic State is, we’d have to study first what this “ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah” is, to realize that it does pose a huge threat to the nation, probably the most serious menace to the country.
The Islamic State grew so powerful in the wake of catastrophic blunders by the US.
First was its invasion of Iraq in 2003, on the pretext that it had “weapons of mass destruction” threatening the US and the world – which turned out to be total fiction. The real reason was that it satisfied Americans’ bloodlust, to avenge the al-Qaida’s attack on the World Trade Center that demolished it and killed 3,000 innocent Americans. The US smashed the secular Iraqi state, leaving a vacuum for jihadists to attempt setting up religious versions of a state.
A second, bigger blunder: Just a few months after the US invasion of Iraq. the superpower ordered the dissolution of Saddam’s army and security apparatus, purportedly to nip in the bud all armed resistance to its occupation. The opposite happened, and worse.
With 250,000 officers and soldiers finding themselves without work overnight, they became easy recruits for the then still tiny group called “al-Qaida in Iraq,” led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian street thug who had been radicalized into militant jihadism during his imprisonment in the 1990s. Battalions defected to al-Zarqawi en masse. bringing with them tanks, artillery and thousands of rifles. About half of IS’ top commanders are said to have been former officers in Saddam’s army.
An analogy would be if the Cory regime right after the fall of Marcos ordered the disbandment of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, on the ground that this was the pillar of the dictatorship. Almost certainly, its officers would have fled to the Ilocos provinces to form a formidable “Marcos” army, while its noncommissioned officers and soldiers would have been recruited by the New People’s Army.
The ranks of “al-Qaida in Iraq” ranks swelled, and more importantly Saddam’s officers turned Zarqawi’s fledgling ragtag army into a disciplined military force. Again, imagine if instead of just one officer, Lt. Victor Corpus, a thousand AFP officers had joined the NPA.
Zarqawi made a horrific innovation in its jihad: It beheaded captives, including two Americans which he himself did, had videos made of these ruthless acts, and posted them in the Internet. While it horrified the West, it made al-Qaida in Iraq appear as such a determined force that young Muslims from other countries, including those from Europe, joined it.
While horrific to modern eyes, these atrocities were in compliance with “pure,” or ancient, Islam – that is, these were normal practices during the time of the Prophet in the 7th century. The message: Only the “al-Qaida in Iraq” was the true follower of Islam.
Because it was a catastrophic blunder, US leaders had gone into denial mode— especially after al-Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2009—and believed that al-Qaida in Iraq was all but decimated.
The reality though was that it went deep underground, with the more intellectually superior Abubakr al Baghdadi, a Muslim cleric with a doctorate in Islamic studies, assuming leadership of the jihadist organization.
State for the World
It was Baghdadi who broke away from al-Qaida’s framework of jihadism to announce in 2013 that his organization would be called the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, the latter being an old term for several eastern Mediterranean countries, including Syria.
In 2014, he expanded this “state’ to include the world, and more simply called his organization the “Islamic State,” the rough English translation of ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiya, “Dawlah” roughly translated as “state”, but having really a deeper meaning, something like “Kingdom of God”, or Caliphate. He was appointed Caliph Ibrahim. In a very symbolic way he made the announcement in the Grand Mosque of Mosul, one of the biggest religious structures of Islam.
While the medieval notion of a “caliphate” is met with derision in moderate Muslim countries, it turned out to be a brilliant move that attracted young Muslims from all over the world, disaffected by modern life, from such countries as Russia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The British were so alarmed that they passed a law that made it illegal – punishable by imprisonment – for its citizens to travel to Syria.
The “Caliphate” harks back to the golden age of Islam when it was the state religion of powerful empires, starting with its founder Mohammad’s Arabian empire. The growth of Islam starting in the 7th century had been due to a series of Caliphates, just as Christianity grew as big as it is today because it was the state religion of the Roman and Byzantine empires, and their several successor European empires, including the Spanish
The Islamic State’s ideology is that the decline of Islam had been due to the end of the Muslim caliphates, the last one being the Ottoman Empire that was dissolved in 1924. The establishment of an Islamic Caliphate therefore signals the resurgence of Islam, its faithful believe.
More than just a state as we know it though, the Islamic State’s vision is apocalyptic, in many ways like the old Jewish and early Christian notions of “End of Days,” when a Messiah (in Islam, the Mahdi) will defeat the faithful’s enemies in a decisive battle, and usher in the “Kingdom of God”.
In fact, if the Book of Revelations claimed that Megiddo in modern-day Israel (from which the term “Armageddon” was derived) will be the site of the final battle between the forces of the Messiah and those of the “Anti-Christ”, for the adherents of IS, it is Dabiq—after which its propaganda magazine was named—near Aleppo in Syria. (This may explain why the IS captured Dabiq, with the bigger city Aleppo, even if it is strategically unimportant, and has held on to it at great cost.)
The IS’ rapid expansion into Syria in 2013 contributed to its strength. The US has been claiming that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had become a ruthless dictator who had waged a ruthless war against opposition groups. It has therefore been covertly and openly supporting such forces, mainly the Free Syrian Army in its self-proclaimed role as the world’s policeman.
However, al-Assad, and the Russians backing him, have claimed that much of the US support— in war materiel and money—for the Free Syrian Army have gone to the Islamic State, therefore strengthening its army. This could be the US’ third big blunder that helped the Islamic State grow.
Whatever explanation is correct, the Islamic State’s army after its Syrian conquests became so powerful and well-equipped that it launched a blitzkrieg that in 2014 captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. The analogy would be if the NPA suddenly captured Cebu – with all its wealth in banks and homes.
The Washington Post reported in a June 14 article that the Islamic State fighters raided the region’s central bank and many other private banks, and hauled off the equivalent of $500 million in dinars as well as large quantities of gold bullion, making it the “World’s Richest Terror Force.”
Not only that, however. The bigger wealth of the Islamic State have come from the eight oil fields in Syria and Iraq that it had captured, with estimates of its revenues from oil—which it has managed to smuggle out—reaching as much as $500 million a month in 2015. Since then though, the Islamic State’s oil revenues have reportedly plunged after US forces focused on destroying the oil fields under its control.
Back to Mindanao.
The obvious huge threat posed by the Islamic State to the Philippines is that as the “World’s Richest Terror Force,” it can channel huge financial resources to IS-Ranao and to other fledgling jihadist groups. Say, $10 million, which is P500 million, would be just a drop in the bucket of the Islamic State’s assets estimated to be at least $3 billion. The Filipino jihadists may in fact have already been receiving such financial help – that it has taken nearly a week for the military to retake Marawi.
There have been reports that kidnap-for-ransom operations by the jihadists, their primary source of funding, have drastically gone down as they no longer need such source of funds.
Secondly, with the Islamic State increasingly under pressure by US forces in the Middle East, its cadres could decide to focus on Southeast Asia, particularly in the shared border areas of the Muslim-led countries of Indonesia and Malaysia and the Philippines’ Muslim Mindanao. The porousness of the borders of these countries, and the relative weaknesses of their states make these areas vulnerable to Islamic jihadists.
And thirdly is the power of a compelling vision: the establishment of a worldwide Caliphate that would usher in the arrival of the Mahdi.
Such is the huge threat the Islamic State poses to us, which the Marawi siege has suddenly made covert. Compared to the Islamic State, the mostly secular MNLF and MILF are local gangs.
On Friday: How far the Islamic State is upon us in Mindanao.