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Maute Group or Islamic State-Ranao?

(Continued from Friday)
BECAUSE the Moro groups linked to the Iraq and Syria-based Islamic State (IS) pose a very serious danger to our Republic, I quoted at length in my column last Friday a study on this topic—probably the only such in-depth research on it—by the International Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) dated October 2016, entitled “Pro-ISIS Groups in Mindanao and their Links to Indonesia and Malaysia”.

While based in Indonesia, and having mostly Indonesians on its board, the IPAC is headed by the American Sydney Jones, who is closely linked to the New York-based International Crisis Groups, which I was told have strong links with international intelligence services.

The report is well-documented, with a plethora of footnotes to back up its assertions. It explained that its findings were based “on interviews in October 2016 in Manila, Davao, Zamboanga and Cotabato, as well as with Indonesians who once fought in the Philippines, and on a review of trial documents and other primary source material.”

What follows is the part of the study discussing the so-called Maute group that attacked Marawi City, and fought government forces for more than a week. Its findings on the Maute group made seven months before the Marawi crisis—for instance, that its strength and resiliency has been underestimated by Philippine authorities—have certainly been proven accurate.

IPAC study:
The Maute Group based in Lanao del Sur has the smartest, best-educated and most sophisticated members of all of the pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines.

It is largely ethnic Maranao, and its stronghold is the Mindanao State University (MSU) in Marawi City, where it has been able to attract students and teachers. The Maute connections, however, reach deep into the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] aristocracy on the one hand, and are well-established internationally on the other, with particularly strong links to Indonesia.

ISIS propaganda website reporting May 26 capture of an Army armored vehicle by “ISIS” – i.e., the Maute group.

Omarkhayam Romato Maute went to study at al-Azhar in Egypt around 2000 and there met an Indonesian student, Minhati Madrais, whom he later married. None of his fellow students saw him as having any radical tendencies at all, and photographs show a young man enchanted by his baby daughters and playing with the growing family by the Red Sea. After graduation in 2009, Maute went back with his wife to her father’s pesantren [Islamic boarding school] Darul Amal in Bekasi, outside Jakarta, where he taught for a while before returning to Lanao. He is fluent in Indonesian and Arabic. His brother Abdullah studied in Jordan and also is reported to have extensive ties in the Middle East.

The group that started out as Khilafah Islamiyah Mindanao (KIM) may be the most dangerous of the groups operating in the Philippines today. It is also sophisticated in its use of social media, although one report suggested it had suddenly shut down its chats on Telegram around August 2016, perhaps for fear of infiltration.

The Maute group, which now calls itself Islamic State-Ranao, has been responsible for several attacks, most notably the September 2, 2016 Davao market bombing. On October 4, 2016, three ethnic Maranao members of a Cotabato cell of IS-Ranao told police the bombing was ordered by Isnilon Hapilon as amir of Daulah Islamiyah (Islamic State) and that the Maute group was assigned to carry it out.

Links to Marwan
Butig, Lanao del Sur, where the Maute group now operates, has been home for years to a large Moro Islamic Liberation camp, Camp Bushra. It was also not that far from the old JI training center in Jabal Quba, so there is a long history of armed activity in the area.

The Maute group reportedly began as a training unit set up by Marwan around 2011 or even earlier, called al-Ghuraba and briefly Jamaah Tawhid wal Jihad – the name used by the late Abu Musa Zarqawi in Iraq and later by the supporters of radical Indonesian cleric Aman Abdurrahman in Indonesia.

By 2012, it had become Khilafah Islamiyah Movement (KIM), initially reported to be led by one Ustadz Humam Abdul Najid alias Wai but in fact the Mautes are believed to have been the organizers even then. KIM was said to have been responsible for the July26, 2013 bombing at a Cagayan de Oro bar and bistro that killed six.

After ISIS’s recognition of Isnilon as amir, the Mautes began using the name “IS-Ranao” to indicate a division of the new as-yet-undeclared province of ISIS – just as BIFF became IS-Maguindanao and Isnilon Hapilon’s territory was IS-Basilan.

The use of “KIM” as a name precedes the death of Ustadz Sanusi, the Indonesian who reportedly became a mentor to the Maute brothers. For the six years he was based in Lanao until his death in a police operation at MSU in November 2012, Sanusi would have had ample time to build connections between local jihadis like the Mautes and his Indonesian networks as well and fellow fugitives in Mindanao like Marwan.

Indeed, in a press conference after Sanusi was killed, police said that six other “JI members” had managed to escape, although Philippine officials tend to use “JI” to refer to any Southeast Asian and especially any Indonesian jihadists.

Family connections
In addition to their international connections and high level of education, the Mautes’ leadership may be derived from their family connections. They are related by marriage to one of the most respected families in the MILF – the Mimbantas clan of Lanao del Sur. (Omar and Abdullah Maute are cousins of the second wife of the late Alim Mimbantaas, who had been the MILF’s vice chairman for internal affairs and said to be the most trusted associate of MILF founder Salamat Hashim.)

Those ties may have helped the Mautes recruit younger MILF members, though Jannati Mimbantas, Alim’s brother and commander of the MILF’s Northeast Mindanao Front, has been at pains to disassociate his family from the Mautes and has assisted the government in its operations against them.

Jannati reportedly claims that the Mautes had been MILF members but became disillusioned by the failure of the Philippine Congress to approve the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). In fact, the Mautes’ attraction to extremism long predates the Mamasapano incident that threw passage of the BBL off-course. There is some evidence, however, that younger MILF fighters in the area have been attracted to a fresher, more militant, more internationally connected group which happens to be led by ethnic Maranao.

In April 2016, the Mautes claimed to have recruited 100 MILF members. One man reported killed fighting with the Mautes in clashes that took place in Butig in late May and June 2016 was Nawawie Mimbantas, a son of Alim, the late MILF vice chairman.

The military, however, has been adamant that not only was the MILF not assisting the Mautes in any way, but it was actively cooperating with the army against them.

Strength of the Mautes
The Mautes have shown an ability to absorb what would seem to be major losses in clashes with the police and military, suggesting that their organization is larger and better organized than perhaps they have been given credit for.

On February 20, 2016, the military began an 11-day offensive after the Mautes’ fighters attacked the army’s 51st Infantry Battalion. In the initial attack, two soldiers and six attackers were killed; among the latter was an Indonesian identified as Mohammad Muktar, although it may not have been his real name and no one has ever identified him further.

In the days of fighting that followed, BIFF fighters reportedly came to the Mautes’ support. When it was over, the military claimed to have killed 54.

In April, the Mautes seized six sawmill workers in Butig and later beheaded two of them, allegedly for having links to the military. When the victims’ bodies were found, they were wearing orange clothes, as if to mimic ISIS executions.

Then in May 2016, the military claimed to have killed more than 30 members of the group “in continuous bombardment of the bandits’ lair.”

On August 22, police arrested eight members of the Maute group, including one of its leaders Hashim Balawag Maute, in Lumbayanague, Lanao del Sur, on charges of carrying guns and bombs. Five days later, a group of 20 armed men raided the Lanao del Sur provincial jail in Marawi City and freed all eight, plus fifteen other inmates.

The prison attackers easily overcame the 12 guards and broke the locks of the cells where the 12 men and three women were being held. “A chicken coop has better locks,” one official remarked.

None of these earlier clashes, however, prepared the government for the Davao market bombing or for the discovery of a cell of ethnic Maranao in Cotabato.