Did the MILF know about the IS-linked Maute plan to take over Marawi?

DUTERTE MUST CONVENE THE NSC
I AM convinced so, for the following reasons, and it is a conclusion that has vast implications for long-term peace in Mindanao and for the formulation of a strategy against IS-linked groups in that region.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has had a vast network in the Lanao area ever since it was established as a coalition of the Maranao and Maguindanao forces that broke away in 1976 from the secularist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

It would have been impossible for the MILF leaders not to have known that the “Islamic State-Ranao” led by Omarkhayam Romato Maute was stockpiling arms, ammunition, and food supplies in Marawi City most probably for a year before it openly tried to capture the country’s only Islamic city starting May 23.

Initial reports that the crisis broke out after the military pursued Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon in the city after receiving reports that he was there, have proven false. The military itself had released a video of the two Maute brothers Omar and Abudullah meeting with Hapilon, purportedly appointed by the IS council as its “emir” (leader) for the country, planning their attempt at a takeover of Marawi days before it occurred. The takeover of Marawi City was to be the Philippine IS-affiliated group’s demonstration that the IS is upon the country.

Also significant is the fact that, as the Indonesia-based International Policy Analysis of Conflict’s (IPAC) in-depth study of the IS-linked groups in the region pointed out, “the Maute connections reach deep into the MILF aristocracy.”

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 was said to be the most trusted associate of MILF founder Salamat Hashim.

100 MILF fighters
The IPAC even claimed that because of their connections with the MILF, the Maute group had been able to recruit at least 100 MILF fighters, one of whom was the late Mimbantaas’ son Alim, killed in a battle with the military last year. Butig, Lanao del Sur, where the Maute group now operates, has been home for years to a large MILF camp, Camp Bushra, according to the IPAC study.

It would be the height of naïveté to think that the MILF was unaware of the IS-linked group’s plan to take over Marawi City, just as it is as naïve to believe that the insurgent group’s forces had not been involved in the massacre of 44 Special Forces troops in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, in 2015.

Screen shot from a video showing IS-linked groups planning their siege of Marawi. Isnilon Hapilon, allegedly the IS’ ‘emir’ for the Philippines, is at the center.

Did the MILF let the IS-linked groups undertake their plan to take over Marawi City, or even help them, to remind government that it has to rush a peace agreement with it, so it could take over responsibility for peace and order in the “Bangsamoro” territory that would most likely include Marawi City?

Since government has been told that the MILF rejects the kind of jihadism the IS espouses, it should demand that the insurgent group undertake a comprehensive plan to counter such jihadism, and even undertake its own military operations to neutralize these terrorist groups.

That might sound too much to demand of the MILF, to fight ideologically and militarily its fellow militant Muslims. But then the MILF’s demand—for the government to practically secede to it a territory in which it will be a state—is even steeper.

Such a demand should be only one item of a comprehensive plan for the Duterte administration to prevent the IS from getting a foothold, which would require it to totally exterminate the four terrorist groups in the country that are becoming united under the IS flag, namely:

• The Basilan-based faction of the Hapilon led Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) led by Isnilon Hapilon, which now has a small number of foreign fighters, mostly from Malaysia;

• Ansarul Khilafah Philippines (AKP) led by Mohammad Jaafar Maguid out of Sarangani and Sultan Kudarat provinces, which has ties to Indonesian jihadists;

• The Maute Group, also known as IS-Ranao, based in Lanao del Sur; and the

• Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), based in the Liguasan Marsh, Maguindanao, and a splinter group of the MILF which has and has had close ties to Southeast Asian jihadists.

Comprehensive plan needed
Other items in such a comprehensive plan against the groups linking with the IS would be:

• Closely monitoring the madrasah (Islamic) schools to find out if these, as in other Southeast Asian countries, have become venues for the radicalization of young Muslims into the jihadism;

• Using the Anti- Money Laundering Council to monitor fund transfers from abroad to the IS-linked terror groups, which would require some legal maneuvers so the AMLC could do this even without court orders;

• Requiring the Bureau of Immigration to undertake tighter monitoring of foreigners from Indonesian and Malaysia, as well as from the Middle East coming into the country; and

• Tightening the patrol of our porous borders with Malaysia and Indonesia, to more closely monitor the entry of foreigners through the sea.

These of course are proposals by an amateur. Duterte has to convene the National Security Council—or even the Council of State—to formulate a comprehensive plan against the IS-linked groups. With past Presidents being members of the NSC, and even the opposition invited, that would also be an opportunity for Duterte to unite the country, or at least to show that we are as a nation united against the global scourge of the IS.

Because we have huge insurgent groups in the Philippines—the MILF, remnants of the MNLF, and the communist New People’s Army—and because government apparatus have been weak in central Mindanao as well as the Basilan and Sulu islands, these areas are likely to be where an IS routed in Syria and Iraq would try to seek refuge.

The lesson, or realization of the five-week-old Marawi crisis is that the IS is upon us, something which the Benigno Aquino 3rd strived to underestimate in his pipe dream to strike a peace agreement with the MILF at all costs, just so he’d get a Nobel Prize.