By Dr. Acram A. Latiph
Like a true hero, Marawi took the bullets, nay, it took the bombs, cannons, destructions, sufferings, trauma, injuries, and deaths so the rest of the Philippines will be safe. So that no other cities or Filipino will suffer the pain and agony that the people of Marawi and Lanao del Sur have endured and still experiencing.
The question that has lingered on for so long since the start of the Marawi Siege needs to be put to rest now that the crisis is ‘over’. Was there really a failure to act on intelligence reports or was the inaction the actual action?
September 2, 2016, a loud blast reverberates in the night market in Davao City killing 15 and injuring 69 people. The perpetrators are the Daulat Ul-Islamiya and the Maute group (both pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iran and Syria). Numerous embassies in the country issued travel warnings and ban to its citizens resulting a slump in tourism and affecting the local economy in Mindanao.
A clash in Butig erupts on November 26 as the Maute-ISIS group seized the Town Center in retaliation to government forces capture of Camp Darul Imam last June 2016. The battle lasted four days after terrorists suffered 63 deaths and 17 injured, forcing them to retreat to the hinterlands. On April 21, 2017 a battle between Maute-ISIS group and the government forces also ensues at the Municipality of Piagapo lasting for three days. When the soldiers overrun the Maute-ISIS camp they recovered the body of foreign fighters, various weaponry, detonators, bomb components, cellphones, and other ordnance and identification cards belonging to foreigners.
These events indicate that the Maute/ISIS group (the Group) has the reach, the money, the links, capability, and hardware to implement collective violence and terror on unsuspecting population. Urban areas have become favorite targets; women and children are easy prey. In the words of the Group, ‘the people need to serve as the firewood to establish the Islamic State’. Purging, therefore, is means to an end. And purging they did in the city of Marawi.
The Group’s zealotry and dedication to their cause is unshakeable and what they can do is unthinkable. They are willing to kill for it, which they did. They are willing to die for it. Thank God, they did. Young foot soldiers from the age of 11 to 19 years old serve as fearless warriors, expendable and readily available. Let loose and they can wreak havoc in entire country, which they did in Davao.
On December 2016 while addressing a group of businessmen, President Duterte made a dare. Duterte challenged the Maute/ISIS group to go to Marawi and burn it to the ground, for the government forces will be waiting to thwart terrorists. The Maute/ISIS group called the bluff. It turns out the government do not hold the cards.
Months prior to that fateful May 23, 2017, text messages and chatter among residents of the presence of Maute/ISIS in Marawi City are all over Lanao del Sur. Social media is even filled with admonitions that Maute/ISIS will take over the city. If ordinary residents know that much, I couldn’t imagine how much information the intelligence services of the government know. It’s safe to assume that they know much, much more than we do. But like the story in The Boy Who Cried Wolf, we acted like villagers who get numbed after repeated warnings. We went on with our daily lives as if nothing is in the offing.
This comes to the point on why the government ‘failed‘ to act on intelligence reports or for intelligence agencies to make sense of what is openly going on in Marawi. Wittingly or unwittingly, President Duterte is faced with a dilemma. He could either stop the Maute/ISIS from converging in Marawi by sending battalions of troops and policemen to secure the city (keeping his earlier promise) or allow the terrorists to gather in Marawi. Both choices are equally undesirable. Each has its own costs; but the consequences and impacts of these options are different.
To act or not to act, that is the question.
TO ACT. Acting on the apparent clear and present danger of Maute-ISIS invasion of Marawi would mean one thing: the city could be secured and everyone will be safe. But the Group will not be ‘neutralized’. The terrorist threat will remain. Like a steam boiler, the pressure is building up and one way or another it will burst somewhere else. But certainly not in the secured city of Marawi.
Thwarting the invasion means the Group will focus its attention somewhere else. They could either attack another city or dispersed throughout the country. Perhaps a ten-man cell will be assigned in every major urban area of the country to wreak havoc or conduct terrorist operations. Take note that we are talking about more than one thousand terrorists with substantial funding, technical capabilities, and resources to achieve their stated goal.
The Maute/ISIS membership is more than enough to saturate all the major cities in the Philippines, perhaps two times over. These terrorists can conduct bombings and acts of terrorism throughout the country such as what they did in Davao City. Had this happened, it would have been catastrophic for the whole country. The economy will plummet and investments evaporate. Nobody is safe and everyone else is a target. It would be a security nightmare for the Security sector; the operation will be national in scope. Consequently, Martial Law will be declared for the whole country. Acting on the intelligence reports no longer looked as sweet. At least for the whole country but not for Marawi.
NOT TO ACT was a bitter choice! But a decision needs to be made. Not acting is based on the fundamental assumption that the battle will be over in three days or at most a week and Marawi will remain intact. This belief is held by almost everyone including the top brass of the government.
Such belief appeared to stand on solid ground. First, previous engagement with the terrorists lasted no more than a week. Second, it is believed that terrorists do not have the number, weaponry, and fighting capability to stand against the full might of the government. Third, the Marawi Uprising of 1972 (many observers consider the Marawi Siege as a continuation of the battle that happened 45 years ago) lasted for three days when local combatants realized that continuing the battle will result to the destruction of the city and deliberately withdrew. It has been ingrained among Meranaw fighters to retreat outside of the city whenever Marawi is threatened with ruins. Lastly, there is an unwritten covenant among all Moro armed groups to keep Marawi safe from fighting and destruction that is generally respected – until the siege. Not only because it is the center of learning for Arabic, Islamic, and Western education. It also serves as safe haven and evacuation centers whenever there is fighting from neighboring areas. And most importantly, Marawi City is both the granary and the armory of the Meranaw people and, therefore, needs to be protected.
These beliefs led not only the government to inaction but also induced residents to simply padlocked their homes, carrying with them few belongings leaving their cash, jewelries, appliances, guns, and other valuables. While others stayed to wait out the storm, thinking it will be over when Ramadan starts in three days’ time. All along the terrorists are testing the waters in Butig and in Piagapo. Learning from the engagement and preparing for the war to come. They are steps ahead of us. They are hell bent on reigning destruction into the city.
Why are we amiss about what happened in Marawi? First, we did not consider the role of foreign fighters who will not abandon the city and fight to the very end. The same thing that happened in Raqqa and Mosul, where foreign fighters fought to the death. Second, the person calling all the shots, Isnilon Hapilon, is not a Meranaw and does not value Marawi as much. Third, there was no cohesive and united front among local leaders, traditional leaders, and the secessionist groups to counterbalance the government’s ‘Iron Fist’ approach. This might be partly due to the declaration of Martial Law, the fear of being included in the arrest order, and the possible impact on the peace process.
Lastly, the kind of national leadership we have leaves much to be desired. We have a leadership that thinks like a hammer – where every problem is seen as a nail that needs to be clobbered like the war on illegal drugs and, of course, the Maute-ISIS take-over of Marawi. Clamor for peaceful resolution or negotiated settlement with the Group was dismissed.
Five months later, the crisis is over and Marawi City is pulverized. More than hundred years of wealth accumulation gone, hundreds of thousands left homeless and penniless, more than a 1,100 dead, a few thousands injured, and most importantly that the Maute-ISIS menace is ‘obliterated’.
Not acting is grounded on a strategy that it is better to gather all the terrorists in one place and wipe them out in one battle rather than fight them in various fronts throughout the country. It hit two pigs with one angry bird, namely, neutralize the Maute-ISIS threat and disarm one of the most heavily armed city in the country. Indeed, ‘not acting’ on the intelligence reports achieved these goals and the rest of the Philippines is ‘safe’. Sadly, the cost was too high. Many have died and properties irretrievably gone. And we do pray that Marawi, the hero, receive his just compensation for the sacrifices he made and the sufferings he endures in saving the country.
Dr. Acram A. Latiph is the Acting Executive Director of the Institute for Peace and Development in Mindanao (IPDM – Marawi), Mindanao State University. Dr. Latiph completed his BA Economics at San Beda College, MS Finance at UP Diliman, PhD at the Australian National University under the Australian Leadership Awards, and Executive MPA Public Policy and Advance Certificate in Conflict Resolution at the Maxwell School, Syracuse, New York under the Fulbright Scholarship. Email: email@example.com