On 23 May, terrorists from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups, including foreign fighters, overran Marawi in the Philippines and hoisted the Islamic State flag. The Islamic State think-tank wasted no time in establishing a principal-agency relationship with the terrorists even though there is no evidence of weapons, money and personnel being transferred from the Islamic State to their so-called affiliates in the Philippines. There was worldwide concern of Philippines becoming the base of Islamic State in South-East Asia. India too was alarmed, with a leading daily brandished the headline "The Marawi siege: IS enters Philippines."
For the sake of counter-terrorism capability building, the lessons from Marawi need to be noted.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte was gifted an excuse to undertake extreme measures. He responded by imposing martial law on Mindanao with the justification that there was an invasion by foreign terrorists. Meanwhile, the Philippines military with technical assistance from the United States staged a counter-offensive. Hundreds died, including civilians, military personnel and terrorists. Over two hundred thousand refugees poured out of Marawi into neighbouring areas. What was to be a battle that would be over by 12 June then became protracted with the Philippines military embroiled in an urban war with snipers, rockets and roadside bombs making the task of reclaiming Marawi difficult and the death toll continues to rise.
The Marawi crisis provides lessons for Indian security. It must be emphasised that India and Philippines are natural partners in Asia with much in common including, unfortunately, a history of being at the receiving end of terrorism. Therefore, for the sake of counter-terrorism capability building, the lessons from Marawi need to be noted.
Complex motives fuelling political violence need to be understood
Firstly, it appears that the Marawi crisis began as a fight between two powerful Muslim families, both with private armies. It has been asserted that the Maute clan began to claim links to Islamic State in an effort to spook its opponents in a dispute over public works. This dispute turned into a clan war and in no time what was essentially a local dispute was given an international dimension in the age of terrorism because it suited all relevant stakeholders in the conflict to do so.
The last thing a government needs... is to provide a stage to lure displaced terrorists who are then able to turn local causes into situations where the religious can be exploited.
It is clear that complex motives which fuel political violence need to be understood before drastic government action is undertaken. In the time of increasing public lynching of Dalits and Muslims in India, the day is not far when it will not take much to turn public violence in the pursuit of local political goals into one where the narrative is of international terrorism because it is so convenient to do so.
At the same time, it will not take much for victims to claim allegiance to a non-state organisation in a desperate effort at self-preservation. This then calls for the necessity of investigating the actual relationship and involvement of people with a terrorist organisation before undertaking government action, something which the Philippines government had not properly done prior to jumping to the conclusion that the Marawi conflict was definitely Islamic State related.
Strife should not be legitimised
Secondly, the involvement of a handful of foreign terrorists does not necessarily signal internationalisation of a conflict. Hence, Marawi is a lesson in how not to manage a crisis. The last thing a government needs in its fight against armed groups is to provide a stage to lure displaced terrorists who are then able to turn local causes into situations where the religious dimension (particularly, in relation to minorities) can be exploited.
The Philippines government has legitimised strife through their foreign invasion argument as justification for imposing martial law and now foreign terrorists will actually be heeding the "Islam in danger" call in Mindanao, as it has been done for so long in Kashmir.
Poverty and inequality contribute to terrorism
Thirdly, the Muslim population in Mindanao has been under siege since the time of Spanish conquest in 1521. They have been systematically dispossessed from their ancestral land and without compensation, thereby leading to their marginalisation. They are discriminated against by what is locally known as "Imperial Manila"—the modern, centralised Philippines state, biased towards the dominant Metro Manila Catholics. And there are cultural biases which are perpetuated in the education system and employment. Hence Marawi and other Muslim populated areas of Mindanao are the poorest in Philippines. It is poverty and inequality which has allowed the terrorists to turn the narrative one dimensional (Mindanao Muslims as victims). The local supporters then disregard the fact that Maute has become enriched through drug dealing and other ills.
It is poverty and inequality which has allowed the terrorists to turn the narrative one dimensional (Mindanao Muslims as victims).
It is also poverty and inequality that is forcing large numbers of Muslim youth in Mindanao to undertake an Islamic higher education in Arab countries. These students return with a form of Islamic orthodoxy that is imbued with political Islam and which is distinct from their Mindanao Islam and play their part in radicalising locals. In Marawi, poverty, inequality and radicalisation then fuelled support for terrorists and allowed them to stockpile high-powered weapons and other resources substantially, which is why the Philippines military despite using armour, artillery and airstrikes has not totally reclaimed the city.
Importance of trust and reconciliation
Lastly, peace will be elusive if governance fails. Marawi was known for its shadowy economy, which thrived on guns, drugs, prostitution and other illegal activities. It is in these kinds of places, where criminals in the guise of religious leaders are able to spew their fractured ideology on a discriminated population and lay the seeds of extremism. Today, the Kashmir Valley, parts of West Bengal and many more areas in India have become spaces where governance has failed. And this is largely because of mutual distrust arising from acts of excesses and omissions in the past by all parties. The key lesson from Marawi is that genuine reconciliation is a precondition for mutual trust, without which people will eventually resort to violence to fulfil their political goals.