12 LUGLIO 2017
The Maute: the new ISIS-affiliated group in the Philippines may be a game changer in an old conflict
DI Sara La Rocca

The crisis in Marawi City, Mindanao, has sparkled international attention since the very first day clashes broke out, around 4 weeks ago. Having received intelligence that the Abu Sayyaf leader and emir of the ISIS-affiliated group in the Philippines, Isnilon Hapilon, was hiding in Marawi City, on May 23 government troops raided his hideout.

In order to support Hapilon, the Maute group entered Marawi City. As clashes with government forces erupted, members of the Maute group occupied the city’s Medical Center, raising the black ISIS flag, and set fire to several facilities including the St. Mary's Church and the Dansalan College.

President Duterte, who was still in Russia for an official visit, decided to immediately proclaim Martial Law all over Mindanao and to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, as he was concerned by the threat posed by the Maute Group.

The Maute group started its activity around 2012 and takes its name from the family that founded it, the two brothers Abdullah and Omarkhayam Maute.

Following the recognition of Hapilon as emir by ISIS, the group started using the name “IS-Ranao”, in reference to the territory where it operates – Lanao del Sur. It is indeed in Lanao del Sur that are based the headquarters of the group, which are in Butig, as well as other military camps in various neighboring towns, including Marawi City, which are believed to have complete training facilities for any relevant role, from combatants to religious preachers.

The Maute Group is believed to be, at the moment, the most dangerous pro-ISIS group in the Philippines, as its members, which include foreign fighters mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia, are the smartest, best-trained and best educated ones of all the other groups in the country. This reputation has also been a contributing factor for recruiting new members, nationally and abroad, and to attract sources of funding.

The Maute group has some unique features: first of all, having studied in Egypt and Jordan respectively, Omar and Abdullah can speak Arabic fluently; moreover, family ties link the Maute to other groups, such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Indeed, besides initially being themselves members of the MILF, a first cousin of the two brothers was married to a MILF leader, Alim Abdulaziz Mimbantas, who was the MILF vice-chairman for military affairs. In addition, the fact that the main key roles in the group are played by the two brothers and their relatives ensures loyalty of the members. Reportedly, while Abullah serves as the vice-chairman for military operations and Omar as the vice -chairman for political affairs, a third brother, Mohammad Khayam, is the head of operation and intelligence. Their parents, who have been recently arrested, are in charge of finance and logistics.

The Maute group is also very well connected to other pro-ISIS groups in Mindanao, particularly to the so-called Battalions of God’s Fighters, headed by Isnilon Hapilon and recognized last year by ISIS as its South-East Asia branch. A recent video shows Hapilon together with other Maute brothers, thus confirming that members of the Maute group hold key leader positions in the unified ISIS affiliated group in the Philippines. The fact that the Maute group has now started using the name “IS-Ranao” further indicates their willingness to be identified with the ISIS and to benefit from the endorsement received by Hapilon’s Battalions.

All these elements make the Maute group potentially even more dangerous. All the Indonesian, Filipino and Malaysian foreign fighters who are now in Syria and Iraq, and are looking for new opportunities to continue the fight in their own region, may find the Maute group to be a very attractive alternative.  

Indeed, the capacity and level of sophistication of the group have grown over the years. From the bombing in 2013 of a nightclub in Cagayan de Oro that killed six people, the actions of the Maute group have significantly intensified and grown in scale. In 2016, the group attacked a military checkpoint in Butig town in February; raided the prison in Marawi in August and bombed the street market in Davao City, in September, causing the death of fourteen people.

Since the beginning of the clashes in Marawi City on May 23, the Maute group has reportedly lost around 200 members. This is an impressive number considering that an initial assessment made by government forces had estimated the group to have around 100 members only. The fact that despite the losses the Maute group is still able to continue fighting suggests that the level of organization and real capacity of the group may have been underestimated.

To respond to the siege in Marawi City, historically the center of Islam in Mindanao, President Duterte proclaimed Martial Law as well as the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in the whole Mindanao, for 60 days. The 1987 Philippines Constitution provides that the President may place the Philippines or any part thereof under martial law, or – alternatively – suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus only (1) in case of invasion or rebellion, and (2) if public safety requires it.

According to President Duterte’s proclamation, the acts of the Maute group were of such magnitude as to amount to the crime of rebellion, which, according to the Philippine Revised Penal Code, is committed by rising publicly and taking arms against the government, for the purpose of removing from the allegiance to said Government the territory of the Philippines or any part thereof, or depriving the Chief Executive or the Legislature of any of their powers. The wording of the proclamation echoes this provision of the Penal Code, recalling also the previous attacks in February and August 2016 and the recent clashes in Marawi City. 

In other words, the proclamation states that the actions carried out by the Maute Group have been escalating over time and reached the point where the attempt is at establishing control over a part of the Philippines’ territory; that the actions the armed forces can carry out under the current framework are not sufficient to deal with the situation and ensure public safety, so that not only it is necessary to declare martial law, but the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus is also needed.

The proclamation thus aims at justifying the reasons for resorting to these extraordinary measures; however, by qualifying the actions of the Marawi group as rebellion and highlighting the threat posed by it to public security, it may in fact have the unwanted effect of recognizing the importance of the group at national and international level, validating its image of an ISIS-affiliated group, posing a serious threat to the nation. This sudden corroboration of its credibility may actually end up helping the group get more founding and attract more members, nationally and abroad.

In a speech delivered on May 27, President Duterte reassured soldiers that even if accused of committing violations under martial law, they would not be held responsible and that if any of them were to rape three women, he would personally claim responsibility for it. This statement, although presented as a joke, is quite problematic. If soldiers belonging to the armed forces of the Philippines (AFP) or to the national police (PNP) were to commit rape in areas where martial law has been declared, so not only Marawi City, or neighboring cities, but anywhere in Mindanao, most likely the victims would be civilians, particularly Muslim women and girls. Sending the message that the AFP and the PNP could commit rape with impunity on vulnerable groups of the Muslim population, would probably cause further outrage in the community and push more and more people to join rebel groups such as the Maute group, legitimizing their fight.

According to estimates, more than 200,000 people have been evacuated from Marawi city so far. However, a few thousand civilians are still trapped in the city, while government forces are launching airstrikes in order to target the group, using rockets and bombs.

Indeed, the declaration of martial law has been followed by the establishment of checkpoints and the imposition of curfews in various cities in Mindanao, particularly those closer to Marawi City. Moreover, after President Duterte rejected the offer made by Maranao leaders to negotiate with the Maute group, more troops have reportedly been sent to Marawi city, so as to push the group to surrender and end the crisis. While these measures could help in monitoring the key entry points and intercept members of the group going in or trying to escape from Marawi, opening a communication channel with the Maute would have been an opportunity to understand their claims and show the Muslim community that the central government is not deaf to their needs.

As such, the additional powers given to the armed forces by the martial law declaration are mainly aimed at ensuring that the Maute group does not take control over Marawi City. However, it is of utmost importance that the government also designs a plan to bring relief to the civilian population affected by the clashes, both to those who were able to flee and those who are still trapped in the city. This is essential, as the population affected is mainly Muslim and should the government forget about them in this moment of need, it may soon face a bigger threat coming from a very strong powerful group, with large support.

This crisis has deep roots, that go beyond the recent clashes in Marawi, and the way it will be handled will possibly play a role in the strengthening or weakening of groups like the Maute.