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ISIS-linked attack on the Philippines: Is martial law the best response?

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President Duterte wants to play up the danger to advance his international standing.

News of Muslim terrorists burning down a cathedral in the southern Philippines, taking a priest and several parishioners hostage, and beheading a local police official may evoke memories of the Islamic State descending on Christian villages in northern Iraq three years ago. But the best way to deal with the problem might not be to impose martial law, as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has done.

Rather, says Tom Smith, an expert on terrorism with a focus on Southeast Asia, it might be better to allow the country’s military to take their time and root out the problem.

Smith, a Lecturer in International Relations for the University of Portsmouth based at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell, England, discussed the terrorists’ alleged connection with the Islamic State group in the wake of this week’s news that members of the Maute militant group occupied Marawi, a town on the island of Mindanao, and attacked the Catholic cathedral there. The group kidnapped about 15 people praying in the church, including a priest, nuns, and some lay persons, and burned the church down. The group also set fire to a prison and two schools.

Bishop Edwin De la Pena confirmed that news to Fides news agency Thursday.

The mayor of Marawi asked the military not to bomb the city where about 200,000 people, mostly Muslims, live. But Duterte put the island of Mindanao under martial law.

“The terrorists broke into the church, took the hostages and led them to an unknown location,” said De la Pena, who was on a pastoral visit in a village outside Marawi when the attack occurred. “They entered the bishop’s residence and kidnapped the vicar general, Father Soganub Dewatering. Then they set fire to the cathedral and the bishop’s residence. Everything is destroyed.”

The bishop said the Church hopes to be able to negotiate the hostages’ release. He added that in recent months the Church had received threats.

Duterte interrupted a visit in Moscow to return to the Philippines and deal with the crisis.

Smith said the Maute group takes its name after two brothers who formed it after they split off from the separatist MILF, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, two years ago. “They’ve engaged in fairly vicious attacks, kidnappings, trying to follow the playbook of the Abu Sayyaf group that has been active for more than a decade, kidnapping westerners, kidnapping for ransom.”

The Maute brothers have operated generally in small provincial villages where they create chaos for a couple of days and then move on, Smith said. But whether they are actually part of ISIS is debatable.

“Along with Abu Sayyaf and a couple of other groups, they have kind of really attached themselves to ISIS,” Smith said, “but they’re most definitely not” ISIS, Smith said. “These guys are locally rooted, part of the local conflict there, and they’re using the black flag of ISIS to effectively get more for their ransoms.”

He said that the flag is available on Amazon.

Smith said no one has been able to verify whether any of the group’s members have been to Syria. “There’s no coordination or control from ISIS central, no transfer of funds or revenue or training,” he said. “I suppose the best thing you can say is [they’re] ISIS-inspired.”

The Philippine military, which has been dealing with groups like this for a number of years, has rejected the claim of an ISIS or an al Qaeda link, insisting that these groups constitute a local problem, Smith pointed out.

But the group is happy to let the world believe they are an integral part of ISIS, and President Duterte is also buying into that narrative, Smith said.

“He’s saying ‘We’re fighting ISIS just like you are,’ as if there is some sort of common enemy there,” Smith said. “Duterte is using it to declare martial law in Mindinao.”

But that, he insisted, is the easier route, rather than dealing with underlying issues. “He’s going after the ISIS banner and the terrorists rather than what is the problem in Mindinao, why do the Muslims feel so repressed, why don’t they feel like they have any control or a stake in the politics of the country, why is this insurgency now in its fifth decade? The ISIS banner is easy for him, and helps him connect internationally. He’s been lining himself internationally with Vladimir Putin and with President Xi Jinping in China,” who take a similar attitude to their own Muslim separatists, in Chechnya and Xinjiang Province, respectively.

Smith believes that the situation in Marawi will be tense for a few more days, but that the government will “squeeze them out eventually.”

“While the [military] will try to play the long game, Duterte will put pressure on them to solve the problem quickly so he can lift martial law within the 60 days he’s asked for,” Smith said. “Probably the best way to solve this is by squeezing them out and going slowly rather than going both guns blazing.”

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