The Maute Group (MG) has raised fears of a looming declaration by Islamic State (IS) of a new wilayah or province in Mindanao. Instead of hysteria, the violence waged by Maute should be considered in the context of wider, non-IS related issues in the southern Philippines.
The Third Battle for Butig
On 24 November 2016, the Maute Group (MG) made headlines in the Philippine and international press when it raised the black flag associated with IS in front of the disused municipal hall of Butig, Lanao del Sur. At the height of the siege, 10 hectares of the town center were reportedly occupied by the MG and around 74 percent of the population was displaced. It took a six-day campaign by the military to clear Butig of extremists. By early December 2016, 63 extremists and 2 soldiers were reported killed, with the MG main force chased back into the mountains surrounding Butig.
The November campaign is the third episode of violence with the group lead by the alleged Saudi-educated brothers, Omar and Abdullah Maute. There had been little publicly-available information on the nature of the brothers’ education in Saudi Arabia and if it had a role to play in their emergence as violent extremists. Other reports would indicate that they were actually contract workers in the United Arab Emirates and only had intermittent Islamic theology lessons from Jordan.
Latching into the IS brand
However, other aspects of the Maute’s family ties may provide clues. Farhana Maute, the clan matriarch is a known political player and is in conflict with a well-known Butig politician, Dimnatang Pansar. The uptick in violence in Butig appears rooted in a local political squabble.
When the MG emerged in February 2016, it was the first time that the extortion racket ran by Omar and Abdullah used the imagery and symbols associated with IS. As early as 2013, the MG was already formed as an armed unit, albeit known more simply as the Maute clan’s private militia, which figured in sporadic skirmishes with the Pansar militia. There is little evidence of actual operational links between the MG and IS, the former’s propaganda campaign appeared to have taken inspiration from IS imagery. In April 2016, two of six kidnapped sawmill workers were executed. The beheaded sawmill workers were dressed in orange garments, imitating the orange jumpsuits that feature prominently in gory IS videos.
The IS brand was used theatrically, to inflate the perceived capability of the group and intimidate political opponents of the Maute clan in general. The group is known colloquially by residents of Lanao del Sur as “grupong ISIS” or “group of ISIS”, a moniker that has appealed to out-of-school youth, which comprises the estimated 200-strong MG force. Nonetheless, the brothers’ appeal to out-of-school youth in Lanao del Sur is inhibited by the existence of traditional and religious leaders in Mindanao. The MG was met with disdain by the older generation of ulamas in central Mindanao, who view the brothers’ Islamic theology amateurish.
Ungoverned Mindanao as a permissive environment for a wilayah
The feasibility of establishing a wilayah in the southern Philippines rests on the ungoverned milieu that Mindanao could provide to IS-inspired groups. Before IS posed a threat in the region, the “tri-border” area comprised of the borderlands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines surrounding the Sulawesi Sea was considered a “terrorist transit triangle”. The distinct geography and border configuration of maritime Southeast Asia also provided Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) a conducive environment for the movement of logistics in support of its attack plots.
In addition to the physical terrain, the human terrain of the tri-border zone has also been well-established. Prior research has concluded that kinship, rather than the ideological pull of institutions such as madrassahs were of greater importance among Southeast Asian militants. The political economy driving the formation of kin networks in Mindanao is premised on how cohesive armed clans can better survive rivals. Cohesion ensures greater accumulation of economic resources through illicit means. Databases maintained by the World Bank-funded Conflict Alert supports this economic perspective in Mindanao. Statistics from 2010-2016 reveal that “common crimes” far outnumber violent conflict incidents associated with extremist groups.
The Duterte Administration’s response
The complexity of both physical and human terrain in Mindanao is recognised by the overarching military strategy being pursued by the Duterte Administration. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has yet to craft a new policy to replace Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP) Bayanihan, which prescribes the use of intelligence-driven, combat operations against terrorist groups like the Abu Sayyaf. While Bayanihan preceded the MG, it is clear that that the AFP intends to use the same template it has used against the ASG.
What complicates efforts to address terrorist groups is the penchant of the President to issue conflicting statements to either talk peace or destroy the Maute Group. Ambivalent messaging may inspire local government executives in Muslim Mindanao (i.e. the mayors and governors), to resort to extrajudicial measures all in the name of maintaining the trappings of peace and order. Political and family feuds in Muslim Mindanao could also escalate as local executives use the discourse of counter-terrorism, specifically defeating purported IS presence in Mindanao, to settle old scores and take revenge. Us-versus-them narratives would only serve to further inflame existing ridos or clan conflicts.
Prospects for Mindanao
There is no question that links, at least on the propaganda aspect, between Southeast Asian and Filipino extremists are extant. However, the goal of establishing a wilayah seems far-fetched considering the pressure IS core is facing in Iraq and Syria. While fleeing foreign fighters may seek to build a refuge in Southeast Asia, it presupposes that they will be able to integrate into the dense social fabric in Mindanao.
For policymakers, it is important to craft calibrated responses. Duterte’s push to restart the stalled Mindanao peace process, by reconstituting the Bangsamoro Transition Commission and pushing for the implementation of the existing truce with the MILF is an important first step. Overreaction may lead to the unintended consequence of legitimising extremist claims and should be avoided at all costs.
This commentary is written by Joseph Franco.
Download this commentary in this link: The Battle(s) for Butig: Contextualizing the Maute Group
Joseph Franco is an Associate Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is a Pacific Forum and CSIS Young Leader. Joseph is a Research Fellow of Security Reform Initiative (SRI).