IS spreads influence to remote villages
DATU SALIBO, Maguindanao — The leader of the Islamic State (IS) group in the Philippines, Isnilon Hapilon, is dead. The city his forces seized, Marawi, is back in government hands after five months of scorched-earth combat.
But IS influence in the Philippines is far from over, and communities in Mindanao are bracing for the next battles.
“I don’t like to fight. But this is our land and we will not let them take this like they destroyed Marawi,” said a veteran Christian militia fighter who goes by the nom de guerre Commander Ilang-ilang.
According to her, it’s only a matter of time before the IS black flag flutters in the mountainous periphery on the outskirts of Kauran, the farming community where she grew up and where she talked to journalists for The New York Times recently, 144 kilometers south of Marawi.
“That’s why I have these,” Ilang-ilang said, gently tapping her .45-caliber pistol and a separate revolver, both holstered loosely around her thin waist.
First gun at 13
The commander said she picked up her first gun when she was 13, in the early 1970s, and her family was embroiled in fighting Moro separatist rebels in the area.
That separatist movement, and the sectarian and political resentment that drove it, never really went away. It evolved into militant groups that fought the government for decades, and in recent years proved to be fertile ground for the IS ideology and recruiters, as that Middle East-based movement sought to extend its influence around the globe.
That the old and resilient militant cells here are now being strengthened by the brand and resources of the IS international network has people worried all over Mindanao—including even some of the Moro militants whose former comrades joined the extremist group.
In a twist that would have been unimaginable even after they signed a peace deal with the government three years ago, members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are now leading their former enemies in the military against what some believe could become the next big IS uprising.
They are fighting in the forbidding marshlands of the town of Datu Salibo, a 208-km drive south from Marawi.
Local Islamist groups claiming to represent the IS group have been trying to recruit the young with promises of cash and adventure, according to Commander Asiong.
He is the self-appointed spokesperson of the same Christian militia unit that Ilang-ilang belongs to: Red God’s Army.
Asiong, 60, a former soldier turned community leader, said the IS reach in Mindanao had spread, aided by operatives in the Middle East who had posted well-produced videos of the so-called religious war and particularly by how IS loyalists in Marawi managed to fight off the government for months.
His years of military service, spent fighting Moro rebels, have left him with deep scars in his neck and torso, and his left leg was all but cut away to save it after several bullets hit him there.
“They can regroup, join other IS allied groups here,” Asiong said. “While we have guns, our community is no match for them. So we pray that the government finishes them in Marawi. If not, there is nothing we can do except to protect ourselves and fight to the death. We will defend our land until troops arrive.”
BIFF diversionary attack
On Christmas Day two years ago, a breakaway faction from the MILF called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) attacked several areas and killed 11 Christian farmers, Asiong said.
The BIFF has welcomed the Marawi offensive and has helped divert the Army’s attention by attacking nearby civilian communities.
In June, as heavy fighting was going on in Marawi, BIFF militants briefly held more than 30 students in the remote town of Pigkawayan, about 80 km south, forcing the military to spread its forces even more thinly.
BIFF spokesperson Abu Misry Mama said: “The fighting in Marawi is a good distraction. All I can say is, they do not belong to our group, which continues to fight for a separate homeland. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Battle in marshlands
Another of those jihadist friends, a group that has explicitly pledged loyalty to IS is fighting government and MILF forces in the marshlands near Datu Salibo.
IS militants here are headed by the militant commander, Abu Turaipe, and are believed to number a few hundred. He was once allied with the MILF, but he broke away in protest over the peace deal with the government.
The swamp battle with IS militants has been going on since August, but has gotten little press coverage, largely because the area is inaccessible and much of the attention has been focused on Marawi.
Von al-Haq, the MILF’s military commander, said that his fighters were “swimming while attacking, because the swamp waters are very deep.”
MILF-gov’t alliance winning
But the MILF and military alliance has slowly been winning, and in one offensive last month, at least 20 improvised bombs and a number of black IS flags have been recovered.
Nassrolah Gani, a 35-year-old police officer whose unit is helping the military in recovering casualties from the crocodile-infested marshland, said his men would be easily lost in the swamps were it not for their MILF guides.
Boots get sucked off by the mud, and thorny bushes are a natural impediment to moving faster. Their assault rifles often get wet, making them less reliable.
“It’s an open mostly flat marshland, where you are open to sniper fire,” Gani said. “When you enter the swamps, you’ve already dug your own grave.”
Gani said the latest intelligence data indicated that there were several Malaysian fighters who had joined Abu Turaipe’s group.
Whether they had escaped from Marawi to this new front was hard to tell, but Gani said their presence had bolstered the enemy force.
“We used to fight the MILF, but they are now fighting alongside us. So what is the bigger enemy? It is the Daesh-inspired groups,” he added, using another name for the IS group.
Rommel Banlaoi, a security analyst who heads the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said that other southern cities were at increased risk of attack by energized IS loyalists.
“They have won the battle strategically, as they have proven how long they can endure the fight against government forces,” Banlaoi said, adding that the Marawi battle will stand as an example of “martyrdom that can inspire others.”
After the spectacle of the Marawi siege, more foreign fighters will be attuned to the fight in Mindanao, where past government efforts had aimed at ousting Muslims in favor of the Christian majority.
“Mindanao will continue to suffer the challenges of armed conflicts and violence because of many issues associated with the struggle of the people there for self-determination” being advocated by the Muslim forces, Banlaoi said. “It has simply become the new land of jihad.”–New York Times News Service
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