Philippines: Deaths of pro-Islamic State leaders in Marawi will only briefly disrupt groups’ ability to win recruits in South
President Duterte said on 17 October that the Army had liberated Marawi City from the pro-Islamic State (IS) militants who seized the southern town in May. However, the military has said that around a dozen fighters remain in the city, and fighting is still ongoing. Nonetheless, the Government has pledged to begin work to rebuild the devastated town immediately, and prioritise shelter and schools for Marawi’s 200,000 residents. The previous day, the Defence Minister claimed that soldiers in the city had shot dead Isnilon Hapilon, who led a pro-IS faction of Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and Omar Maute, one of the two brothers who founded the pro-IS Maute Group. The military provided photographs of their bodies, and so the claim is likely accurate. The other brother, Abdullah, was likely killed in August.
A botched army raid to capture Hapilon in Marawi in May prompted ASG and Maute Group to accelerate their pre-planned operation to seize the city, triggering a five-month battle that Manila says has left 854 militants, 163 soldiers and 47 civilians dead. The jihadists’ resilience embarrassed Manila and won them praise from IS’s central leadership in Syria and Iraq, which encouraged foreign fighters from around the region to travel to the city, in turn enabling the militants to prolong their resistance in the town. As we discussed last time, ASG and Maute Group will view the battle as one of the most significant jihadist victories in the region in decades, and believe it will inspire future generations of militants. As such, the groups’ defeat in Marawi will not necessarily damage their credibility among their core supporters.
That said, Hapilon and Maute’s high profiles had enabled their factions to win large numbers of recruits, including through social media, and so their deaths may disrupt pro-IS groups’ abilities to attract new recruits in the coming months. They were likely to be replaced by prominent Malaysian jihadist Mahmud Ahmad, an al-Qaeda-trained veteran who has been in the Philippines since 2014, although a general said on 19 October that he has also been killed in the fighting. Malaysians have played a key role in South East Asia’s jihadist activities, and should another experienced militant from that country take over, then he will be able to ensure greater coordination between the fragmented IS-aligned factions in the region, and will also be able to attract supporters from Indonesia and his native Malaysia. This will help IS to secure its relevance and appeal in the southern Philippines over the coming years.
In an effort to dampen IS’s appeal, ministers have pledged to rapidly fund Marawi’s reconstruction. Nonetheless, the Government will struggle to rebuild the city swiftly, and is also unlikely to move rapidly on its declared goal of introducing autonomy to Muslim-majority areas of Mindanao, which would help undermine pro-separatist sentiment. This will sustain resentment towards Manila, which IS will look to exploit, further sustaining the jihadist presence in the South. Meanwhile, pro-IS groups will in the coming weeks encourage sympathisers to conduct attacks in retaliation for the deaths of their fighters and leaders in Marawi, most likely targeting government, security and Christian interests. They may also try to inspire a high-profile attack against Westerners and tourists, though limited jihadist capabilities outside the South will help contain the threat outside Mindanao.