Implications of the Battle for Marawi

The four-month-long and still continuing battle for Marawi City, capital of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao’s Lanao del Sur province, has proven to be a major test for both the Islamist insurgents who challenged the state and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) who sought to confront them.

Fighting in the city of more than 200,000 residents has been largely confined to a relatively small area of eastern Marawi, but has cost – according to government figures – at least 1,000 dead and thousands more wounded.

Recent assertions by President Rodrigo Duterte and senior military officers that the fighting was coming to an end could be technically accurate, but it remains a mystery why an armed group closely associated with piracy, kidnap and ransom, extortion and other criminal activities decided to prepare for and then conduct the most intensive and protracted urban warfare campaigns in the Philippines since the Second World War, and in South-East Asia since the height of the Vietnam conflict almost 50 years ago.

Because the battle for Marawi is such a singular event it has raised numerous concerns among foreign business and commercial enterprises with interests in the Philippines. These include the motivation of the insurgents, the capabilities of the government and its military to anticipate and counter such threats, and whether Marawi signals a new level of Islamist/separatist insurgency and associated terrorist attacks in the country.

ASSESSMENT

A2 has sought the opinions of sources with close ties to elements within the Philippine intelligence services and military over how the insurgents were able to withstand more than four months of high intensity warfare against some of the most experienced formations in the Philippine military. Their candid views include criticism of the country’s principal civilian intelligence agency while pointing up failures among the various armed services to co-operate or share information, a common weakness within many other nations’ intelligence organisations. We also examine the military’s conduct, consider the battle’s impact on the insurgents who chose to fight and assess the implications for any future similar attacks.

Surprise attack

A2 sources acknowledge there were institutional failings within the military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the run-up to the Marawi battle. They suggest the principal fault lies with the government’s failure to provide the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the armed forces with sufficient high-value and strategically significant information and guidance regarding the nature, role and depth of the various and interlocking Islamic organisations and their overseas links in Marawi and elsewhere in Mindanao.

They suggest the principal fault lies with the government’s failure to provide the PNP and the armed forces with sufficient high-value and strategically significant information and guidance

 

The source further noted that counter-intelligence efforts to assess the degree to which the PNP and military were being monitored by potential opponents in Marawi were either non-existent, insufficiently rigorous or failed to be disseminated to the appropriate operational commands. It should have been appreciated that Marawi, the principal city of the country’s Muslim community, would contain among its 200,000 plus population numerous sympathisers prepared through ties of faith, family, clan, patronage or coercion to serve as a dense and efficient intelligence operation able to monitor the movement, strength and other tactical and strategic information regarding the police and armed forces.

Once the fighting began neither the police nor the military appeared to have any appreciable capacity to intercept the Islamists’ communications, or protect their own from being monitored. Further, PNP and military intelligence personnel failed to utilise existing local government resources in order to obtain granular knowledge on Marawi’s densely populated urban wards and more rural villages where much of the fighting has occurred.

Foreign hands in deep pockets

The country’s intelligence agencies, notably the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (Nica), were aware of reports that Islamic religious organisations based in Marawi City had been receiving funds from unnamed individuals and extremist groups based in Arab counties. The funding referred to likely included long-standing support for Muslim communities from such countries as Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states as part of a more generalised policy of projecting their conservative strand of Islam through missionary activities.

The implication of the government’s failure to provide sufficient information to operational formations ahead of and during the conflict appears to be a criticism of Nica, the country’s principal civilian intelligence organ. This has been echoed by local media and other sources…

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