According to Reuters, Manila has mobilized attack helicopters and special police forces to drive these militants from the streets of Marawi City, which is located on Mindanao Island.
These developments have been so rapid that President Rodrigo Duterte was forced to cut his recent trip to Russia short so he could return to the country and declare martial law in the area.
It’s almost as if this ISIS-linked threat came out of nowhere and has completely caught the country by surprise. But did it?
Approximately ten months ago, Duterte himself gave a speech in Manila in which he warned that ISIS followers, posing as missionaries, have already started radicalizing locals in Mindanao. The president also threatened that he will be ten times more brutal than they are in response (this is a man who publicly admitted killing criminal suspects).
A month earlier, Reuters released a report referencing a 20-minute video that showed Southeast Asian militants who claimed to be ISIS fighters urging Muslims to unite under Abu Abdullah, the leader of the militant group known as Abu Sayyaf, which is based in the Philippines.
As far back as December 2015, the Australian Associated Press reported on another video that showed a terrorist training ground in the Philippines. In the video, the fighters urged Filipinos to travel to Syria to join the ISIS insurgency.
Just days ago, in an interview with RT, Russian state-owned media, Duterte claimed the militants currently battling his troops are mostly from the Middle East. If this is true, it marks a stunning admission, indeed, especially considering how it could be possible that these Middle Eastern trained mercenaries have made it into the Philippines without attracting attention from the relevant authorities.
However, the likely truth is actually far more sinister. Just over a year ago, TIME reported that some 1,200 Southeast Asians had joined ISIS in the Middle East. According to an article from the Manila Times written in October 2014, some 200 Filipinos were believed to have left the country to fight in the Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. At the time, former president, defense secretary, and armed forces chief Fidel Ramos said the following:
“At least 100 of our young Filipino Muslims have already infiltrated Iraq to undergo training to return and be jihadists or militants.” [emphasis added]
This is important for two reasons. It shows that as far back as 2014, Manila was well aware that Filipinos trained by ISIS in the Middle East would one day return to launch a jihad of their own in the Philippines, and yet the country’s president is more concerned with murdering drug addicts by the thousands.
The far more important reason this information is relevant is due to ISIS’ evolution as a whole. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Paul Bremer, leader of the Coalition Provisional Authority and U.S. Presidential Envoy and Administrator in Iraq, fired close to 400,000 servicemen simply because they were part of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist party. This blunder directly led to the rise of ISIS. In May 2015, TIME ran an article entitled “How Disbanding the Iraqi Army Fueled ISIS.”
Then, the U.S. backed multiple jihadist groups fighting in Syria to overthrow the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. In October 2012, the New York Times reported that “most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists.”
In 2012, a classified Defense Intelligence Agency report predicted the rise of ISIS, something actively encouraged by the U.S. establishment. The report stated:
“If the situation unravels, there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria… and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.”
In a meeting with Syrian opposition groups in September 2016, former Secretary of State John Kerry was recorded confirming that the U.S. was watching ISIS grow in the hopes that this expansion would bring Assad to the negotiating table.
Further, Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails show the U.S. was well aware that their allies were directly supporting ISIS. One leaked document from the former secretary of state reads:
“We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” [emphasis added]
So who is ultimately to blame for this geopolitical conundrum? Whether intentional or not, these Filipino fighters were allowed to travel to the Middle East as part and parcel of Washington’s warped foreign policy agenda in Iraq and Syria — with full knowledge by the Filipino authorities that they would one day return to their home country, as is similarly speculated to be the case with the recent Manchester attacker.
On a side note, Islamist movements in the Philippines were not unknown to the U.S. Barack Obama was actually secretly drone bombing the country during his presidency, actions almost completely ignored by western media. As Obama should have been well aware, drone strikes only create more radical elements and greatly expand the problem (they also expand ISIS’ recruitment pool).
Regardless, this is where this story gets interesting. Duterte has claimed multiple times, including in his recent interview with RT, that the CIA would want to kill him for upsetting the current world power structure and cozying up to adversaries Russia and China.
And yet, according to Duterte, even with full knowledge of this ISIS-linked insurgency, the U.S. decided to block an arms sale to the Pacific nation that would most likely be used to combat these militants.
Why would they do that? Because of alleged human rights abuses, as was the official explanation? The U.S. just signed over $110 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia, a rights-abusing, ISIS-sponsoring radical Islamic nation — and barely batted an eyelid in doing so.
On one hand, it seems the U.S. could very well be playing a game of chess with Duterte, perhaps even going so far as facilitating the movement of militants that could put added pressure on his defiant government in order to ensure that America won’t lose its military bases in the country; using the potential ISIS threat as justification for their presence. At the same time, this refusal to sell Duterte arms will only push Duterte closer to Russia and China; he told Russia directly that he needs modern weaponry to combat these militants. Russia will likely have no problem filling the void. In fact, according to RT, Russia and the Philippines just signed a defense cooperation agreement following these recent developments.
This is bad news for the U.S. military establishment, which will stop at nothing in order to put a wedge between Russia and the rest of the world. In tandem with the corporate media, the demonization of Duterte is already well under way. This should give you an idea of where this narrative is headed, as we have seen it all too often before with other former U.S. allies who came too close to America’s Cold War rival.
Though it appears Duterte and Trump may see eye to eye, in his interview with RT Duterte claimed there are people within the State Department and Congress who do not share Trump’s vision, making it difficult for him to count on the U.S. as an ally.
On the other hand, this entire operation may also be an excuse for Duterte to launch a wider crackdown on his people under the guise of fighting terrorism. According to multiple reports, the fighters are not actually ISIS militants but are part of a group known as Maute, having merely pledged their allegiance to ISIS.
The Maute is composed of former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrillas and, reportedly, some foreign fighters (as speculated above). As it transpires, the MILF movement evolved out of a longstanding separatist movement with the aim of establishing an independent Islamic state for the Filipino Muslim minority, who have had centuries of clashes with the Spanish, American, and Filipino governments that have long sought to oppress them. Developments towards reaching a peace agreement were derailed partly because Manila is not prepared to concede outright to the militants’ demands.
It is no surprise, therefore, that some critics have said Duterte’s declaration of martial law over all of Mindanao — which houses a population of 22 million — is a complete overreaction to the situation considering the size of the insurgency is somewhere in the hundreds.
In reality, though, Duterte is doing exactly as he promised: ignoring human rights and acting ten times worse than the militants.
But what will he achieve in doing so?