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Terror threat lingers in Philippines despite Marawi victory

The battle against "Islamic State" fighters turned Marawi into a ghost town. But more than a year after the Philippine government regained control, IS-inspired extremism remains a threat. Sandra Petersmann reports.

Abdul, his young face hidden by a headscarf, stares into the camera as he contemplates his shattered dream. He has lost dozens of friends. His family has been displaced. 

"Our original plan was limited to attacking the military camp in Marawi and expelling the soldiers from the city," he tells DW. The homegrown jihadi leaders who laid siege to Marawi under the banner of the "Islamic State" (IS) had convinced Abdul and his fellow fighters that the Philippine government would then withdraw. "They told us we would get what we had always wanted: an Islamic state here in Marawi."

We meet inside a former high school on the edge of the military exclusion zone whose walls are pock-marked by bullet holes. Right by the entrance a yellow "I love ISIS" graffiti catches the eye, although someone has tried to cover it with a piece of cloth. The floor is littered with garbage, blankets and cartridge cases. The roof top offers a disturbing view of the ruins.

Decrepit buildings in Marawi (DW/S. Petersmann)

Marawi residents call the ruined area of the city "ground zero"

More than a year after the heaviest urban fighting in the Philippines since World War II, the historic center of Marawi, the island nation's largest Muslim city, remains sealed off. Marawi residents call this area "ground zero". Systematic air raids, heavy artillery fire and merciless house-to-house combat turned it into a bombed-out ghost town with skeletal buildings that evoke the war-ravaged ruins of Aleppo, Raqqa and Mosul in the Middle East.

Abdul was 17 years old when he was recruited by local Islamist insurgents. He gave his parents the bonus he received for enlisting: 7000 pesos, the equivalent of about 120 euros. Mom and Dad were proud of him as this is a lot of money in this impoverished region. Plus, there is a long tradition of Muslim families to send sons off to join the "liberation struggle" in the south of the Philippines.

Mindanao, the country's second largest island, has witnessed one of the longest conflicts in Asia. The armed uprising against the Philippine state began in the late 1960s, led by rival rebel groups of all shades: Maoist, nationalist, Islamist. Some are fighting for independence and religion. Others want to change the political system. 

Centuries of oppression

Just over 5 percent of the Filipino population is Muslim; the vast majority are Roman Catholics. More than 90 percent of all Muslims — about 6 million people — live on Mindanao and the smaller neighboring islands of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi Tawi. But even here, they are in the minority today. It used to be different.

There's a prevailing sense of injustice, dating back to the Spanish colonizers who introduced Christianity in the 16th century and subjected the local indigenous and Muslim population to their "pacification" campaign. Then came the United States, briefly followed by Japanese forces in the 20th century. And today there are the so-called "imperialists" in the capital, Manila, up north.

Read more: Is Philippines' Marawi free from 'Islamic State' influence?

Abdul is convinced the vast majority of Filipino politicians are corrupt and dishonest. He also believes the government is deliberately sending "Christian settlers" to Mindanao to squeeze out Muslims like him.

Watch video 03:36

IS legacy lives on in ruins of Marawi

The dream of an Islamic state became his panacea against unemployment, poverty and anger. His family has traditionally supported the largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). But Abdul chose to secretly join the Maute extremists who had sworn loyalty to IS.

IS offered 'feeling of brotherhood'

The group's leaders, Abdullah and Omar Maute, had spent many years in the Middle East, seemingly radicalizing their outlook on life and their interpretation of religion. For several months after his recruitment in the spring of 2015, Abdul went to a Maute training camp in the jungle near the city of Butig where he learned how to handle guns and knives, enjoying what he calls the "feeling of brotherhood."

Via Telegram, WhatsApp and other social media channels, Abdul and his friends regularly received translated IS propaganda videos and sermons from Syria and Iraq. Abdul says there were also about 30 foreign fighters in his camp, mainly from neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia, but also from Arab countries. DW has been unable to independently verify his account.

At the end of his jungle training, Abdul received a Kalashnikov rifle and the equivalent of €160 ($182). This time, it was not a one-off sum, but the first payment of a regular monthly salary to prepare him for the future battle.

The historic center of Marawi remains off limits (DW/S. Petersmann)

The historic center of Marawi remains off limits, displacing some 65,000 people

Abdul admits to having used his new weapon in clashes between two rival Marawi clans, killing without remorse. "Even if you personally have no enemies, the enemies of your clan are your enemies. That's how it is here," he says.

Long years of violence in Mindanao have created a dangerous vacuum. As a result, clan rule, criminal networks, corruption and jihadi splinter groups have flourished. 

Siege of Marawi

The attack on the military base in central Marawi was planned for the the summer of 2017, after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. But after Abu Sayyaf fighters, extremist allies of the Maute, were uncovered in the area, the Maute spontaneously decided to move up their siege.

According to government sources, around 1,000 fighters, mostly local, holed up in private homes, mosques and schools in late May 2017. They took hostages and beheaded an unknown number of Christians.

When asked about that time, Abdul is evasive: "We were told to only take action against Christians who belonged to the government." He then refers to his Quran study lessons at the jungle camp, where "they taught us that Islam allows us to take revenge for injustice."

A mass grave in Marawi (DW/S. Petersmann)

Most victims of the Marawi siege were buried in mass graves without prior identification

Abdul and his family were shopping in the neighboring city of Iligan when the battle for Marawi broke out. Unable to take part directly, he spied on the military, passing on details of troop movements to his friends entrenched in the city center.

In the end, it took five months of airstrikes, as well as the deployment of 12,000 soldiers and US army intelligence units, to bring the city back under government control. Some fighters managed to escape, and Abdul went underground, too. He has since returned to live with his parents.

About 1,200 people are said to have lost their lives; the government claims almost all were jihadi fighters. But many families are still missing relatives, and many victims were buried anonymously in mass graves without prior identification. Due to the scale of destruction, 65,000 people are still living in temporary shelters. Martial law remains in force.

Read more: 2018 will be 'dangerous' for the Philippines

When asked whether it was worth all the death and destruction, Abdul sounds as if he's trying to purge himself of guilt. "They brainwashed us. They promised us time and again that life in Marawi would improve as soon as we had an Islamic state," he says almost defiantly. "I really didn't see any of this coming. They promised us that we wouldn't be attacked in the city." 

Covered graffiti in Marawi, by the entrance of a school, expresses support for IS

Covered graffito by the entrance of the school where DW met with Abdul in Marawi

Abdul is angry — with the government "for bombing Marawi" and with the dead Maute brothers "for breaking their promises." Now 21, he has slipped back into unemployment. "I made a mistake. I made a very big mistake", he says.  

Muslim self-rule — or a renewed threat?

Iron-fist ruler Rodrigo Duterte, the first Philippine president to hail from Mindanao, has promised Muslims more autonomy. If everything goes according to plan, the minority community will be granted more self-determination on the basis of a constitutional framework known as Bangsamoro Organic Law.

The government's most important negotiating partner in the peace process is the largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a peace deal with the government in 2014. As soon as Muslims have self-rule MILF says it plans to disarm around 30,000 fighters.

But if the road to autonomy turns into a dead end, "many people here will seriously question our credibility," warns Sammy Al-Mansoor, commander-in-chief of the MILF fighters, in an interview with DW at his modest jungle headquarters. "Then IS could again try to take advantage of the situation and poach our fighters, and that would indeed be very dangerous." That is exactly what happened to Abdul when he was recruited in the name of IS in the spring of 2015. 

Islamic state sympathizer Abdul (DW/S. Petersmann)

"I made a mistake", Abdul tells DW. But he also says: "I would fight again"

Still reeling from defeat, the promise of "real" Muslim autonomy is Abdul's new hope for a better life, a substitute for the shattered dream of an Islamic state. But for how long? Angry young men like Abdul, quick to inspire and easy to disappoint, remain susceptible to global jihadi propaganda. This fits in with the plans of Islamist terror networks to gain a foothold in Southeast Asia as they lose territory in the Middle East. 

"I would fight again," Abdul says. "But I would not fight in our Muslim territory. Then it would again be our own people who suffer most. But if the fight takes place elsewhere, I would join in."

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