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The Philippines in the sights of IS

Despite losing its caliphate in the Middle East, IS has put down roots in Mindanao in the south of the Philippines. The government has promised Mindanao's Muslims more autonomy in return for combatting Islamist terror.

The Bato Ali Mosque was once a beautiful edifice with a distinct green dome. Now, only an ugly, bombed-out skeleton topped by a perforated minaret remains. The ravaged mosque stands out as a reminder of what happened here in the southern Philippines almost two years ago.

In the beginning everyone "thought it's a joke," recalls Norodin Lucman. He comes from one of the most influential Muslim families in the city of Marawi, where the black flag of the self-proclaimed "Islamic State" was on display for months. "How can you attack a city and take tens of thousands of civilians hostage?" But it happened. "This is how terrorism goes about its work," says Lucman.

The 'caliphate' in Southeast Asia

With just over 200,000 inhabitants, quaint Marawi is the largest Muslim city in the predominantly Catholic Philippines. It is idyllically located on the shore of Lake Lanao in Mindanao, the second biggest island of the Philippines.

In 2017, two local Islamist terror outfits, both pledging allegiance to IS, were determined to turn Marawi into the Southeast Asian capital of the "caliphate."

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Zero Tolerance: The Philippines

They only had a few hundred fighters but, between May and October, they managed to occupy the center of the old city. The IS jihadists murdered Christians, took hostages and entrenched themselves in mosques like Bato Ali.

The terrorists drew the Philippine armed forces into the toughest combat they had faced since World War II. In the end, it was the permanent air raids combined with the massive support of the US army that decided the fight. More than 1,200 people were killed.

Marawi 'only the beginning'

Today, the devastation in Marawi is just as great as the destruction in the Syrian city of Raqqa or Mosul in Iraq. The city will be rebuilt, it was promised. But reconstruction has barely begun. Tens of thousands of displaced people are still living in emergency shelters. Martial law applies across Mindanao. IS fighters have gone underground. When a lethal bomb attack ripped through a cathedral on Mindanao's small neighboring island of Jolo on January 17, 2019, IS said it was responsible.

Norodin Lucman inside the destroyed center of Marawi

Norodin Lucman inside the destroyed center of Marawi. Displaced residents call the military exclusion zone "ground zero"

Read moreDeadly bombs target cathedral in south Philippines

Marawi was "only the beginning," warns Norodin Lucman. As a clan leader, he enjoys great respect in the area. He knew some of the IS fighters in Marawi personally: angry, disaffected youngsters from his own neighborhood. On the 12th day of the siege, they allowed Lucman to lead more than 150 civilians out of the battle zone. Muslims and Christians. 

Read moreTerror threat lingers in Philippines despite Marawi victory 

The bombing and destruction of Marawi has "left a lot of misery behind. Resentment. Anger. Outrage. Every day," says Lucman. If the government doesn't take firm action to tackle the problem, "there will be another uprising," he tells DW as he talks about "the continuation of colonial war against our people.”

Mindanao and smaller islands to the south, such as Jolo, provide the backdrop for one of Asia's longest running conflicts. It's a bitter power struggle between the Christian majority that dominates the Philippine state and the Muslim minority. Only about 5% of the population is Muslim. Almost all live in Mindanao, which used to be run by powerful sultanates. That was before the arrival of Christian colonial settlers.

Samira Gutoc

Samira Gutoc (right) wants to represent the Muslim minority in the senate

'Discrimination' against Muslims

Like Norodin Lucman, Samira Gutoc sees herself as a representative of the discriminated Muslim minority. The 43-year-old politician from Marawi wants to become a senator. But for the past 25 years no Muslim has been elected to the Philippine Senate. But, she tells DW, "if we continue to believe that peace can only be achieved by men in uniform and at the national level, without involving the local population, Marawi will remain a failed experiment."

She accuses Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte of sacrificing Marawi in the fight against terror. "Marawi is an example of discrimination, of not allowing traditional indigenous mediation systems to be put in place." Gutoc believes Duterte was wrong to categorically reject negotiations with the local IS fighters.

The Philippine government did, however, negotiate with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF. The largest Muslim rebel group in Mindanao has lost members to IS. Deeply entrenched in the local population, MILF fought for decades for an independent Islamic state in the south of the Philippines.

Watch video 03:53

Philippines Muslims vote in referendum on more autonomy

But after years of negotiations, it has moderated its demands and is now campaigning for a Muslim region with a far-reaching autonomy. The Bangsamoro, as it is called, will have its own parliament, budget and Islamic laws. Once the autonomy government is in place, says MILF, it would disarm up to 30,000 fighters.

A first step toward federalism

The Marawi disaster has accelerated the push for change, providing President Duterte, best known for his brutal anti-drug war, with persuasive arguments in his efforts to convince the Christian majority to accept an autonomous Bangsamoro. Duterte himself hails from Mindanao — the first Philippine president to. MILF leaders have told DW they "trust his sincerity."

"I know that Duterte has a terrible reputation in Germany," Philippine political scientist Richard Heydarian tells DW. But, he adds, the president deserves credit for the path he has taken in Mindano: "He has really used the bullying power of his presidency and his own political capital to whiplash the Philippine political elite to support the Bangsamoro project."

Read moreWill Mindanao referendum bring peace to Philippines' restive region?

Many Muslims in Mindanao speak of "imperial Manila" when they talk about their government in the distant capital. An autonomous Bangsamoro, scheduled to be realized within the next three years, effectively represents a first step toward federalism in this centrally governed island nation. Finally, we are seeing "an indigenous mechanism to problem-solve locally," says senatorial candidate Samira Gutoc. But there are caveats.

MILF rebels on patrol in the marshlands of Mindanao

MILF rebels on patrol in the marshlands of Mindanao

Between rivalry and corruption

President Duterte is only set to be in office until 2021 and there is no guarantee that his successor will not renege on the promise of autonomy. Neither is it impossible that power struggles will erupt either within MILF or between MILF and rival Muslim rebel groups. There are also worrying divisions between traditional Muslim clans in Mindanao. The corruption and nepotism that are rife in the region combined to undermine an initial, small-scale bid of self-rule.

Four decades of civil war, with more than 120,000 deaths, have left an indelible mark. Mindanao's Muslim majority areas are among the poorest and least developed in the Philippines. So, what happens if the autonomy drive does not deliver tangible results quickly enough?

The new front state

"When IS in the Middle East decided to name an emir in this region, they didn't choose an Indonesian or Malaysian. They chose a Filipino," academic Richard Heydarian says. "They believe the front is in the south of the Philippines," and not in Muslim nations like Indonesia or Malaysia.

Isnilon Hapilon

IS chose terrorist Isnilon Hapilon of the Philippines as their "emir" in Southeast Asia. He was killed in the battle of Marawi

Only the Philippines provide the narrative of a mainly Christian state with an impoverished Muslim minority. After the fall of the IS caliphate in Syria and Iraq, Mindanao could become increasingly attractive for foreign fighters. Large jungle and marsh areas offer ample space to hide out. "This is another fallback option for them to have a chance for redemption, jihadi redemption if you want to call it that," argues Heydarian.

What's more, the island is also easily accessible by boat from Indonesia and Malaysia. The two neighboring countries are battling their own Islamist terror cells. Jihadis from both these countries were among the IS fighters in the Middle East and in Marawi.

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