A Cultural Failure: U.S. Special Operations in the Philippines and the Rise of the Islamic State


In mid-May, hundreds of fighters linked to the Maute group seized Marawi, a city of over 200,000 people on the island of Mindanao in the Southern Philippines, while fighting under the black flags of the Islamic State. The Maute group is thought to be part of the Khilafah Islamiya Movement, one of several separatist Islamist groups in the Southern Philippines (including Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front), that has been fighting the Philippine government and security forces for years.

While U.S. special operations forces rejoin the active fight against these separatist groups, several media outlets have argued that the Islamic State’s encroachment into the Philippines is a result of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s negligence toward countering extremism because of his focus on persecuting a violent drug war. After serving in the Philippines from 2015 to 2016, I offer a different interpretation: The rise of the Islamic State in the Philippines represents a major failure for Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which failed to contain the spread of the Islamic State and violent extremism around the globe, one of its primary missions.

The potential for the Islamic State to gain a significant foothold in the Philippines was known to both American and Philippine security forces as early as 2014. In 2015, I began serving as the leader of the Military Information Support Team in the Philippines, a group deployed under SOCPAC to combat radicalization and recruitment to violent extremist organizations. We sought to do this through informational programs across all types of media: radio, television, social media, and even education. At that time, it was clear the Islamic State’s ideology and global appeal were beginning to attract Islamist groups in Mindanao.

Part of the special operations mission in the Philippines, as it is around the globe, was to prevent a formal link between local Islamist groups and the Islamic State from developing. As the events in Marawi show, special operations forces partially failed in its mission. The failure is intricately linked to how the U.S. military conceives of war — a problem not limited to the special operations community, but one that it is supposedly designed to avoid. The military tendency to use violent means instead of informational or developmental ones permeates SOCOM as well. The misalignment between the goal of preventing the appeal and spread of an ideology and the improper means to accomplish this is the product of two separate but related factors: First, an organizational culture predisposed toward combat and violent action; and second, a perceived high cost to using informational tools.

Certain conventional military forces or special operations units like Army Rangers can succeed with an organizational culture that emphasizes violence of action. However, special operations teams mostly comprised of Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and Marine Special Operations (MARSOC) are today deployed to non-combat locations throughout the globe with missions ranging from counter-terrorism to humanitarian assistance. Combat-oriented operations, to include tactical training of indigenous forces, are simply not the proper means to accomplish many of these missions. The organizational culture of SOCOM resulting in this ends-means discrepancy is a product of three main factors: The changing role of Special Forces since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the insistence on immediate and quantifiable results at all levels of command; and special operations organizational structures (including career progression and professional military education). Compounding this organizational culture is public scrutiny that is often more severe for failed information operations than for failed combat operations.

I do not write this article as an indictment of any specific leader, unit, or organization. It is about the broader forces that have produced strategic choices that are ultimately not proving successful. It is also not an argument that branches like Military Information Support Operations, Civil Affairs, or any other are a panacea that can always lead to success. In no way do I argue that Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and MARSOC are any less important to global special operations missions. Indeed, their unique capabilities remain essential to the country, not only in the fight against violent extremism but also against near-peer and spoiler state actors.

Special Operations in the Philippines

Terrorism is the culmination of a radicalization process grounded in psychological, sociological, economic, cultural, and religious factors. Yet Special Operations Command subordinates efforts to address those “upstream” factors — known as countering violent extremism (CVE) — to “hard” counter-terrorism, which includes direct action and training partnered forces to do the same. This has implications not only for resources and funding, but also because of the type of special operations forces aligned to each mission. Special Forces and SEALs tend to be selected to lead missions with a counterterrorism label (which are the majority of global SOCOM missions). Those units that focus more on civilian populations and the broader political environment — such as the team that I led, or civil affairs teams — are considered “enablers” for their Special Forces and SEAL counterparts (as my bosses often reminded me). Such a view may be appropriate for a combat mission in Afghanistan or Iraq, but it is misconstrued when waging broader ideological, psychological, and political struggles in non-combat environments.

My team, composed of fewer than half a dozen members, was charged with planning and executing nationwide programs to counter and prevent violent extremism. Given the many separatist Islamic organizations in the Southern Philippines, we had our work cut out for us. While we managed several long-running programs, we were met with barriers at every turn when trying to expand or create new programs.

For example, we spent months developing one specific program aimed at countering the Islamic State’s appeal in the Philippines by improving the sophistication and reach of pro-government and anti-Islamic State messaging from our partners. Unfortunately, we were unable to gain approval to execute the program. The program was simply not a high enough priority to receive the meager resources or funding we requested (less than $50,000 per year). My small team of “enablers” fought for an additional member to focus on countering extremist messaging on social media to no avail. We watched while other elements of our force, who were focused on tactical of training Philippine security forces, increased, despite the fact that this only focused on “hard” counter-terrorism and did not address the “upstream” factors that allowed the Islamic State to gain a foothold in the Philippines in the first place. By how they chose to allocate their resources and focus their efforts, my leaders in the Philippines and at SOCPAC signaled their priorities — informational programs to slow the spread of a toxic group before they set down roots in the Philippines and advanced their violent agenda was not one of them. This is not to say our program would have stopped the Islamic State’s encroachment into Mindanao. I only use the example to highlight how the broader strategy does not properly align means with ends.

To help understand the reasons for this, we have to look at the culture of the U.S. special operations community and external variables that may make commanders more reluctant to prioritize the use of informational tools. This culture is the result of three factors.

The Changing Role of Special Forces After 9/11

Special Forces, comprising most of the Army’s special operators, are largely built to train indigenous forces. The specific types of missions Special Forces are designed for vary (such as foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare), but they are primarily designed to work with indigenous forces rather than simply serve as a direct-action force. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the roles of Special Forces and conventional forces practically reversed: Conventional became primarily responsible for the training and advising of Iraqi and Afghan security forces while Special Forces largely focused on finding and then either killing or capturing the enemy and its commanders. The reversal can be attributed to the precision with which Special Forces soldiers could execute a difficult mission, an essential part of counter-insurgency. However, executing direct-action for over a decade of warfare necessarily results in changes to training, resourcing, recruiting, and organizational preferences. America’s Special Forces are now more likely to emphasize violent operations than they have before. This problem is compounded by the fact that overall deference from political leaders to military leaders has increased dramatically after 9/11, implicitly reaffirming conceptions of how war should be waged in the modern era.

The Demand for Immediate Results

Individual special operations teams are often named “detachments” because they were originally conceived as groups that could operate autonomously for extended periods of time, effectively “detached” from the larger unit or organization. Unfortunately, a broad cultural shift toward instant gratification has permeated the special operations community as well. For deployed teams, this manifests as excessive and redundant reports to various commands that both consume precious time and give all types of special operations forces less autonomy to execute missions how they see fit. Such requirements are especially an anathema to those who execute civil affairs and military information support operations. These programs are often designed to have long-term results rather than immediate impact. Resulting from this is difficulty in justifying increased informational or developmental programming, however inexpensive, because their effects may not be fully realized until well after the program has ended. It is important to note that just because programs do not demonstrate immediate results, that does not mean they can’t achieve measurable results. If a desired behavior change takes months or years to realize, though, programs are often not funded to properly capture these changes after the year-long contract has ended.

Organizational Structure

A cursory examination of the structure of any deployed special operations team reveals the organization’s priorities. The vast majority of deployed team members are Special Forces, Navy SEALs, or MARSOC. Leadership positions from the team leader to theater commander desk officers to operations officers are usually filled by these branches as well. These leaders are not opposed to information operations or development projects, but they rarely fully understand or prioritize such operations over those that rely on their own “tribe.” Leadership also largely determines resource allocations and deployment length, both of which limit forces focused on information and development projects. The mandated six-month deployment cycle for all special operations forces limits efforts to build long-term relationships, gain nuanced understandings of local security dynamics, and develop and execute programs that last longer than six months. Special operations leadership doggedly believes that these short deployments do not constrain units and are necessary to maintaining a stretched force, but long-term success cannot be achieved with such frequent turnover. As with other branches of the military, leaders who do not rock the boat and strongly challenge this thinking are the ones to progress in their careers. In the Army, officers from all special operations branches may be promoted at the same rate, but the overwhelming numbers of Special Forces officers ensures they will fill most staff and leadership billets over Civil Affairs and Military Information Support Operations officers, whose careers cannot move beyond colonel. For an organization that values diversity and different perspectives, career paths and unit organization remain surprisingly rigid.

The Perceived High Cost of Conducting Information Operations

Along with organizational culture produced by the above factors, SOCOM leaders perceive the cost of failed information operations to be higher than failed combat operations. The military maintains a monopoly on the use of force abroad. This monopoly does not stop journalists and academics from criticizing a failed combat operation or highlighting civilian casualties, but the public readily accepts that this is an integral part of warfare. However, no such monopoly exists over the “marketplace of ideas.” When the military attempts to execute information operations, it opens itself to challenges from professionals whose careers are built in the stock and trade of information: journalists, academics, public affairs professionals, diplomats, and politicians. Commanders of deployed special operations teams can explain a failed raid, but they do not want to be accused of an “attack on truth” or “profoundly undemocratic program[s] devoted to spreading disinformation.” Though such categorizations are usually misguided, they raise the apparent cost for special operations leaders to use information operations. The evidence could not be clearer, as the approval to drop a bomb on a pre-planned target in Iraq and Syria has been delegated below the brigadier general level but a major general needs to approve an information operation. And if the operation is to be carried out via social media, the Pentagon needs to sign off.

Moving Beyond the Philippines

The failure of special operations forces to enact a strategy that correctly aligns means with ends is evident in the rise of the Islamic State in the Philippines, but the implications are much broader than countering violent extremism in Mindanao. Similar strategic misalignment is evident in SOCOM’s attempts to stop the Islamic State around the globe. Perhaps more importantly, U.S. special operations are not investing in the proper tools to combat current and future threats from major state actors like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. As Russia’s influence campaign against the U.S. presidential election in 2016 demonstrated, the line between war and peace has all but disappeared and the “battlefield” for many future conflicts will be informational rather than physical. With threats from the information domain likely to increase as advanced communications technologies and social media continue to pervade Western society, it does not make strategic sense for forces like Military Information Support Operations to remain a fraction of the size of Special Forces and be viewed as “enablers.”

Changing Special Operations Culture

SOCOM needs to change its organizational structure and culture to bring ends and means into strategic alignment. The ratio of Special Forces to non-Special Forces soldiers within the Army’s Special Operations Command should not stay as high as it is. If they are to be successful, Military Information Support Operations and Civil Affairs need more manpower and funding. An increased budget should not just be used for more operations, but also to increase the quality of training incoming Military Information Support Operations and Civil Affairs soldiers receive (especially when it comes to measuring and reporting on program measures of effectiveness). With a greater number of non-Special Forces officers and senior NCOs, leadership and staff positions throughout Special Operations Command should be more evenly distributed between the various special operations branches. It is not necessary for a Military Information Support Operations officer to be a Special Forces company commander or vice-versa, but deployed special operations team leaders through commanders of Theater Special Operations Commands should not remain almost exclusively Special Forces, SEAL, and MARSOC. Before filling leadership and staff roles within Special Operations Command, all officers and senior-NCOs should be required to complete a course or training to help them more fully understand the utility of the other special operations branches. Though this should already be the case in theory, rare is the Green Beret or SEAL who fully understands or appreciates information operations.

One final change necessary for special operations forces’ future strategic success: Ending the mandatory six-month deployment cycles. The policy was originally instituted with the noble intent to decrease the length of combat deployments, but the frequent turnover of teams, inability to understand the nuances of the operating environment, and surface-level relationship building is unproductive at best, and more often counter-productive. Such a shift could change the entire way special operations careers are envisioned (possibly by mandating non-combat tours that last over a year), but the current deployment cycle is not positioning special operations forces to succeed in asymmetric conflicts against violent extremist groups and rival state actors alike.


For the time being, Special Forces, SEALs, and MARSOC will train and advise Philippine Security Forces in tactical missions as they attempt to recapture Marawi and physically push the Islamic State out of the city. It is likely that the aforementioned forces will succeed in its tactical missions and will probably mount successful operations to counter the Islamic State in the short-term. But with its current priorities and organization, Special Operations Command is not positioned to defeat the Islamic State because it does not prioritize operations to limit the Islamic State’s global appeal. Without changing its organizational culture and recognizing how outside criticism of information operations has impacted leaders’ willingness to employ these tools, strategic success will continue to evade SOCOM.  Such a failure in the Philippines may not directly threaten American security, but the misalignment of means and ends will limit U.S. Special Operations Command’s ability to challenge more powerful global adversaries.


Cole Livieratos is currently pursuing a PhD in International Relations at Georgetown University.  He is an Army officer in Military Information Support Operations and has three deployments with infantry and Special Operations units.  The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force photos by Capt. Jessica Tait

Correction: This article originally referred to SOCOM-Pacific, rather that SOCPAC.