For the Philippines, More Money and Arms is Not the Answer


Last week, authorities in Manila announced that Philippine troops had killed Isnilon Hapilon, the deputy leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group and apparent emir of the Islamic State in the Philippines, and Omar Maute, one of the two brothers leading the Maute Group. Shortly after receiving the news, President Rodrigo Duterte declared the city of Marawi liberated from terrorist influence. The all-clear signal has not been given yet, however. About 30 militants, including six to eight foreign fighters, remain in the city and are continuing their fight against Philippine troops. The militants are believed to have 20 hostages.

What started out as a hasty raid to capture Isnilon has turned into a five-month siege. Since May, the Philippine military has been engaged in combat operations against the Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf — both Islamist militant groups that have pledged loyalty to Islamic State. Nearly 750 militants have been killed, and 155 soldiers, marines, police, and 47 civilians have died. The fighting in the city of Marawi has also displaced about 400,000 people. The violence in Marawi spurred Duterte to declare martial law in the Southern Philippines.

Many countries seem to think that more money, more arms, and more specialized equipment for the Philippine military is the appropriate response to the conflict in Marawi. The United States, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and even China have offered varying levels of support to the Philippines, ranging from assistance in intelligence and technical expertise to rifles and bullets to mini-guns, grenade launchers, drones, and specially equipped surveillance planes.

The influx of arms and equipment will certainly increase the lethality of the Philippine military, but on its own it cannot prevent the growth of Islamic State in the Southern Philippines. These resources are singularly focused on one tactical objective — to bring the crisis in Marawi to an end. However, the crisis is not just about recent clashes with Islamic State — it is a by-product of a nearly five-decade political impasse with several Moro (Filipino Muslim) separatist groups. The inability of the various Moro groups to agree on what constitutes self-determination and self-governance continues to plague the Philippines and foster conflict.

Internal strife and political disagreements amongst these Moro separatist groups has fueled violence and furthered political and economic instability in the Southern Philippines, particularly in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. The result has been under-governed areas and a weak rule of law that has in the past enabled the separatist groups to provide sanctuary to transnational terrorists, such as al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah. The area continues to be the poorest region in the Philippines, ranking in the bottom 10 out of 81 provinces for the past two decades. In 2013, the U.S. State Department identified the Sulu-Sulawasi Seas and the Southern Philippines as terrorist safe havens in the Asia Pacific. These conditions are precisely why Islamic State seeks to establish a province in the Southern Philippines.

I was an Army Special Forces soldier — Green Beret — for 15 years and deployed to the Philippines four times between 2002 and 2011. I also worked with foreign militaries throughout Southeast Asia during numerous security cooperation exercises and deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. I recently spent 13 months in the Philippines as a risk management professional and routinely travelled to Mindanao.

My experience has shown me that only a preventive strategy can hope to accurately address the conditions that make the Philippines so attractive to terrorists and foreign Islamist militants. The unfortunate reality is it will take a long time to affect these conditions — probably decades. It will also require more of the same from the diplomacy and development playbook. This likely means funding in the hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen the rule of law and to improve quality of life in the Southern Philippines.

But even this strategy is not guaranteed to succeed. The United States cannot keep pouring money into the Philippines to help it resolve its internal political and security challenges. Or can it? A policy of indifference to the Philippines’ security challenges will increase instability in the country and in Southeast Asia. Yet a military response will not resolve the political impasse with Moro separatists, the main driver of terrorism and violent extremism in the Philippines.

More, More, and More

In 2002, U.S. special operations forces deployed to the Southern Philippines to help the Philippine military defeat the Abu Sayyaf Group and to prevent the growth of al-Qaeda in the region. Between 2001 and 2014, the United States provided between $34 and $56 million per year in military assistance to the Philippine military, according to the RAND Corporation. Now, the Philippines is once again the recipient of regional and international support to help it fight terrorism. But today, it’s Islamic State rather than al-Qaeda.

Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said in June:

Marawi is a wake-up call for every nation in the Indo-Asia Pacific….These terrorists are using combat tactics that we’ve seen in the Middle East to kill in the city of Marawi, in Mindanao, the first time ISIS-inspired forces have banded together to fight on this kind of scale.

Duterte himself sparked international concern when he said this summer, “it appears that al-Baghdadi himself, the leader of ISIS, has specifically ordered terrorist activities here in the Philippines.” In September, he followed with, “I will tell you now, straight, that there will be no peace in Mindanao for the longest time.” Richard Heydarian, an assistant professor of political science at De La Salle University said, “The prolonged fighting has concerned other countries that Islamic State could gain a new foothold in Southeast Asia after losing its Middle East strongholds.”

Diplomats, soldiers, and scholars have trumpeted the call for greater military assistance to the Philippines. Asia-Pacific allies quickly emphasized their defense commitments. The Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group provided 625 weapons to the Philippine Marines, including four mini-guns and 100 M203 grenade launchers. The U.S. military deployed one of its armed Gray Eagle drones, and one of its P3 Orion surveillance planes.

At the end of August, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs to the Philippines offered to send Australian troops to train, advise, and assist the Philippine military in the same manner Australian troops are advising in Iraq. In early September, the Australian Defense Minister met with the Philippine Defense Secretary to discuss sending a small Australian force to provide specialized training to the Philippine military. The Australian government is also providing two of its AP-3C Orion surveillance planes to aid Philippine troops in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance efforts.

Singapore joined the group and offered one of its C-130 aircraft to deliver humanitarian supplies to the evacuees from Marawi, the use of its drones, and the use of its urban training villages. And Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines have agreed to conduct trilateral patrols in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas, a porous one-million square kilometer maritime area that has historically been difficult to monitor. Criminals and transnational terrorists have used this area for drug, human, and weapons trafficking for decades.

China has donated 3,000 rifles and six million rounds of ammunition. The Chinese ambassador to the Philippines also handed over a check for 15 million Philippine pesos (about $300,000) for rehabilitation costs in Marawi. More weapons and ammunition from China are on their way. China’s donation of arms follows its recent commitment to invest $24 billion into the Philippines in infrastructure projects and soft loans as part of its One Belt One Road funding.

Endemic Internal Challenges

 With better arms and equipment, the Philippine military will ultimately resolve the crisis in Marawi and temporarily curb the spread of Islamic State in the Philippines. However, when the smoke clears, then what?

The Philippines will still need to address the various Moro separatist groups’ disagreements over self-determination and self-governance. For decades, they have been unable to reach a lasting peace agreement. The Moro National Liberation Front, formed in 1972, sought an independent Muslim state for the Filipino Muslims in the south. However, internal strife related to ideological and political disagreements among the Moro National Liberation Front’s founders resulted in the creation of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 1977.

The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao was established in 1989. This agreement provided political autonomy, or local governance, for Filipino Muslims in the region within the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Philippines. However, the Moro National Liberation Front was not consulted and opposed the agreement. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front also disagreed with the agreement and withdrew its support. Shortly after, in the early 1990s, other Moro National Liberation Front members broke off and formed the Abu Sayyaf Group. It was not until 1996 that a Final Peace Agreement was signed, officially ending the Moro National Liberation Front’s armed resistance.

However, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front did not agree with the Final Peace Agreement and ramped up its attacks against the government. The group was not immune to internal dissent, and in 2008, internal disagreements led to the formation of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

Fast forward to March 2014, and it was the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signing a peace agreement, known as the Comprehensive Agreement for the Bangsamoro. The term Bangsamoro is defined as a homeland or nation for the Moro people. This agreement transitions the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao to a Bangsamoro autonomous political entity. The Bangsamoro region would have more power, more resources, and possibly more territory than the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. However, the agreement’s completion has been deadlocked over a key piece of legislation, the Bangsamoro Basic Law. This law defines the relationships between the local government units, the Bangsamoro government, and the central government. There are disagreements on both sides concerning the language of this bill, particularly on the meaning of the proposed asymmetrical relationship between the Bangsamoro and the national government. Some Filipinos argue this law moves the Bangsamoro closer to secession. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters have said they do not accept this agreement and will continue to fight for an independent Islamic state and Islamic constitution.

The internecine fighting amongst Moro groups has contributed to further bloodshed, greater instability, broken cease-fires, and unfulfilled peace agreements. Prior to the crisis in Marawi there was the Mamasapano clash in January 2015 and the Zamboanga siege in September 2013. In the Mamasapano operation, the Philippine National Police Special Action Force sought to capture two bomb makers, one a Malaysian terrorist affiliated with Jemaah Islamiyah, and the other a Filipino member of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters with ties to Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah. The operation resulted in tragedy, with 44 Special Action Force police officers, three civilians, and 18 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front killed. In the Zamboanga siege, members of the Moro National Liberation Front attacked the coastal city due to another failed peace agreement. The fighting resulted in 183 Moro rebels killed, as well as 23 soldiers and police, and 12 civilians. The fighting and resulting fires destroyed 10,000 homes and forced more than 100,000 residents to flee.

The constant upheaval and proclivity toward armed resistance is precisely what makes the Southern Philippines so attractive to Islamic State and foreign Islamist militants. Until Filipinos resolve this internal political issue, armed conflict and terrorism will continue to plague the Southern Philippines.

Widening the Aperture

Foreign money, arms, and equipment, meant to singularly enhance the Philippines’ counterterrorism capabilities, will neither resolve the violence nor prevent the growth of Islamic State. A strategy that promotes military assistance ahead of diplomacy and economic instruments has it backwards. Rather, the Philippines needs sustained and calculated diplomacy and economic efforts supported by military assistance. This means strengthening the rule of law and improving economic conditions, particularly in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, ahead of building counterterrorism capacity and capabilities.

Still, this combined approach will be fraught with challenges and setbacks. Philippine leaders — Christians and Muslims — must lead the efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution with Moro separatist groups in order to create inhospitable conditions for terrorists and foreign Islamist militants. Fulfilling the Comprehensive Agreement for the Bangsamoro may be one way to change the status quo. However, a history of broken cease-fires and stalled agreements foreshadows more trouble in the near future.

Given that even a focus on diplomacy and economic assistance offers no guarantee of success, should the United States and the region let the Philippines go it alone? Of course not. The United States has stood shoulder to shoulder with the Philippines and vice versa since WWII. The reality is that regional and U.S. assistance to aid the Philippines in fighting terrorism and violent extremism will be needed for decades.

But only a preventive strategy with diplomacy and economic instruments in the lead and military assistance in a supporting role has a chance of working. That means strengthening the rule of law, reducing corruption, and improving the economy in the Southern Philippines. More diplomacy and more development are needed, not more arms and military equipment.


David Lewton served 15 years in Army Special Forces and is a retired Special Forces Warrant Officer. He deployed to the Southern Philippines four times between 2002 and 2011. He is also a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Image: U.S. Navy/Daniel James Lewis