TAIPEI - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has stepped up a campaign over the past year to control Muslim violence in the country's south, but two of the top terrorist groups are suspected of joining forces with possible support from Islamic State.
President Rodrigo Duterte asked Tuesday for martial law on the 21 million-person island of Mindanao, as well as outlying islets, shortly after militants from the Maute Group laid siege to the town of Marawi, leaving at least two soldiers and one policeman dead and several wounded.
The violence began when troops began searching for Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf militant group that has pledged allegiance to Islamic State. The insurgents burned down several buildings, including a church, and took a local Catholic priest and others hostage after forcing their way into a cathedral. Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said the hostages included 10 worshippers and three church employees, and that the militants were demanding the government withdraw its forces from the area.
Abu Sayyaf may have been planning violence to get attention from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, said Antonio Contreras, political scientist at De La Salle University in the Philippine. Some of the militants encountered in Marawi Tuesday wore clothing identical to IS attire, Philippine media reports said.
“We don’t know yet whether they just want the attention so that ISIS can take notice and consider them as part of the whole network,” Contreras said. They would need funds for weapons, he said.
Mindanao and nearby smaller islands in the mostly Catholic Southeast Asian archipelago’s southwestern corner are home to the four-year-old Maute Group as well as Abu Sayyaf, which is known for kidnapping foreign tourists and beheading some.
Two other groups are pressing the government separately for talks on autonomy in parts of impoverished but resource-rich Mindanao, where fighting between Muslims and the government have left about 120,000 dead since the 1960s while hobbling any hopes of raising incomes through economic stimulus.
Abu Sayyaf, regarded among Filipinos as a bandit group, has pledged sympathy to Islamic State as it recruits locals including officials to help it kidnap people in exchange for a cut of the ransom. The group, with about 400 core members, beheaded a German tourist in February and two Canadian tourists last year.
Duterte’s struggle to beat Abu Sayyaf by stepping up attacks since he took office in June would be frustrated by help from the Maute Group or IS, analysts say.
Even without IS, government troops may struggle to figure out who’s who among Muslim rebels based in the Philippines. The Maute Group was founded by former members of a bigger Muslim rebel group and it had clashed with troops near Marawi in February last year.
It’s unclear whether the Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf co-mingle personnel or whether they’re even the same group with two branches, Contreras said.
Martial law would inflame the militants at least in the short term, analysts say.
“It’s definitely going to cause a little flare-up or probably a large flare-up between the militants on the ground and the government forces. And because there’s people that are on the ground I think maybe in the long term, given the heavy handed nature of the Duterte Administration, there will be a lot of casualties,” said Maxfield Brown, business intelligence associate at the consultancy Dezan Shira & Associates in Manila.
“Over the long term it could actually resolve the situation to some extent, not in necessarily a human resources-friendly away,” Brown said.
Duterte, former mayor of Mindanao’s largest city, is pursuing talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a large Muslim rebel group that wants more autonomy following a peace deal reached with the government in 2014. The president also made a deal with the head of another Muslim front to waive prosecution in exchange for abandoning protection of Abu Sayyaf members, scholars in the Philippines believe.
The president’s proposed 60-day martial law period, which must be approved by Congress, would in principle give the armed forces and national police more leverage in fighting any terrorist groups in the south.
The government gained confidence last month by foiling an Abu Sayyaf attack on the tourist island of Bohol.
People in Mindanao are waiting to see whether martial law will help. “They say that the Maute has links to Islamic State,” said Antonio Montalvan, a newspaper columnist based in the Mindanao city, Cagayan de Oro. “So be it, but why martial law for the entire Mindanao? It’s the usual Duterte rush to judgment.”
Duterte believes martial law is “necessary” to “suppress lawless violence and rebellion and for public safety,” the presidential office website says. Martial law would cover Sulu, Jolo and Tawi-Tawi – smaller islands west of Mindanao that the Muslim Moro population has called home for centuries.
“The government is… fully aware that the Maute/ISIS and similar groups have the capability, though limited, to disturb the peace,” the website says. “These have shown no hesitation in causing havoc, taking innocent lives and destroying property.”
Chris Hannas in Washington contributed to this report.