TAIPEI - Foreign influence is adding an unwelcome new mystery to the Philippine government's battle against a violent Muslim group that some suspect is not even fighting for a religious cause.
Armed Forces of the Philippines say they have cut the Maute Group, a suspected terrorist organization on the southern island Mindanao, to “remnants” after fighting it since May 23. They have killed scores and captured the parents of two brothers who started the group.
But now Philippine officials suspect people from Muslim nations as close as Indonesia are fighting alongside it in the battle-torn city of Marawi and may be sending money as well.
“The Philippines has always been a weaker link in the war against terror,” said Antonio Contreras, a political scientist at De La Salle University in the Philippines. “We have a very porous border. We are an archipelago. We also have weak navy power. So it’s very easy to get into the Philippines.”
Among the 134 people who the presidential office says have been “neutralized” in strikes on Marawi, two Saudis, two Indonesians, two Malaysians, a Yemeni and a Chechen were killed, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told Philippine media June 2. Kuwaiti and Syrian nationals also turned up in May.
Arrests show foreign participation
Authorities in the Philippines have arrested other foreign nationals with suspected links to the Maute Group and are looking for more Indonesians. Police in Indonesia, a largely Muslim country, have made their own arrests, including a man suspected of helping Indonesians travel to the Philippines.
“Transfers of funds” have also reached the four-year-old Maute Group, said military spokesman Restituto Padilla in a video released May 29.
Mystery about how much foreign help the Maute Group gets, from where and even for what reasons have frustrated the battle that has killed 13 marines this month and affected more than 200,000 people, many who have fled Marawi.
Religion, politics or crime?
The group may have cells outside Marawi on the surrounding island Mindanao, some analysts say, and it may be backing a crime racket rather than a political cause.
“While we cannot positively say that the Maute Group is specifically funded by foreign networks and sponsors, it can be said that they are certainly part of transnational terrorist networks,” said Fabrizio Bozzato, a Taiwan Strategy Research Association fellow specializing in Asian political issues.
“We cannot exclude future scenarios in which the ranks of the Maute or similar groups are beefed up by a substantial number of foreign militants, making the fight much harder for the Filipino government,” he said.
Philippine officials are calling the group "Maute ISIS" after the violent extremist network Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The group has pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) and wears its signature garb, but it’s unclear whether IS has reciprocated.
The Moro people, Muslims who reached impoverished Mindanao and the adjacent Sulu Sea of the Philippines centuries ago, resent the country’s Catholic majority for what they perceive as unequal rights over resources. Their anger has spawned numerous armed rebel groups, including one that signed a peace accord with the government in 2014.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte Monday told an infantry division in Mindanao the fighting now is about drugs rather than religion. “I refused to believe that it is religion that fueled this war,” Duterte said on Philippine National Day. “It never has been and it is not now.”
But Philippine troops started the battle last month by striking Maute Group fighters in Marawi on suspicion they were colluding with Abu Sayyaf. Abu Sayyaf is a Philippine kidnapping oufit that operates along the Sulu Sea and that the Islamic State has tapped to form a caliphate in the Philippines.
The war goes on
The president is offering a “bounty” of 10 million pesos ($202,000) for the “neutralization” of Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf leader who works as an “emir” of IS in the Philippines, the armed forces says on its website.
“We don’t know what the deal is. I know ISIS is claiming it. But we know the Maute Group and they’re not religious or political in any way,” said Rhona Canoy, president of an international school and part of a political family in Cagayan de Oro, a Mindanao city where some of the Marawi refugees are staying.
“I was born and raised here," she said. "None of these people are politically or religiously inclined when they get this bad.”
U.S. advisers since 2002 have helped the Philippines detect terrorist threats in Mindanao, where violence involving Muslim rebels has killed about 120,000 since the 1960s. China offered $14 million worth of military aid, partly for counter-terrorism work, and Malaysia has pledged its own support.
The U.S. government has helped improve security in a Sulu Sea region that covers parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines through “varied courses of instruction,” the U.S. Department of State says on its website.