It’s only a matter of days, different spokespersons for the military and even the defense secretary himself said: The end of the Marawi conflict is near. That may—finally—be so, but the destruction of Mindanao’s famed “Islamic City” will continue to haunt island, nation and even region for a long time to come.
From its smoking ruins will rise a new generation of Muslims scandalized by the military airstrikes, radicalized by the brutal but heady experience of a war of attrition and open or susceptible or vulnerable to violent extremism. By no means are we saying that most Muslims in Marawi or in Mindanao will become members of the Islamic State because of the conflict; the great majority will pick up their lives, and resume contributing to community and country as they always have, as patriotic Filipinos and devout Muslims. But the destruction of Marawi is of such a scale, and the conflict of such international notoriety, that the crisis will prove to be a fertile breeding ground of extremists.
As regular Opinion commentator Ambassador Macabangkit Lanto has argued in these pages:
“Without demeaning the gallantry of our soldiers and desecrating the memory of our fallen heroes, in my book the victors are the much vilified Maute-Abu Sayyaf extremists. Holding the nation figuratively hostage for more than 100 days is no small feat. They have proven that they are no longer the pushover ragtag group made up of the family members and other kin of the Dawla Islamiya founders, once driven from the towns of Butig and Piagapo, but well-organized, disciplined and brave soldiers of Islam who ‘look at the barrel of the gun of the enemy and see paradise.’”
This example of battle-tested discipline, forged in the crucible of an unexpectedly protracted struggle, will inspire a number of young Muslims directly affected by the Marawi conflict or watching
from other places, including Indonesia and Malaysia, to consider or even embrace the fundamentalist ideology of the IS. Some of them will weep over fair Marawi, and dedicate themselves to avenging its destruction.
Fifteen months into the Duterte presidency, the country is choking on controversies: a P6.4-billion shabu smuggling bid, over 10,000 cases of extrajudicial killings, stalled peace talks on the communist insurgency, impeachment cases filed or about to be filed against the very highest officials, worsening loss of control over the West Philippine Sea. The list goes on. But we must not lose sight of one of the worst crises at the present time, which has grave implications to the country’s future: the Marawi conflict as breeding ground for IS sympathizers or members.
We realize that it’s the IS propaganda to assert that the Philippine government is responsible for the destruction of the city (and that, in contrast, what the Maute group and that part of the Abu Sayyaf that aligned with IS wanted was to save the city, not destroy it).
But we also recognize that residents in Marawi and nearby areas already blame the government for executing a military strategy that relies too heavily on airstrikes. That is not propaganda; that is the reality on the ground. The extremists may have turned a police/military operation to serve a warrant of arrest into an occasion for a show of force, last May 23, but for many residents, the airstrikes were plain wrong: They sent the message that the Philippine government was ready to destroy a city in order to save it.
Experts on violent extremism have also warned against the use of airstrikes as simultaneously too much and too little. Bombing the areas where the extremists were believed to be caused a terrible amount of devastation; at the same time, bombing was not as effective as hoped for against targets who are well-entrenched.
Both the Philippine government and the country’s many allies recognize the threat the Marawi aftermath poses; rehabilitation of the city is now a priority, and the United States and Australia are among those who have pledged a considerable amount of money to help fund the rehabilitation. If this too is botched, for instance by disenfranchising the actual residents of Marawi from any meaningful participation in the planning and execution of the rehabilitation initiative, Marawi as breeding ground will only become even more fertile.