A clear victory
The “liberation” of the Islamic City of Marawi, after nearly five months of fighting, could have been more ambiguous; an end to hostilities and a retaking of the entire city, perhaps, but with the leaders of IS Ranao, the Islamic State-affiliated group, escaping into the countryside.
This has happened before with other terrorist or insurgent groups. But the killing on Monday of Isnilon Hapilon, who led one faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group, and Omar Maute, the last of the brothers who headed the Maute Group, makes the official end of the Marawi fighting a clear, fully triumphant, victory.
DNA tests need to be conducted to establish the identities of Hapilon and Maute beyond any doubt; these are required not only to support the Duterte administration’s claim to victory, but also to allow the processing of the substantial amounts of reward money involved.
Hapilon alone, who was the first Filipino terrorist to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State when the institution of the “caliphate” was announced in 2014, and who styled himself as the “emir” of a territory he wanted to be officially designated an IS “wilayah,” or province, had both a $5-million bounty offered by the US government and a P10-million bounty offered by the Philippine government on his head.
Considering that it was the hostages the IS Ranao group kept who told the soldiers that the men they had killed were Hapilon and Maute, and given the photographic evidence the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) studied, it is not premature to declare that two of the three main leaders of IS Ranao have in fact been killed in battle. (Omar’s brother Abdullah was killed last September.)
But it might have been premature to declare the official liberation of the now largely destroyed city yesterday (Oct. 17), when some 30 terrorists, including a few foreign nationals fighting under the IS cause, remain at large.
We worry that a false sense of complacency, among victorious soldiers or returning residents, might lead to more deaths. We hope that the AFP will move with all deliberate speed to subdue the remaining terrorists and rescue the last hostages.
This is not to diminish the scope of the military victory in Marawi; despite the long siege against enemies who knew the battle zone intimately, the AFP was able to contain the terrorist leaders in the area and then, eventually, kill them. Rather, “mopping up” the last remaining members of the group and preventing any more casualties would consolidate the victory and bolster its significance.
But while the victory is decisive, the consequences of the months-long conflict itself are clear. The scale of destruction is so massive the first priority after fully securing the area must be to restore the basic conditions of normalcy: running water, working electricity, cleared streets, the burial of the many still unburied.
Then the residents can be allowed to return — by itself a herculean task. Then the much-touted rehabilitation of Marawi must begin in earnest.
Both the government and its traditional allies have set aside a considerable amount of money to start the rehabilitation, but for Marawi to regain its former stature as the Islamic City, much more money would be needed.
The worst consequence of the Marawi conflict, however, will take place in the invisible infrastructure that connects communities: the hearts and minds of the impressionable youth, not only in Marawi or the rest of Mindanao but also in other parts of Southeast Asia.
These youths may look at the five-month-long siege and see a small band of fighters holding off a large established army; they may look at the ruins of the city and see the breeding ground of more radicals, eager to try their hand at extremist violence; they may view the pictures of the dead Hapilon and imagine their own emir, in their own wilayah.
To a degree it has not yet shown, the Duterte administration must focus on addressing these consequences with undiminished attention and all the brainpower it can muster. The last thing it wants to do is turn a clear victory into a sorry excuse for another, longer, war.
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