Ungoverned spaces and the IS threat | Inquirer Opinion

Ungoverned spaces and the IS threat

The crisis in Marawi City has been raging for nearly three months—the country’s longest military campaign since the all-out war in 2001. The death toll has hit 735 as of Aug. 14—128 government security forces and 562 from the enemy side. There are thousands of displaced residents. Marawi is in near-total destruction. How did our government and security officials allow this to come to pass?

The Maute group had bookended 2016 with attacks in the town of Butig in Lanao del Sur. In between, it was suspected to be behind the September bombing of Davao City. President Duterte countered by challenging the terrorists.


The Commander in Chief’s remarks are less a point of criticism than a point for caution—that in the future, our national leaders, more so the President himself, should avoid that kind of rhetoric. It was tantamount to painting a bull’s-eye on a particular city for a determined terrorist group, with disastrous consequences.

As early as 2007, the US-based think tank Rand Corporation issued a multiauthor study, “Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks,” where it reported on “ungoverned territories” and “the challenges that these areas pose to US national security as breeding grounds for terrorism and criminal activities and launching pads for attacks against the United States and Western interests.”


The study defined an ungoverned territory as an area in which a state faces significant challenges in establishing control—whether found in failed or failing states, characterized by poorly controlled land or maritime borders, or areas within otherwise functioning states where the central government’s authority does not extend.

Ungoverned territories may also apply to airspace, like air routes that affected countries are unable to control, which can be used to transport contraband via aircraft.

Using eight case studies that covered the range of ungoverned territories in four continents (including both Muslim and non-Muslim regions), the study identified four of the cases that corresponded to areas previously cited as terrorist sanctuaries in the 9/11 Commission Report issued by the US government.

One particular case bears noting: the area called the Mindanao-Sabah-Sulawesi triad. The report’s analysis cited the characteristics of “ungovernability” and “conduciveness” in highlighting the dangers of these territories.

Ungovernability was defined as the absence of state institutions, lack of physical infrastructure, corruption and the prevalence of an informal economy, social/cultural resistance, lack of state monopoly on the use of force, loose borders, and susceptibility of the area to external intervention by other states.

Conduciveness was measured by a lack of operational access to physical infrastructure, unavailability of sources of income, presence of extremist groups, supporting social norms that promote violence and a gun culture, preexisting state of violence, presence of favorably disposed NGOs or social assistance programs open to exploitation, criminal syndicates available for hire, and “invisibility,” or conditions that promote terrorist or criminal anonymity.

Reading more like a laundry list of dysfunctions, the conditions that the study found in this triad 10 years ago unfortunately prevail to this day.


Consider all of these, as well as the possibility of the Philippines serving as a sanctuary for returning Southeast Asian fighters and those unable to make their way to the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State has heightened this possibility with its decision to form the Katibah Al-Muhajir (Brigade of Migrants), a new unit for prospective jihadis from Malaysia and the Philippines.

Existing conditions in Mindanao and elsewhere in the region as well as in the Middle East, juxtaposed with still unfolding events in Marawi, seem only to strengthen the suspicion that we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg.

Francisco Ashley L. Acedillo is president of the Institute of Policy, Strategy and Developmental Studies Inc. (IPSDI). He was Magdalo Partylist representative in the 16th Congress and, previously, was a combat helicopter pilot in the Philippine Air Force and a senior consultant in the National Security Council. This piece is a condensed version of an IPSDI report.

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TAGS: IS threat, marawi city, Maute group
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