On Oct. 17, 2017, Philippines' President Roderigo Duterte declared the city of Marawi "liberated", after a 4-months long siege that ended in the death of at least 1,200 people, with dozens of civilians killed.
Marawi, with a population of 200,000, had been captured in May by hundreds of fighters from an odd coalition of different jihadist groups – Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Abu Sayyaf, Ansar al-Khilafah and the Maute group – who claimed their allegiance to Daesh in 2014 and waved ISIS black flags.
The attack prompted President Duterte to declare the state of martial law in the entire island of Mindanao; tens of thousands citizens were displaced and half of the city's infrastructure was destroyed in the fighting. At the very heart of the jihadist coalition was the Maute Group, formerly known as Dawlah Islamiya it was a splinter cell spawned in 2012 by two brothers, Omar and Abdullah Maute, after the beginning of negotiations between the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front, their former organisation.
The Maute brothers were hardliners who wanted no appeasement with Manila, and the battle for Marawi was vicious and bloody: according to several reports, the Islamic State supported the Mautes and the other groups by sending approximately $2 million to jihadists in the Philippines, while Manila's troops allegedly received the support of U.S. forces on the ground.
The jihadist leaders were eventually killed but today, more than one year after the battle, Marawi still looks like a war zone, the city's perspectives for the future are gloomy and, most importantly, terror-related risks for the region seem on the rise.
In an interview published by The Guardian, Professor Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, states that there are currently around 100 foreign fighters in the island, while according to secretary of defence Delfin Lorenzana they should be no more than 10. While the actual number is probably somewhere between these two estimates, what we know for sure is that a video released last year, "Inside the Caliphate", urged ISIS jihadists to move to Philippines and that last July a suicide bomber from Morocco killed 11 people in Lamitan City and ISIS medias labeled the attack as a "martyrdom" operation.
Clive Williams, an expert of the Australian Defence Force Academy, claims that President Duterte may have inflated the statistics of the militants killed in the Marawi Battle to affirm the effectiveness of his draconian methods, while according to other analysts the peace process in Mindanao itself may be put in jeopardy by a new wave of militants merged with veterans of the battle in Malawi.
On July 26, this year, Roderigo Duterte signed with Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Moro National Liberation Front's representatives the Bangsamoro Organic Law, an agreement to replace the current administrative entity (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM) with a new autonomous region called Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The deal recognizes a new level of autonomy to the region and – although their divergences still ongoing – both the MNLF and the MILF seem committed to the peace process and to isolate the extremist groups: the MILF issued a fatwa against jihadist groups and MNLF's leader Nur Misuari offered the help and support of thousands of his soldiers against pro-ISIS groups during the Marawi Battle. But still, a recent poll shows that 62 percent of Mindanao population is against the deal and current ecomomic, strategic and political conditions may pose a threat to the area and fuel new acts of violence.
For decades, Mindanao has been an hotbed for extremism, but the humanitarian crisis sparkled in the aftermath of Marawi Battle – with thousands of civilians forced to leave their homes, used as humans shields and subjected to martial law no matter on which side of the conflict they found themselves caught - may convince disgruntled MNLF and MILF members to join Abu Sayyaf and other jihadist groups. The area, as shown in several academic studies, is also known for the acquiescence in tackling informal and illegal financial systems, a condition that makes it relatively easy to trasnfer money to fund terrorist organisations and attacks. Mindanao extremists have also proven connections not only to jihadists from neighboring countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia – with whom they share the dream of building a Caliphate that spans among several islands of the area –, but also from potentially dangerous funders from abroad: the Maute brothers, for instance, had worked in Syria, United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
President Trump and President Duterte seem to get along together very well, regardless of the latter use of extrajudicial killings, but as pointed out by Patrick P. Johnson and Colin P. Clarke, political scientists for Rand Corporation, another long term U.S. commitment in the Philippines seems unlikely. Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines was the largest U.S. counterterrorism effort in the Pacific and ended in 2015; a new deployment is more than the current political situation would allow.
Finally, Manila's top brass might take advantage in an endless conflict: between 2002 and 2012 the U.S. sent an average $40 million a year to the Philippines, and a low-intensity guerrilla with occasional explosions of violence might suit some officials' personal interests.
As long as the situation doesn't escalate toward the building of a Caliphate in the Pacific.