A Call to Battle in the Philippines: Investigating Foreign Fighters in Marawi

Sustaining the global relevance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are affiliates in Nigeria, Mali, Yemen, Afghanistan, India, and the Philippines—along with an unknown number of homegrown extremists eager for a local mission or to be vectored to targets overseas. After drawing more than 40,000 fighters from over 100 nations to Syria and Iraq in recent years, ISIS is instead directing young men to other battlefields, most notably in Southeast Asia, specifically the city of Marawi on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, where TNT director Tom Sanderson visited in September 2017.

A new report by the Transnational Threats (TNT) project, entitled “A Call to Battle in the Philippines: Investigating Foreign Fighters in Marawi” is the first report in a new series called Transnational Threats Situation Reports (TNTSITREPs), and is available on the website at https://www.csis.org/analysis/call-battle-philippines-investigating-foreign-fighters-marawi. Covering trip agendas, key takeaways, quotes and photos from the field, this new report provides on-the-ground insights for policy makers, intelligence officials, and warfighters.

Through more than 35 interviews with government officials, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), analysts, private-sector businesses, journalists, and members of the public, TNT found the following key takeaways: that the presence of foreign fighters in Marawi from the Middle East and North Africa has been difficult to verify; the battle damage in Marawi is far worse than reported—leaving the Philippine government with limited time to rebuild before popular anger shifts from the militants to Manila; the key drivers of the conflict in Marawi are uncertain, but sources deemphasized the role of battle-hardened ISIS foreign fighters; and failure to ratify Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) or mishandling the proposed Philippine federalism process could lead more young, disenchanted Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members to join extremists fighting against the Philippine government.

In addition to traveling to the Philippines, TNT traveled to Indonesia, Singapore, and Japan, holding interviews with politicians, NGOs, analysts, multinational businesses, intelligence officers, and others. Key regional concerns included weak demobilization programs for returning fighters and rising intolerance in Indonesia, poor information sharing between Southeast Asian states, the movement of militants between Southeast Asian countries, and a lack of strategies to counter radical Jihadi-Salafi rhetoric.

Southeast Asian governments must now address these security concerns. Carefully planned counterterrorism and counterinsurgency campaigns must avoid violence against ethnic and religious minorities, while advancing economic opportunity, reconstruction, security-sector reform. Regional governments must also reduce ethnic and sectarian marginalization that leave local populations prone to homegrown violent extremism and open to radicalization from regional and transnational terrorist groups.

At a time when thousands of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq (among them, at one point, nearly 800 Southeast Asians) consider moving onward, an ISIS call to battle in the Philippines and broader ethno-nationalist tensions in the region demand that ill-prepared nations work harder internally and internationally to head off potential violence. Despite the recent announcement of the deaths of senior militant leaders Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute in the Philippines, victory in the fight against Jihadi-Salafi movements is far from over. The real work begins now.

Thomas M. Sanderson

Maxwell B. Markusen