The Rise of Violent Extremism and its Implications on the Mindanao Peace Process [1]

Much have been written about the treacherous attack, and the ensuing military response, in Marawi City. To this day, the smoke hasn't cleared, although government claims it is making headway in reclaiming the city. Relief efforts continue to be made from the public and private sectors. Finance officials have even mapped out plans to implement a long-term recovery program. Meanwhile, thousands of displaced residents remain scattered around neighboring cities. What exactly is at stake in this crisis? And why should the Filipino worry about a flashpoint in North Central Mindanao? Resurgent contributor Fermin Adrianoweighs in on this running story, and offers insights on how we can best move forward.

The assault and invasion of Marawi City by violent extremist (VE) groups led by the Maute brothers and the Abu Sayyaf Group led by Isnilon Hapilon from Basilan has caught many policy makers, military strategists and political analysts by surprise.  What was expected to be a short firefight between the military and the radical groups has now stretched to more than three months with no immediate end in sight.  In the meantime hundreds of thousands of Marawi city residents who have evacuated to safer areas are still unsure about returning to their homes.  

Previous to the attack, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has denigrated the threat of the VE groups as mere “copy cats” of the notorious Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) group operating in the Middle East.  It further claimed that the Maute group’s objective is to generate as much attention to a point where the ISIS will officially recognize the group as part of its worldwide jihad struggle.  After the Marawi invasion and the resilience of the radical groups in warding off sustained attacks by the military for months, there is now a serious effort on the part of the government to better understand how these VE groups were successfully locally nurtured to a point where it developed the capability to launch a major military assault. 


The occupation of Marawi by VE groups signals a turning point in the long history of the Moro struggle for self-determination due to a number unprecedented events.  First, the last conflagration that occurred in Marawi was during the height of the Moro National Liberation Front’s (MNLF) struggle in the early 1970s when the Marcos regime declared martial law to disarm and defeat various rebel groups, including the MNLF.   While the MNLF was able to occupy the city, they immediately withdrew (and spare Marawi from further damage) when confronted by a superior military force.  

Second, the Maranaos (the dominant Muslim ethnic group in Lanao provinces where Marawi City is located) are better known as traders [2] (and hence pragmatic) than their Tausug brethrens (mainly in Sulu) whose fighting prowess reached the northern settlements of the Philippines through raids and pillaging [3] of these communities.   Third, the Marawi incident has united various Moro ethnic groups under the religious ideological lens espoused by the ISIS.   Previous to this, loyalty to one’s ethnic group trumps belief in Islamic brotherhood [4].   This emerging unity among various Moro groups under the banner of ISIS ideology will pose a serious security challenge to the AFP. 

Finally, the presence of a significant number of foreign fighters [5] providing both leadership and logistical support to local fighters enhances the possibility that Mindanao can serve as an expansion area in Southeast Asia of the global ISIS terror network.   This is based on the correct reading that all the elements that will successfully nurture and develop VE groups are present in Mindanao’s Moro communities, with the possibility of spreading to Muslim diaspora communities in Metro-Manila and other leading cities of the country which are suffering from the same situation.   

Drivers of VE 

Since VE groups are now a global security threat, there is robust interest among researchers and policymakers around the world on understanding the nature and drivers of VE groups in various countries.  In Annex 1 of this essay, I attempted to summarize in matrix form the findings of selected research works delving into the drivers of VE groups in Iraq, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan and Somalia [6], countries wherein VE groups were nurtured or wherein the most brutal VE groups are operating.

Summarizing the findings of these country case studies, Wilman and Verjee (2015) [7] classified the drivers into three categories, namely:  permissive, precipitant, and pull factors.  “Permissive factors” (also called “push factors”) are the prevailing realities on the ground faced by those being recruited by VE groups such as widespread and deep poverty in the community, high unemployment among the youth, low education and health indicators, widespread corruption within the government or elite impunity, weak or absent state, etc.  

“Precipitant factors” are those “events and incidents that escalate grievance or conflict”.  Examples are excessive state action against community (i.e., wanton violation of human rights) where VE groups operate without addressing hitherto community grievances and needs; or a political crisis that leads to collapse of state institutions. 

And “pull factors” are elements that immediately attract individuals to join VE groups or lead the community to support them.  

Wilman and Verjee (2015) noted that poverty and unemployment by themselves offer little explanatory value in the emergence and development of VE groups.  In contrast, they noted that political factors provide more explanatory power and that there is positive correlation between “religious school attendance and socially intolerant attitudes”.  

Drivers of VE are present in Mindanao

Ostensibly, the “permissive factors” (such as widespread and deep poverty, marginalization of Moro communities from mainstream development efforts, a large pool of unemployed youth, corrupt local officials, etc.) that nurture the emergence of VE groups are all present in Mindanao.   

In the case of the VE groups in Marawi, the “precipitant factors” seemed to be the unsuccessful electoral bid of previous local political leaders, the administration’s campaign against the illegal drug trade wherein powerful local officials are linked, the influence of foreign jidahists, the failure of the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) to pass Congress last year, and the military assault on the camps of the Maute (also known as Dawlah Islamiya) group in Butig and nearby communities.  

The “pull factors” were the hefty cash given to Moro unemployed youth recruit, indoctrination in madaris, and the possession of modern high-powered weapons as a passage to manhood.

Mindanao has proven to be an excellent breeding ground because of the preponderance of VE drivers.   Besides the Maute (mainly operating in Lanao provinces) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Basilan and Sulu, which are the main forces behind the Marawi invasion, there are the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Maguindanao province, Ansar al-Khilafa Philippines (AKP) in Sarangani province, and the Khilafa Islamiyah Mindanao (KIM).    

Though operating mostly independent of each other, an alliance among them or the prospect of uniting these VE groups under a single extremist ideology, such as the ISIS ideology, poses a serious challenge to the security sector already stretched to the limits of its manpower and logistical resources.   The protracted battle for Marawi, the continued sniping by elements of the CPP-NPA, and the war on drugs combined are testing the limits of the security sector’s capability. 

Unfortunately, the prospect of these VE groups gaining more adherents and strength in the coming months and years is high if the government fails to deliver in three areas of concern that will likely serve as immediate drivers of greater conflict.

Make or break areas 

One is the manner by which government is able to quickly respond to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Marawi City.  Once the Marawi evacuees return to their respective communities and see the full destruction of their houses, it is difficult to contemplate how they are going to react.   The feeling of aggravation will worsen if government does not have a solid plan to reconstruct the area and if it delivers assistance in a turtle-paced manner as seen in the case of the Yolanda rehabilitation work in Leyte and Samar.  

It has to be noted that the Yolanda episode proved to be the Achilles heel of the PNoy administration as its credibility started to unravel when it failed to quickly respond to the needs of the victims.  While victims of Typhoon Yolanda could not blame anyone for their misfortune because it was an act of nature, the Marawi residents will definitely blame the government for the man-made disaster that befell upon them.   Combined with the slow and inadequate manner by which government assistance is provided (which will be construed as government insensitivity to the victims plight), this will certainly result in greater support and membership to the VE groups, particularly among the Moro youth. 

Two is the failure to pass the revised draft BBL.  It is worth noting that when the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) emerged as a breakaway group from the MILF.  When the draft BBL did not pass in Congress in 2016, VE groups, like the Maute, started to gain strength.  Surely, the non-passage of the draft revised BBL will lead to more adherents to VE groups due to sheer frustration over the insincerity of the government to the peace process. 

Note that the reconstituted Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) was rushed to finish the revised draft of the BBL.  Upon its submission last July, it was curiously orphaned by the government despite repeated promises by the President that his administration will respect all signed peace agreements with the MILF.   Until now there is no sponsor either in the Lower House and the Senate of the revised draft BBL.  To add insult to injury, Congresswoman Gloria Arroyo filed her own version of the BBL, which in turn, was quickly rejected by the MILF leadership because it claims that it runs contrary to what they have been fighting for. 

The federalism option

The seemingly lukewarm reception to the revised draft BBL can be attributed to the push by some administration stalwarts towards “federalism”.  Its advocates see federalism as the panacea to the persistent conflict in the Moro land and the development problems of the country’s economically lagging regions.   But there are two caveats that must be taken into consideration when imposing federalism as the ultimate solution to the Moro conflict.  

First is that federalism does not fully recognize the long struggle and sacrifices of the Moros as their demand for self-determination becomes a mere subset of the greater national agenda, which is federalism.  This strengthens the argument of VE groups that Moros are a marginalized people in the Philippines.

And second, as shown by the Mali and Kenyan experiences, imposing federalism on the entire country to respond to the demand of a certain region to attain greater autonomy will only lead to the latter’s further neglect as national government will be preoccupied with making the federal system work in the country.   The “preferential treatment” or “affirmative action” to be taken by the government to address the development of the marginalized region will be diluted because other federal regions will also be demanding greater attention and resources.

In the case of ARMM, or the Bangsamoro region, the development challenges are acute.  For instance, the Bangsamoro Development Plan (BDP) noted that only two percent of total budget spent by ARMM in 2013-2014 were internally generated. It will be problematic where ARMM will get the budgetary resources to develop the region once all the regions federalized.  

BDP also noted that it will take 15 years or more, with the ARMM’s gross regional domestic product (GRDP) consistently growing at 5% above per annum, for the region to attain the same level of economic development as that of the national average.   Thus, without continual injection of resources and undivided attention to the development of the Bangsamoro region, it will be extremely difficult for ARMM to improve its economic lot.  Federalism will take away both those much-needed resources and attention.  

Dismal socio-economic situation

Finally, a major driver of conflict and VE is the inability to improve the socio-economic situation of the Bangsamoro region.  Again, BDP revealed that only a little over a third of the residents in ARMM have access to safe water resources, less than a third have access to sanitary toilets, only 1 out of 10 kids entering elementary school will finish high school, and around 800,000 adults are illiterates.   Without sustained effort by the government in addressing these development challenges, it will be difficult to convince majority of the Moro youth to be optimistic about their future.   In turn, they become virtual minefield for recruitment by VE groups.  

Although researches show that there is no positive correlation between levels of poverty and VE, combined with political grievances (such as the failure to pass the revised draft BBL, the inability to make solid progress in the reconstruction of Marawi City, or elite impunity), these can easily transform into widespread perception of injustice against the Moros.  In turn, this deadly combination fuels the further growth of VE.

Addressing VE 

The proposed recommendations below are meant to address the immediate drivers of VE and hence, further check its development.

  1. Serious attempt should be made by the administration to convince Congress to pass the revised draft BBL.  By doing this, it will be able to wean away a large chunk of the MILF fighters and their children from supporting or joining VE groups;
  2. Adequate resources should be provided to the Marawi rehabilitation and reconstruction effort.  Assistance should be delivered in a timely fashion and community participation should be encouraged to enhance community ownership of projects;
  3. There has to be a serious effort to assess the current situation of madrasah education in the country with the objective of improving its quality and better regulating its course offerings/contents.   The government should be providing resources to madaris instead of allowing unvetted local and international private foundations to directly fund operations of madaris;
  4. Finally, if the Bangsamoro Government is installed with the passage of the revised draft BBL in Congress, the national government should ensure that it will be allotted adequate resources, with the attendant accountability mechanism, to implement much-needed development projects in the region to reduce poverty and to at least, keep at par living conditions in the Bangsamoro with the national average.

 The caveat here is that successfully responding to these drivers of VE in Mindanao will require strategic thinking, technical competence, managerial expertise and dedication from our leaders.  They cannot be simply wished away by rhetorical flourish or media packaging. 


[1] Written by Fermin D. Adriano, Ph.D.  Dr. Adriano is a professorial lecturer at UP Los Banos and previously served as senior adviser to successive presidential assistants and advisers to Mindanao.  He was team leader, co-team leader, or adviser of a number of major development plans and studies analyzing Mindanao’s development issues such as the 17 volume “Mindanao 2000 Development Framework Plan” under the Ramos administration; “Peace and Reconstruction Imperatives for Mindanao’s Enhanced Development” (PRIMED) under the Arroyo government; the 5 volume “Joint Needs Assessment of Conflict-Affected Areas in Mindanao”  (World Bank, 2005);  “Violent Conflict and Displacement in Mindanao (WB-WFP 2011);  “The Contested Corners of Asia:  Subnational Conflict and International Development Assistance:  The Case of Mindanao (TAF, 2013); “Bangsamoro Development Plan” (2014); and “Land: Territory, Domain and Identity” (World Bank-IOM, 2016). 

[2] Various flea markets located in Metro-Manila such as the ones in Greenhills, Baclaran, Quiapo, and other urban and peri-urban centers of the Philippines are dominated by Maranao traders.  

[3] The contemporary version of this act is the kidnap-for-ransom activities of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) based in Sulu and Basilan, and whose membership composed mostly of Tausugs and Yakans.

[4] A TAF commissioned survey in 2008 showed that 81% of the Moro respondents indicated that they would identify themselves first to their ethnic group rather than their religion (refer to Social Weather Station (SWS) Peace Process Survey of 2008, conducted after the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) was declared “unconstitutional” by the Philippine Supreme Court).  

[5] Refer to Jones, Sidney. 2016. “Pro-ISIS Groups in Mindanao and their links to Indonesia and Malaysia”.  Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) Report No. 33.  October 25, 2016.  See also the recent article of the same author, “Marawi, The ‘East Asia Wilayah’ and Indonesia”. IPAC Report No. 38. July 21, 2017

[6] The country case studies were part of bigger global research conducted by the World Bank to understand drivers of VE and how development interventions can respond to its challenges.  
[7] Wilman, Alys and Neelam Verjee. 2015. “Preventing Violent Extremism with Development Interventions”.  WB: for publication.