Marawi Crisis: Beyond the Fighting
IT WAS a crisis the military said was under control since Day One. Two months later, the fighting continues, 500 lives lost, and around 300,000 displaced from their homes. Marawi City lies in ruins and martial law casts its shadow over all of Mindanao.
The fighting began on May 23, when the military tried to arrest Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) leader, Isnilon Hapilon. The Abu Sayyaf is based mainly in the islands of Basilan and Sulu, but Hapilon had joined up with the Maute Group which operates in Lanao del Sur where Marawi is situated. The two group, now identified as Islamic State-inspired extremists, resisted and fought back with unexpected force; and at this writing, still holds strongholds in the city.
Although President Duterte declared martial law on the first day of the outbreak, government security officials expressed confidence that the fighting would soon be over. After a few missed deadlines, the military stopped speculating publicly about when the fighting would stop. Military officials have begun comparing the fighting in Marawi to the conflict that raged in Mosul and Raqqa.
The media has covered the conflict extensively but has depended mostly military sources. Some of the statements: The extremists had made extensive preparations which explained why they could hold out for so long. The military found a cache of cash and drugs in some of the abandoned houses. There were foreigners fighting with the rebels President Duterte himself said that drug money supported the rebels.
But how much of this information was factual? And how well did the reports capture the complex issues that could help the public understand how this clash had come about as well or options for its resolution, given the difficulties of the military to quell the rebellion?
CMFR monitored reporting of the three leading broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star and Manila Bulletin) and primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s Aksyon and CNN Philippines’ News Night) and some online news sites to assess the coverage of the crisis.
What went before
This is not the first time for the media to report on the Maute group. In February 2016, the group attacked a military camp in Butig, Lanao del Sur, the same place where they later beheaded a soldier in November later that year when they returned and occupied Municipal Hall where they raised the ISIS flag. The coverage of Marawi carried this background information on the group and its origins.
The group’s collusion with the Abu Sayyaf had been reported January this year when military operations were conducted in Butig after the military learned that Hapilon was in Central Mindanao. Hapilon was reportedly tapped by ISIS to establish a “Wilayah” (province). Clearly, government forces were aware of the movements of the Maute Group and the looming tactical alliance and must have anticipated the improved capacity of these two groups for battle.
Media on Military Intelligence
Reporters pressed no less than the Defense Chief for an assessment of the military’s handling of its intelligence. Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that the intelligence was there; but “the appreciation of the intelligence was not complete, hindi nila na process masaydo.”
The military had clearly underestimated the Maute Group, but it was not something they were eager to admit. Even as Martial Law was declared, Lorenzana, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Eduardo Año all said that the military was in full control of the situation.
The president, for his part, did not think there was a failure of intelligence. In a speech in Butuan City, he blamed local officials for conniving with the extremists. He said the government knew that firearms were being stockpiled in Mindanao but considered the peace talks: “It was not a question of failure on the part of government. Kasi naman tayo, we have adapted a very soft policy towards sa mga rebels. And this came about because nagdadala sila ng baril eh. And since we are thinking of getting peace with the MNLF and MI, ang laro ng armas diyan, we took it for granted.”
For Philippine National Police Chief Ronald Dela Rosa, it was a “slight failure on law enforcement” as the Maute group was able to accumulate bullets and bombs (“Dela Rosa admits a ‘law enforcement failure’ in Marawi City”).
Finally, on July 6, Lorenzana admitted to reporters: “I underestimated the Maute. Before, I said tatlong araw (three days). In fact, when I was in Moscow narinig ko yan tatlong araw tapos na yan. Pagdating dito at narinig ko medyo matagal, sabi ko isang linggo…dalawang linggo (…I heard it would just take three days to finish the war. When I came here and heard that it would take longer, I thought it would take a week… two weeks). So it turned out that we underestimated them.”
Enter Foreign Terrorists
Other matters went under the radar. As media reports noted the presence of foreign jihadists fighting alongside the Maute group, Lorenzana pointed to a religious event hosted by Marawi as an entry point of these elements into the city. The Ijtema or gathering of Tabligh Jamaat is an annual spiritual gathering of Sunni Islamic missionaries, aimed to spread the teachings of Islam.
On July 4, UP Institute of Islamic Studies Prof. Julkipli Wadi and Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Assemblyman Zia Alonto Adiong were interviewed in ANC’s Beyond Politics where the two discussed how the lack of security mechanisms for the Tabligh could have been an opportunity used by radicals to enter Marawi City. The two noted that security was not a top priority given Marawi’s previous history of hosting the event.
The discussion provided valuable context to the press coverage of the crisis in Marawi. Reports that depend mostly on government updates will not broaden the scope of public understanding. The media has to go beyond official statements and draw out the voices of the affected communities and of those with knowledge of their history, religion and culture.
In attempting to solve violent extremism and terrorism, Prof. Wadi and Adiong noted that engaging the terrorists via military power alone will not cut it. The two agreed that ulamas and community leaders must also be engaged to build consensus on their needs and to help craft a comprehensive social reform program to benefit their communities as a way of addressing radicalism.