The Maute Group and the Islamic State

One of the key issues the Supreme Court will be deliberating on in the coming days is whether there was rebellion or invasion in Marawi or any other part of Mindanao prior to the May 23 proclamation of martial law in the whole region. As the only valid grounds for martial law recognized by the 1987 Constitution, rebellion and invasion have specific legal meanings.

The use of public violence to sow fear in pursuit of political goals — or what has come to be called “terrorism” — does not, by itself, constitute rebellion or invasion.  Indeed, not even the existence of armed groups aiming to seize state power, and engaging government forces in intermittent encounters, is seen as a sufficient ground for declaring martial law. Armed separatist rebels and communist insurgents have fought the established government in this country for a long time.  Obviously their mere existence is not a sufficient justification for martial law.

Indeed, martial law is considered a tool of last resort, which the state is compelled to use, usually in the context of civil war or foreign invasion, in order to ensure its own survival.  The implication is that a state of lawlessness exists, which has reached such a level that the usual organs of government are no longer able to function to ensure public order or safety. Our Constitution does not permit the use of martial law to reform society, or to prevent rebellion by extirpating its roots, as Ferdinand Marcos professed to do in 1972. Such reasons pave the way to a dictatorship.

But, having said that, the questions raised by the fighting in Marawi could be more complex than the discussion of the legal issues at the Supreme Court might permit.  Foremost of these is the actual relationship and involvement of the Maute Group with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State.

The waving of the IS black banner by the Maute militants might signal their identification with the vision of an Islamic caliphate promoted by al-Baghdadi — “a state where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers … Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The Earth is Allah’s.”  But, is it enough basis to conclude that the IS has found a new army in Marawi that is committed to establish a caliphate governed by the strict enforcement of Sharia law?

Does the presence of a handful of Indonesians and Malaysians among the Maute militants signify the same kind of internationalization that the IS has seemed to project in Iraq and Syria since June 2014? How easy is it for foreign jihadis to enter Marawi and join the Maute band that is now battling government forces? And perhaps, most important of all, how much support does the vision of an Islamic caliphate have among the people of Marawi and Lanao del Sur?

It is important to find the answers to these questions in order to gain a fuller understanding of the events that led to the protracted war in Marawi that has caused the deaths of hundreds of people and the displacement of almost all of the city’s more than 200,000 residents. Notwithstanding its formal designation as an Islamic City, Marawi seems the most unlikely place in which to found an IS front.

Among all the ethnic groups of Mindanao, it is probably the Moros of Lanao—the business-minded Maranao — who have had the most extensive connection with modernity. Maranao traders dominate the retail business in cell phones and electronic gadgets, pearl jewelry and imitation branded clothes, at  Metro Manila’s shopping malls. They may be found in almost every big town of the country plying their made-in-China wares at weekend and night markets.

The Maute family itself is known to be prosperous and influential, with properties in Mindanao and Manila. It is common for big clans like the Mautes who live and do business in Mindanao to maintain a private army, just as it is customary for Moro men to own guns. Seven Maute sons are known to lead the family’s private army. An interesting Reuters report appearing in the June 24 Inquirer quotes from an interview with Joseph Franco, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Franco asserts that the Maute family began to claim links to the IS after it got embroiled in a conflict with Mayor Dimnatang Pansar of the nearby town of Butig over public works contracts. This dispute led to a full-blown rido or clan war. Franco says that the Mautes used the IS connection mainly to “spook and coerce the Pansars.”

This is a fascinating angle.  It offers an insight into the complex mix of motives that fuel political violence and link local family feuds to the global circuits of terrorism. “That tactical use of terrorist imagery took on a life of its own. Now we have this Maute Group, who call themselves IS Ranao,” Franco tells Reuters.

I doubt if the people of Marawi were aware of the IS in their midst before May 23. And, quite possibly, neither was the military. Yet today, the IS is on everyone’s lips. Its capacity to wage a sustained urban guerrilla war and to inflict huge casualties on government forces has made the Mautes the most dreaded extremist group in Mindanao. The unintended consequence of unleashing the power of martial law to defeat them is to give this ragtag army a stage on which they can prove their fighting prowess and to which they can draw jihadis in quest of meaning, a cause, or a place in paradise.

It brings no gratification to say this. But, one can imagine how the opening of war fronts everywhere pleases those who recoil against the anaesthetization of politics through peace, and dream of the establishment of a just and better order through permanent strife.