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Outlook for September 2017—February 2018
The threat of insecurity posed by IS-affiliated armed groups operating in central Mindanao has increased in the last months. The Philippines’ security forces have shown limited capacity to contain this threat. The risk of these groups taking control of territories has now become likely, and could affect up to 4.9 million people who live in conflict-prone areas (Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao and Cotabato provinces).
Source map: Reuters 07/2017
Long-term insurgency and disrupted peace processes
The Moro people - several mostly Muslim ethnolinguistic groups who were initially the majority in Mindanao - have been socially and economically marginalised throughout the 20th century. The central government of the Philippines has initiated several waves of Christian migrants to the region in an attempt to integrate it. As a result, since the late 1960s, Mindanao has experienced several insurgencies led by mostly Muslim Moro separatist armed groups in order to gain independence from the central government, starting in 1972 with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Several peace agreements have been brokered offering more autonomy to the Moro people. In 1989 there was the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and in 2014 the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) - a draft legislation that would guarantee them more rights.???
However, no long-standing peace has held due to delays in the implementation of these peace agreements, the mistrust between the parties involved, and the evolving political agenda of the insurgents. The two main peace processes have been hindered by the splintering of the insurgency, further fueling the conflict. In 1977, despite the ongoing peace process between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the central government, a splinter group – the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was formed in rejection of the autonomy offered by the central government. During the BBL peace process between the MILF and the government, mistrust and delays have resulted in several groups splintering from the MILF, and opting for a more radical Islamic agenda.??
The city of Marawi, Lanao del Sur has been under siege since the end of May after hundreds of insurgents, mostly from the Maute group, seized parts of the city. They have demonstrated strong resistance to the Philippines security forces who had not yet been able to retake the city at the time of writing. The Maute group, mostly made of MILF fighters, was formed in 2010 and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2016.
Radicalisation of armed groups and support from former insurgencies.
Since 2014 several armed groups in Mindanao have shown support for the Islamic State (IS) and also strengthened collaboration among themselves, moving further away from the peace process. This includes Abu-Sayyaf Happilon (AS-Happilon) - a splinter group of the MNLF, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) - a splinter group of the MILF, and the Maute group - mostly made up of former MILF fighters.??? Since 2016, these groups have also strengthened their links, covering three different geographic areas. AS-Happilon dominates in Basilan, the BIFF has a strong presence in Maguindanao, and Lanao del Sur region is under Maute’s influence. An example of this cooperation is when BIFF clashed with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Cotabato province, likely attempting to divert AFP’s response to Maute’s besiegement of Marawi city.???
In addition, IS-affiliated groups have received support from the MILF. The BIFF and Maute groups have carried out attacks against the Philippines’ security forces and hide in areas under MILF’s control where government forces cannot enter. Despite being involved in the peace process, MILF is divided, with some of its commanders supporting splinter groups by, for example, offering training and camps in central Mindanao to Maute fighters.??
Security forces’ lack of capacity and IS’ new warfare strategies
Compounding the support of the MILF, the ability of these armed groups to operate is enhanced by the limited number of AFP forces in central Mindanao and the lack of intelligence capacity to monitor the threat posed by these groups. Some areas remain under the control of MILF forces. Intelligence services have long struggled to gain a clear overview of the threat posed by IS-affiliated groups, with contradicting reports of their strength (number of fighters, scope of foreign fighters, links with local communities).??
IS-affiliated armed groups have developed new warfare strategies, thus hindering AFP’s response. The three month-long Marawi siege has been made possible by Maute fighters’ use of snipers, tunnels, and sufficient preparation (food and ammunitions stock). This has prevented the AFP from retaking Marawi quickly. Moreover, despite suffering severe backlash in previous operations such as in Butig, Lanao del Sur in 2016, the Maute groups have shown both resilience and capacity-building skills.
Ethnic and clan links strengthen armed groups
IS-affiliated groups have strengthened because of social and economic roots based on ethnic and clan links. This allows wider collaboration and recruitment. Clans provide substantive financial support to armed groups they are linked with and ensure some political legitimacy as clans are well represented in local political institutions. Some clans also have private militia that can provide support to armed groups. For instance, the Maute armed group has originated from the Maute clan, who run several businesses in Lanao del Sur, is politically strong in Marawi and has its own private militia. The Maute clan has also developed links through marriage with the Mimbantas clan, powerful among the MILF. This has enhanced the recruitment of MILF fighters by the Maute.??
The ethnic structure of these groups also helps with recruiting fighters on an ethnic basis. Abu Sayyaf is largely made of Yakan, indigenous to Basilian Island, while BIFF is made up of Maguindanaon, and Maute is mostly Maranao. The last two ethnic groups have dominated the MILF, and some Maranao MILF fighters, disappointed by the lengthy process around the BBL, have joined the Maute group.?
Violence will likely increase over the next six months in central Mindanao
The combination of armed groups uniting under the IS flag, their connection to local communities, and their links with former insurgencies have strengthened these armed groups’ capacity to hold territories in central Mindanao. Violence will likely increase over the next six months in central Mindanao and IS-affiliated groups will seize territories as a result. Attacks will be carried out simultaneously by IS-affiliated groups in order to divert AFP’s response, weakening their ability to counter IS’ long-term control of territories.
Whatever the losses are for IS-affiliated groups involved in the Marawi crisis, the length of this battle will be their first major comprehensive success and will likely trigger recruitment and increase their capacity to carry out new large attacks and to hold territories.
IS groups' first major comprehensive success will likely trigger recruitment
Lack of unified command among the MILF leadership has already disrupted the peace process and has further fueled the conflict. The Marawi crisis further aggravates the stagnation of the BBL process and will likely increase discontent and dissatisfaction among MILF fighters who will be encouraged to join IS-affiliated armed groups. Some MILF commanders will likely also informally split, and/or let these IS-affiliated groups operate with more freedom in their areas of control.
Lack of unified command among the MILF leadership fuels the conflict
Predicted sectoral needs are mainly based on assessments carried out during the two recent cases of armed groups attempting to hold cities in the Philippines: the current Marawi crisis and the 2013 crisis in Zamboanga, which was slightly smaller scale in terms of humanitarian impact. Up to 120,000 people were displaced in September 2013 in Zamboanga after MNFL fighters attempted to seize the city.?
Around 4.9 million people live in areas where IS-affiliated groups have increased their activity over the last months (Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, and Cotabato provinces) and thus face potential temporary displacement.? Since the Marawi siege started on 23 May, over 520,000 people have been affected, and 360,000 people displaced as of 27 August. They are mostly living with host communities.? Even though conflict-induced displacement is mostly short-term in central Mindanao, if one of the armed groups manages to hold towns for several days or weeks, this will likely protract displacement. An additional 250,000 people will likely be displaced within the next 6 months.
Access will likely be limited in areas where military operations are ongoing.? As Mindanao experiences rainfall throughout the whole year, it is likely that access to some areas will be disrupted as roads will be temporarily flooded.? During the Marawi crisis, most IDPs were hosted by relatives, friends, and in unofficial evacuation centres, where continued access to humanitarian assistance is not guaranteed.?
Even though conflict-induced displacement is mostly short-term in central Mindanao, if one of the armed groups manages to hold towns for several days or weeks, this will likely protract displacement. During both the Marawi and Zamboanga crisis, there were reports of overcrowded evacuation centres with no privacy partitions and lack of NFIs such as beds, fans, cooking utensils and blankets (IOM Philippines CCCM Program 16/06/2017.??In urban settings, there will likely be heavy destruction of shelters, as AFP has already used airstrikes in similar contexts in the past, and are likely to use the same tactics.? ?
People in evacuation centres will need of drinking water and sanitation facilities. Lack of such assistance has been reported in both the Marawi and Zamboanga crises.?This will further aggravate the risk of waterborne diseases outbreaks.? Sudden influx of IDPs will also put sanitation facilities under pressure, which will require high maintenance.?
IDPs will likely be in need of health assistance. In evacuation centres, there will be a high risk of acute water diarrhoea and respiratory infections due to lack of WASH facilities and overcrowded spaces.?
There will be high protection concerns with documentation issues for the Muslim minority, as Muslim IDPs have been refused the documentation required to access assistance during the Marawi crisis. Civilians trapped in urban conflict areas will face high protection concerns, as AFP’s use of airstrikes puts them at risk.?
There will be a need for education assistance as schools will likely be used as displacement centres, disrupting education activities for 50,000-100,000 children. This was the case in the two most recent displacement crises, in Zamboanga in 2013 and in Marawi in 2017. ???
Acute malnutrition among children under five will likely increase, nearly reaching emergency levels, as was the case during the Zamboanga crisis.? Nutrition insecurity will likely be further aggravated if nutrition relief packages do not include powdered milk, as was reported during the Marawi crisis. ??
IDPs will likely be in need of food assistance. Influx of IDPs will generate an increase in food prices.? Long-term displacement will also disrupt income-generating activities. Over 46,000 people lost their jobs during the Zamboanga crisis in 2013.?