While Islamic State’s (ISIS) fate hangs in the balance after the recent assassination of its leader in Syria, the terrorist group is still alive and well in the Philippines.

Two years after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared the liberation of Marawi City from ISIS-aligned militants, the group is now recruiting a new generation of fighters from the ruined city’s dislocated and disenfranchised victims.

Regional security experts are concerned that recent convulsions in Syria are driving a new wave of ISIS fighters into Southeast Asia, particularly into the southern Philippines, where dozens of local extremist outfits have declared fealty to the group.

As during a previous exodus of ISIS fighters from the Middle East to Southeast Asia, where militants crossed into the Philippines lightly patrolled southern reaches on the island of Mindanao, analysts believe Marawi is reemerging as an extremist epicenter.

“Marawi City has become a fertile ground for extremist recruitment,” said Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Manila-based Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, a think tank.

“The Islamic State in the Philippines is continuously recruiting and is taking advantage of the frustrations of affected (Marawi-based) families and individuals.”

Islamic State fighters in a radicalization video clip targeting the Philippines. Photo: Youtube
Islamic State fighters in a radicalization video clip targeting the Philippines. Photo: Youtube

He said ISIS is drawing on a large pool of potential recruits in Marawi, namely the more than 100,000 residents still residing either in squalid temporary shelters or with their relatives who have not been allowed to return to rebuild or repair their homes and businesses.

ISIS recruitment is now in full swing over social media, school campuses and among remote Muslim communities, with recruiters said to be offering cash, guns and monthly allowances to lure mostly young men to their radical cause, according to various sources.

Banlaoi claims Mindanao has become a well-known safe haven for ISIS fighters fleeing the Middle East, with many recently being absorbed into local extremist groups that continue to hit Philippine security forces in hit-and-run attacks.

The five-month siege of the largely Catholic nation’s only Muslim majority city displaced over 350,000 civilians, a third of whom have yet to return to Ground Zero, or the former urban battleground encompassing 24 of the city’s 96 villages.

For the residents of Marawi, known as Meranaos, Ground Zero is the heart and soul of a religiously significant city that Duterte’s government first vowed in October 2017 but has so far failed to sufficiently rebuild and rehabilitate.

Authorities have estimated the damage at 62 billion pesos, or US$1.2 billion at the current exchange rate. Much of that destruction was caused by the government’s aerial bombardment of rebel-held areas, assaults some saw as excessive in relation to the threat.

A soldier rides a bicycle past bombed-out buildings in what was the main battle area in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on October 25, 2017, days after the military declared the fighting against IS-inspired Muslim militants over. Philippine troops of a southern Philippine city where Islamic State supporters waged a brutal five-month battle began leaving Marawi on October 25, as a group of journalists were given the first ever press tour of the devastated city. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE
A soldier rides a bicycle past bombed-out buildings in what was the main battle area in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao, October 25, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Two years after Duterte’s liberation and restoration rhetoric, millions of tons of debris have not been cleared from the city’s center, while demolition and search for unexploded ordinance is ongoing.

Eduardo del Rosario, chairperson of the multi-government agency Task Force Bangon Marawi which is tasked to rebuild the war-torn city, pointed to the unfinished search for unexploded bombs and ongoing demolition works as the main reasons why residents have not been allowed to return to Ground Zero.

He claimed the task force is “on track with its work plan” that includes finding all the unexploded bombs by October 31 and finishing debris clearing on November 30 to pave the way for the start of reconstruction. The government has claimed that rebuilding will be completed by June 2022, coinciding with the end of Duterte’s term.

The Marawi siege, staged by the combined Islamic State-aligned Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups beginning on May 23, 2017, prompted Duterte to declare the rights-curbing martial law that remains in effect until the end of this year, with the potential for an extension on security grounds.

Some 1,100 were killed, mostly ISIS-aligned militants, in the fierce urban warfare that tested the mettle of Filipino troops long used to fighting insurgents in jungles or not cities and also put the Philippines more firmly on the global terrorism map.

ISIS militants temporarily seized Marawi in a bid to establish a wilayah, or self-governed province, in Southeast Asia. As ISIS is routed in the Middle East, the group is believed to have set even stronger sights on establishing a wilayah in the Philippines.

Abdul Hamidullah Atar, the Sultan of Marawi, has said that war victims are angry, frustrated and miserable about the government’s sluggish and ineffective rehabilitation and relocation efforts.

Marawi Sultan Hamidullah Atar in a 2017 file photo. Photo: Facebook

“There is no reason to celebrate the second anniversary of Marawi’s ‘liberation’ because there is no real liberation of Marawi,” the traditional leader said.

Drieza Lininding, chairperson of the Marawi-based Moro Consensus Group, a civil society organization, blasted the Duterte administration’s Presidential Communications Operation Office for recently organizing a “Marawi tour” for media for the second anniversary celebrations for the liberation of the city from Islamic militants.

“There is nothing to commemorate, only pains and our sufferings that continue till today. We don’t feel liberated at all,” Lininding said.

As part of the second anniversary commemoration, the government organized a “run for peace” around the city’s depopulated Ground Zero, while a wreath-laying ceremony for fallen troops was held at the city’s military camp.

Security analyst Banlaoi says the plight of Marawi’s war victims has the potential to explode on the government if it does not take more concrete and fewer ceremonial actions.

“Two years after Marawi’s liberation, ISIS Philippines is down but not defeated. They are smaller in number but can still mount big attacks,” he told Asia Times by email.

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There are currently several ISIS-aligned groups actively operating in Mindanao, and there are violent indications they are concertedly ramping up attacks in preparation for another Marawi-like big bang assault.

They include the Abu Sayyaf Group, which operates in the island provinces of Sulu and Basilan and was instrumental in the 2017 Marawi siege.

The ISIS-aligned Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway from the ceasefire Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) based in mainland Maguindanao province, is also a formidable force with a deep military arsenal and explosive-making expertise.

In January, a powerful explosion perpetrated by Abu Sayyaf killed about two dozen people and injured more than 100 others at a Catholic church in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province. An Indonesian jihadist couple orchestrated the suicide attack.

In August 2018, a foreigner with links to the Abu Sayyaf detonated a van full of explosives at a military checkpoint in Basilan that left 11 people dead, including the suspect. ISIS claimed responsibility for both the lethal blasts.

Meanwhile, a September bomb attack in Sultan Kudarat province was carried out by a Swedish national who was arrested and charged along with five others. Authorities identified them all as ISIS sympathizers.