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Marawi: The Filipino jihadists' Sherwood 

The struggle the militant Muslims are fighting in the Philippines is not about establishing an Islamic state, but first and foremost about establishing a just state, a young Filipino jihadist tells Ny Tid.


"It would have been brutally ruled," says a patrolling Filipino soldier, pointing to the city on the other side of Lake Lanao. "It may not look like it, but we saved Marawi." And something later, a little closer to town, says another veteran – jihadist – same. "Nobody cared. And now all of a sudden everyone talks about Marawi, ”he says. "It may not look like it, but we saved it." 

It certainly doesn't look that way. They both point to ruins. 

One year has passed since the Battle of Marawi – the longest and most intense in the Philippines since World War II. 23. May 2017 raised IS 'emir in Southeast Asia Isnilon Hapilon Caliphate's black flag in the city hall of the city, located on the second largest and southernmost island in the Philippines, Mindanao. 

Marawi suddenly dominated the news scene, precisely because IS had lost Mosul and was about to lose Raqqa; It all seemed to be over when the war took place without warning – in a Christian country – with the Virgin Mary, Jesus and altars on every street corner. 

But after 153 days after taking over Marawi, IS lost the city on October 23. Instead, the jihadists had to seek refuge in the rainforest, and according to the Philippine army, there are now about 2000 of them left on the island. 203 soldiers, 857 jihadists and 47 civilians are reported dead, while 400 people are displaced. Now, rebuilding the city requires $ 000 million, in a country so poor that one of its culinary specialties is pagpag - a fried dish made from old fried chicken found by slum dwellers on garbage heaps. 

A totally devastated mosque in Malawi. Photo: AFP / TED ALJIBE

Separatist war with the help of Christians

Three of the escaped jihadists make coffee for me in a small, dilapidated Islamic center consisting of a single room with a blanket and an old ceiling fan. "But in Syria is there still war?" One of them asks me. "Yes, in a way," I reply. "In Iraq rather than in Syria, in fact. Iraq is more complicated. "" Why? Is Iraq Muslim? "Asks another, before continuing," And what are you? "" I'm Italian, "I reply. "Italian? And what religion is that? "

They are only sure of one thing: Everything is Israel's fault. But Israel is living on borrowed time, they say. The Palestinians are doomed to win. Gaddafi – they add – was a real leader.

"Mindanao is not poor but has a poor population."
Francisco Sionil Jose

They have all fought for 30 years. What has been described as a five-month battle actually began five centuries ago. This fact has been exploited – but not created – by IS. 

Marawi has always been Muslim. The Muslims here call themselves "fun", which also indicates that they never surrendered to the Christian Spaniards. 

The first Spanish expedition against them was sent in 1596. However, the real lines of conflict first arose in the 1970s when the Americans, who won the dominion of the Philippines in 1898, realized that Mindanao was rich in natural resources and perfectly suited for plantation operations. 

Engineers, agronomists and managers were brought in from the north where the population had better education and higher competence – but who were also Christians. 

Since then, more and more Filipinos from the north have been offered land in the south, as if the land did not belong to anyone, with the aim of easing demographic pressure, buying votes and of course reducing the number of Muslims, and thus separatists.

Philippine soldiers pass an IS graffiti in Marawi. Photo: AFP / TED ALJIBE

Today, Christians are in majority on Mindanao. Muslims make up only 20 percent of the population – somewhat higher than the national average, which stands at 10 percent. 

Above all, Mindanao is now controlled by multinational companies that export pineapple, coconuts and mangoes. 

Although the region is the richest in terms of resources, it is also the poorest in terms of income. As the Philippines' most famous author Francsco Sionil Jose states: "Mindanao is not poor, but has a poor population." 

In a country where Uber drivers are considered middle class, the poor are really poor. Their life expectancy is considered 20 years lower than the life expectancy of the wealthy.

Attempts at state formation: Al Qaeda and IS

One can roughly date the beginning of the Mindanao conflict to 1969, when the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was founded. The movement was inspired by Egypt's former president Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Arab nationalism. The first peace treaty between MNLF and Philippine government was signed as early as 1972, but contained only a vaguely worded promise of autonomy. However, the agreement was soon broken by President Ferdinand Marcos, who introduced the state of emergency and went into counter-attack. In 1978, the reaction came in the form of the creation of Fun Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which continued its struggle for independence.  

In 1989, the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) saw the light of day, but it is as unmanaged as the capital of Manila, if not more. ARMM does not even include all of Mindanao, nor does ARMM include the entire Muslim part of the island. When asked if they would join the ARMM or not, 8 out of 13 Muslim-majority provinces answered no. 

"Traditionally, Christians have persecuted Muslims here, not the other way around."
Norhanie Marohombsar

As a consequence of the newly established region's lack of stability, the militant jihadist group Abu Sayyaf – funded by bin Laden and affiliated with Al Qaeda – was established in the early 90s.  

Today, IS is not just fighting for independence, but for the introduction of Sharia law.  

"Traditionally, Christians have been persecuting Muslims here, not the other way around," says Norhanie Marohombsar, the woman who surprisingly heads the ARMM in Marawi, which has had special status as an Islamic city since 1980. 

"In the 1970s, Ilaga, one of Mindanao's many paramilitary militias [now reactivated], used not only to mutilate their victims, but to carve crosses on their bodies," she says. 

"In 2000, President Estrada and the army celebrated the victory over the MILF by grilling pork at the ruins of a mosque." 

Not surprisingly, every victory here has been followed by revenge. Or by a rematch; it depends on the eye that sees. 

Mindanao. Photo: Wikimedia / Hu9423

Rodrigo Duterte: "We're waiting for them."

In Manila, nobody talks about Mindanao. It's nothing new. Not even Marawi came as any real surprise. Not at all. Six months earlier, the jihadists had taken over Bung – a city further south – but the occupation lasted only a few days. A few weeks later, rumors of a possible attack on Marawi began to flourish. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who himself is from Mindanao and knows everything and everyone there, said December 12, 2016: "We are waiting for them. That is also why he is now accused of acting too late deliberately. 

General Eduardo Ano, who led the counter-offensive, explained that by letting the jihadists gather in one place they could take everyone at once – instead of wasting years on taking them one by one. 

And the fact is that none of the IS leaders survived the battle. But in the ARMM headquarters, a voice says: "Why did Duterte wait so long? The truth is that in this way he could reintroduce the state of emergency and bring Mindanao back under his control. ” 

“Being a Filipino is a job. You are Filipino: You are doomed to work as a waiter. And for what? To buy fake Nike shoes. ”

In Mindanao, the capital of the Philippines, Manila, is referred to as "Imperial Manila". Filipinos are being beaten with the Spaniards and Americans: as colonists. Like foreigners. 

Marawi is in ruins anyway. Like Mosul, like Raqqa. But jihadism here is not dead, as little as anywhere else. By no means. To find it you don't have to look for jihadists, because that's not how they look at themselves. 

"If I take back what is mine, do I attack or defend myself? Am I the thief or the cop? ”Asks 21-year-old Mujiv, a member of Ansar Khalifa, one of the IS-allied groups. In Syria they are told: "My role model is the prophet." Here they say "Robin Hood". 

Japan's hidden treasure

Mindanao has what the experts call a shadow economy. People live by smuggling, drug and arms sales, blackmail, kidnapping or usury. And of jihad. IS supported the $ 1,5 million battle for Marawi. And now that Marawi is gone, the next destination is not another city, but Yamashita's gold, the treasure the Japanese allegedly accumulated during World War II as they occupied and looted the Philippines, and after being defeated buried here under some banana trees. "But I found it," Mujiv's uncle tells me. "I'm sure of it. And I'm sure the Japanese will be interested. You travel everywhere, who do you know in Tokyo? ”He asks. And he adds. "You can get five percent of it."  But I'm a journalist, I say. I can not. And besides, I have to return to Syria. "How much do you get paid?" He asks. "But it's Syria," I say, "it's important." Let's say eight percent, »  says his uncle before adding: "And you no longer have to go to Syria to earn a living." 

In Manila's eyes, jihadists are simply a group of thugs. This, too, is something Marawi shares with Syria and Iraq: No one is interested in their motivation, demands or background. 

They have been fighting since 1596, but if you ask a Christian what they want, he admits he has no idea. 

Hundreds of thousands of people from Marawi are on the run. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

A taxi driver who drives me to my hotel says, "You know, it's full of Muslims there." As he almost runs on a woman wearing a hijab, he exclaims: "Where there are Muslims, it's just trouble." 

19-year-old Mikee is a member of Ansar Khalifa, the IS-affiliated guerrilla group in the Philippines, comparing Duarte's pursuit of jihadists with the ongoing drug war: "It's like the war on drugs. The logic behind is the same. They kill addicts, like they kill jihadists, without trying to understand why they are addicts. " 

“Nobody wonders what we mean by an Islamic state. Marawi is already an Islamic city, isn't it? The sharia legislation is already in place. But it's not about getting hold of halal meat. The bottom line is that today being a Filipino is a job. You are Filipino: You are doomed to work as a waiter. And for what? To buy fake Nike shoes, ”he says. "You are Filipino, and thus you are doomed to live off remains."

10 percent of Filipinos work abroad, and 70 percent of those left live in poverty.

“How can I feel that this country is mine when I am forced to work elsewhere? When I say I want an Islamic state, I say I want a fair state. " 

In the shadow of the drug war

Smira Gutoc, one of Mindanao's most famous activists, explains that if IS used local jihadists to shock the world, local jihadists used IS as an ATM and, above all, as a trademark to strengthen its negotiating position with Duterte. "Who in turn used them both," she says. 

"And to strengthen his reputation as a man who gets things done, he sent in the army to sweep them away. And Marawi too, if necessary. " 

In Syria, people are told, 'My role model is the Prophet.'
Here they say: 'Robin Hood'.

The jihadists were confident that they could count on the support of the people. Instead, no one followed them. But for some reason, no one deserted either. 

"IS had lost interest in the news," says Mikee. “In the Middle East, they were already on the decline, so we realized this was not the solution. It wasn't the goal that was wrong, it was the method. " 

And according to Mikee, the real war in the Philippines is not going on in Mindanao. What about Duterte? Mikee is aiming for the drug war, which is Duterte's national first priority. He has released police and unidentified militia groups on both drug addicts and longer. So far, 12 people have lost their lives. "Why don't you write about Duterte? Duterte kills far more than us, ”he says. “But of course, we are Muslims. And there's more to say. " 

But can you imagine going to Syria sometime in the future? I ask. They are on the road to recovery. "The Syrians were unable to win, so why do you think I can? I know nothing about Syria. " 

Then he says, "But you really have no friends in Tokyo?" 

Francesca Borri
Francesca Borri
Borri is a war correspondent and writes regularly for Ny Tid.

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