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Liberation

The flak vests and helmets were gone so Marawi must be really safe enough now for President Duterte and his officials to walk around the battle zone in civilian clothes.

Those images of bombed out buildings and walls pockmarked with bulletholes, however, look like scenes straight out of the world’s worst zones of armed conflict. Armed violence has persisted in those zones for a long time.

In our part of the planet, now being eyed nervously by several foreign governments as a potential base for the Islamic State, we cannot discount the possibility that IS-inspired armed conflict could erupt again, if not in Marawi, then in other parts of Mindanao. This could make rebuilding Marawi more challenging than rebuilding the areas devastated by Super Typhoon Yolanda.

IS forces are on the run and their dreams of a caliphate emanating from the Middle East and extending to Africa, Southeast Asia and other parts of the globe are in shambles.

But security experts are closely watching the emergence of new leaders in the IS-inspired terrorist cells in Southeast Asia following the deaths of Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon, said to be the IS “emir” in the region, and one of the two Maute brothers, Omarkhayam.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines, which has lost nearly 200 soldiers in the battle to regain Marawi, deserves commendation for the neutralization of Hapilon and Omar Maute.

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But Omar’s brother Abdullah Maute has not yet been accounted for. And even before the smoke of last Monday’s pre-dawn battle had cleared, security officials were already looking at the Mautes’ suspected financier, Malaysian terrorist Mahmud Ahmad, as the new IS commander in Mindanao.

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The AFP has downplayed this possibility, saying Filipino terrorists would want a local leader. Ahmad, Malaysia’s most wanted terrorist, was reported killed in Marawi on June 7. But the false report also said Omar Maute was among those slain in the fighting.

Ahmad reportedly funnelled over P30 million from IS to the Mautes for the procurement of weapons, food and other supplies for the siege of Marawi. Malaysian authorities confirmed that the funds were wired through Western Union in several transactions, each of which lasted only about five minutes. Even back then, Malaysian police had identified Ahmad as Hapilon’s designated successor as IS emir in Southeast Asia.

As a student in the 1990s at the Islamabad Islamic University in Pakistan, Ahmad reportedly trained under Osama bin Laden at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. Upon returning to Malaysia, Ahmad lectured at the Universiti Malaya but fled to the Philippines after being tagged by police as a terrorist in 2014. He reportedly recruited fighters for IS in Syria and Iraq, so if those militants, now driven out of their former strongholds, flee to the Philippines, Ahmad would know them.

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In assessing the possible resurgence of the Maute threat, we must also remember that the terrorists enjoyed a measure of political and grassroots support, which allowed them to plan the attack on Marawi largely undetected.

President Duterte and his security officials had in fact disclosed, months before the siege, that they had detected noise about an IS-inspired attack being planned in Marawi.

For over a year before the attack, the Mautes had also been posting photos of themselves on social media, showing members displaying ISIS flags.

Everyone thought they were just another bunch of malcontents demanding attention as the main secessionist group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) discussed peace with the government. ISIS in the Philippines? Maute who? People thought they were just riding on the group’s notoriety to gain international cachet in the terrorist world.

So Duterte and his top security officials were all in Moscow, waiting to meet with his idol Vladimir Putin, when the Mautes and Hapilon struck.

The terrorists were able to engage the AFP for nearly five months, depleting the military’s entire missile arsenal. With AFP munitions running low, the AFP turned to treaty ally the United States for help, forcing President Duterte to acknowledge that he’s largely by his lonesome in turning his back on Uncle Sam.

There was intel but it was ignored. It’s not unusual in the intelligence community around the world, but now that we’ve learned our bitter lesson, security officials must work to prevent a repeat of the lapse.

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They must also prevent the Mautes from regrouping and regaining their strength. This goes without saying, but both the Abu Sayyaf and MILF have recovered many times in the past, after their camps were overrun and their commanders neutralized. There always seemed to be more where the commanders came from, with those slain quickly replaced.

Through criminal activities particularly kidnapping for ransom, the groups always managed to restock their arsenals and keep up their attacks on government forces.

Now it seems terrorists have found another activity that can be even more lucrative than kidnapping, and they don’t even have to feed captives: drug trafficking. It looks like President Duterte has not exaggerated the links between terrorists and drugs. In other countries, drug money has also financed insurgencies.

I’m betting it won’t be long before the Philippine National Police is back in the war on drugs and more narcos are executed. Duterte has left the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency to fend for itself, mainly (as he has admitted) to appease critics of the brutal war. With its limited resources, the PDEA has been set up for failure. The PNP is ready to return to the war, especially with a Pulse Asia survey showing continued high public support for the campaign against drugs. (But satisfaction with the drug war plunged in Metro Manila and Luzon in the Social Weather Stations poll released yesterday.)

With Marawi “liberated” as Duterte has declared, the question on everyone’s mind is whether the siege can happen again – in the city or elsewhere in Mindanao.

The AFP must not lose the momentum. With the Mautes decapitated and IS fighters on the run everywhere, the government should be able to stay a step ahead of the terrorists.

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