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How the Islamic State spins the Marawi narrative

Authors: Jasminder Singh and Muhammad Haziq Bin Jani, RSIS

Undeterred by its military setbacks in Marawi, the so-called Islamic State (IS) is now calling for a war of liberation and propagating an anti-Christian and anti-government narrative for continuing violence inside and outside Mindanao. Regional governments and the international community should be involved in not only counter-terrorism efforts but also in the reconstruction of Marawi.

In August 2017, IS released three propaganda videos in relation to the ongoing battle in Marawi, and a fighting speech by a Syrian IS terrorist encouraging Muslims in Southeast Asia to engage in a war to ‘liberate’ their towns and cities from existing governments and political systems.

Terrorism in the Philippines is framed as a war between Muslims and the coalition of Christians, secularists and modernists. The establishment of Sharia law is used as a rallying call for support for the IS terrorist group, and to determine which lands are ‘occupied’. As it did in the Middle East, IS is retelling the history of the Philippines which was colonised by Spain and the United States, weaving extant jihadist ideology from the days of Al Qaeda into the Marawi narrative.

IS is reviving this colonial legacy to frame the Marawi battle as part of a regional insurgency against Christians, secular governments and US involvement in the region. The narrative even goes back to the riots in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia in 2000, selectively showcasing Christian violence against Muslims and invoking powerful images of beheaded Muslim men and children.

Based on this narrative, IS has instructed its supporters in Southeast Asia to use terrorism and horror to ‘liberate’ their towns, cities and countries from existing political regimes until they submit to ‘IS rule’. The ‘liberation’ of Marawi by IS Philippine fighters is showcased as exemplary for other Southeast Asian IS supporters, who are called upon to help their fellow fighters. The narrative is clearly intended to incite and embolden terrorists to take violent action in their own countries or come to Mindanao to join the ‘war’.

Consistent with the narrative, IS propaganda elevates Marawi to the status of a land of hijrah and jihad within the global caliphate. IS had asked prospective recruits in earlier videos and communiqués to consider travelling to the Philippines should Syria be a difficult destination. Since then, the Philippines has revealed that in Mindanao there are IS terrorists from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, India, Morocco, Turkey, China and Chechnya.

In the video ‘Inside the Caliphate’, the United States is singled out as the eternal enemy, with Southeast Asian governments portrayed as being part of a coalition responsible for the destruction of Marawi, played out in high quality drone footage. The videos and accompanying infographics also discredit mainstream Filipino religious scholars and the peace deal between the Muslims in Mindanao and Manila. Leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) are labelled as murtad (apostates) for pursuing peace with the government.

‘Inside the Caliphate’ also highlights the alleged lack of welfare for the evacuees from Marawi and the destruction of their homes. Despite international financial aid, the video alleges religious discrimination by aid administrators against Muslim evacuees and corruption — common tropes used to underline religious tensions and the lack of social justice.

Not unexpectedly, IS propaganda does not mention the setbacks IS has suffered in Marawi. It omits to mention that over 500 militants have been killed and many injured, and that IS only controls a small area of land (now reported to be less than a square kilometre). The small number of fighters (now reported to be about 40 or so) have been fully encircled, and their top leaders have probably fled Marawi. Only the military’s desire to avoid civilian casualties is preventing the troops from routing the remaining fighters.

With the call to hijrah and jihad in Mindanao, more needs to be done to thwart the flow of fighters, bomb experts, weapons and ammunition into Marawi and nearby IS strongholds. The challenging tri-border coastal areas in the Sulu Sea have enabled the successful smuggling of terrorists from Indonesia to the Philippines through Sabah. Previously, Uighurs could also travel within the region and a few were found among IS-aligned groups.

The Philippines and countries in the region should also consider non-military means to alleviate the deteriorating situation in Marawi. As of July 2017, at least 40 refugees staying at the homes of friends and relatives have reportedly died of various illnesses, while 19 others have died in overcrowded and unsanitary evacuation centres. Surveys of evacuees also found a significant number of malnutrition cases, which are expected to increase if government rations are not increased. There have also been concerns of mental health issues among evacuees in the centres.

Australia and Japan have together pledged more than US$16.2 million for recovery efforts and food assistance. But fighting insurgents and countering extremism involves more than bombs, drones and guns. To effectively counter the Marawi narrative, regional governments and the international community must go beyond counter-terrorism and focus on rehabilitation and resettlement efforts in Marawi.

Jasminder Singh is a Senior Analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Muhammad Haziq Jani is a Research Analyst with ICPVTR, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

A version of this article was originally posted here at RSIS.

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