PROBE TO PROVE

BY AMBASSADOR BAYANI V. MANGIBIN (Ret.)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

THE GOVERNMENT has set several deadlines to end the Marawi conflict. More than four months passed and the conflict has not ended. I am concerned that it is Marawi, not the conflict, that is about to end into ruins. The heavy devastation has disfigured a lovely city and turned it into an ugly ghost town. One “bakwit” thought she was in Syria after seeing her home town “razed to the ground”, a  phrase used by President Duterte when he taunted the Maute in December 2016 to push through with its plan to attack Marawi City.

I felt sad after reading an article entitled “Destroying a Philippine City to secure it from ISIS.” It concluded that the “Philippine military appears to have adopted a strategy of destroying the city to save it, conducting bombing runs at least twice a day.”  I am having difficulty in understanding the conduct of massive airstrikes considering the government estimate of only 30 to 40 remaining Maute fighters on July 31, 2017 (“Maute fighters in Marawi down to 40 – Lorenzana”, The Philippine Star, Aug. 1, 2017). Former senator Rodolfo Biazon conveyed in an interview the information given to him by his military colleague that airstrikes are not needed with small number of targets. Many sectors bewailed that the airstrikes have not only caused enormous displacement of the population and destruction of the city’s infrastructures and civilian properties but resulted to the tragic deaths of innocent civilians and even those in the military.

Aerial bombings tilt evidently the balance of power towards the military and project invincibility. There is no doubt that the military has superior firepower and greater number of manpower compared to the Maute Group. Despite this military’s power projection, the military has kept on extending the deadline to end the Marawi conflict.

The government has acknowledged that the military underestimated the readiness and the capability of the Mautes.  This is an admission of the military’s total disregard to Sun Tzu’s wisdom of knowing your enemy before going to the battle. This strategic faux pas maybe construed in the context of overconfidence.

There was a lot of confidence that the military could replicate its experience when Marawi was attacked on Oct. 21, 1972 by the Mindanao Revolutionary Council for Independence composed of nearly 1,000 Muslim rebels. This conflict was quelled easily by the military only in two days. The military took only six days to end the Battle of Butig, a nearby town of Marawi, in November 2016. It was in this conflict that the Maute Group first gained international prominence when it occupied 10 hectares of the municipality. These past two conflicts that the military ended quickly inflated the confidence of the military to presume that it can also easily end the conflict in Marawi.

It is worth noting that battles are not only won by firepower and manpower but more on mind power. “Mind over matter” can alter the balance of power structure. This is a reality in warfare that the military did not give due consideration in setting deadlines to end the Marawi conflict. The military underestimated an important strategic factor – the intelligence of the opposing force: the Maute Group. Presumed to be wanting in education, Muslims in Mindanao have been unfairly taken for granted as ignorant and easily manipulated; thus, doomed for easy capitulation. The several extensions to end the Marawi conflict defy this notion. This shows that condescension is the mother of overconfidence which can adversely affect the appropriate assessment of situation and the proper conduct of strategy.

Ms. Sydney Jones, a well-known expert on Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia based in Jakarta, considers the Maute Group as the “smartest, best-educated and most sophisticated members of all of the pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines.” The fact that the Mindanao State University is considered to be an alleged stronghold of the Group, where it has been able to purportedly recruit students and teachers as “Knowledge Warriors”, is a serious concern that needs the military’s priority action. The Group’s sophisticated use of social media should be neutralized immediately by the government. It is through this medium that the Group has been able to connect to ISIS and has set up a platform for recruitment and fund solicitation. The academic background of the Maute brothers as graduates of Islamic Studies in the Middle East and their exposure in the region indicate that the Maute Group is a force to reckon with and should not be taken for granted in dealing with them in a conflict. All the above mentioned salient points highlight one strategic fact: the Mautes are “mautak”; thus, a formidable foe to impose deadline to end a conflict.

The Tagalog word “mautak” is simply translated to English as brainy (“matalino”), clever (“magaling”), or cunning (“tuso”). I think the most appropriate translation to describe the Group is cunning or “tuso”. The appropriateness of this translation becomes evident after knowing well the Maute Group.

Getting to know the Maute Group necessitates knowing its origin and its evolution to notoriety. The Group’s existence as extremist and violent organization could be traced back as early as 2013. It was formed not really as a group that advocated Moro national liberation nor Islamic liberation or the establishment of a Caliphate but more as the Maute clan’s private militia to promote and protect the clan’s political and business interests. As early as 2002, when Al Qaeda was the world’s largest terrorist network and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) was a member, Cayamora and Farhana Maute, the parents of the Maute brothers, were allegedly used by the military as tracers to detect activities of the JI operatives in the Philippines, particularly in Mindanao. It was also reported in 2012 that the Maute parents led the military to Indonesian Ustadz Sanussi, a notorious JI member who sought refuge in Mindanao, which resulted to his death.

The Maute clan has been accused of various criminal activities including, among other things, extortion, kidnapping, and illegal drug trade. In the conduct of these crimes, the Maute brothers were cunning (‘tuso”). They used the imagery and symbols associated with the Islamic States to project the invincibility of the group and intimidate their opponents. They imitated the ISIS style of executions when they beheaded two Christian sawmill workers by dressing them with orange clothes. In November 2016 they raised the black flag of ISIS in front of Butig’s municipal hall. All these theatrics were directed to gain the name “Grupong ISIS” or Group of ISIS among the residents. The Pansar clan, their worst political enemy in Butig which is the hometown of the Maute matriarch Farhana, claimed that the Maute Group is not after jihad but more for power and money. The Maute Group is not worthy of inclusion in the so-called “battalions of God’s fighters” but qualifies more as “soldiers of fortune.” They succeeded by sheer cunning to be recognized as ISIS group not from ISIS’ accreditation but through confirmation by no less than President Duterte. The President announced to news reporters that the attack in Marawi “had been ordered directly by the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi” (Duterte: Baghdadi ordered attack, CNN, 12 June 2017).” This created an impression that ISIS has command and control over the Group.

I would be more apprehensive in dealing with a “tuso” than that of “matalino” or “magaling.” The “matalino” and “magaling” usually adopt the best practices or conduct a pattern of action and normally follow the rules of engagement. Thus, they are more predictable and subject to strategic planning and management. On the other hand, a “tuso” is more unpredictable and not bound by rules. In international relations, this is a case to be approached within the framework of Mad Man’s Theory. This is how Maute is “Mautak.” (ambaniman@gmail.com/PN)