Opinion: Closing the 'rhetoric to reality' gap — preventing violent extremism in post-siege recovery

Local officials of Lanao del Sur province visits the Ground Zero (also known as the main battle area) in Marawi for the first time since the end of the Battle of Marawi. Photo by: Philippine Information Agency

When violent, ideological groups like the Islamic State establish a foothold, they strengthen their position with a narrative that the government has failed to deliver on its social contract with the Muslim population, particularly with youth. They exploit this “say-do” gap — the disconnect between what governments say about creating an inclusive identity and equal citizenship for all, and what they actually do in practice — to craft this narrative. By highlighting this disparity, they undermine trust in the government and can then present themselves as a credible alternative source of governance, providing services, and dispensing Islamic justice and dispute resolution.

“The most sophisticated Islamic State pitch,” writes Haroro Ingram in The Strategic Logic of Islamic State Information Operations, “leverages pragmatic and perceptual factors to appeal to a wide range of citizens and to bolster recruiting efforts within communities that feel marginalized from mainstream society and deprived of the opportunities of genuine citizenship.”

In areas vulnerable to violent extremism, local governments often face a critical challenge. A slow or inadequate government response to development needs could actually serve to strengthen extremist groups’ messaging that the government is failing its people, fueling the extremist groups’ recruitment efforts. However, swift, concentrated efforts to provide assistance in vulnerable areas can effectively counter this messaging.

A look at the Philippines

We see this on the Philippine island of Mindanao, where the Filipino Muslim population is largely concentrated. In 2017, the IS-affiliated Maute Group garnered support with a narrative that focused on unequal resource sharing by the central government, unclear land titling that incites disputes and worsens poverty, and the historic marginalization of Muslim Filipinos by the government of the Philippines. These grievances had already driven decades of conflict that killed perhaps 120,000 people and displaced millions.

Extremist groups in Marawi regard the recent efforts to bring peace to the island, such as the treaty with the Moro-Islamic Liberation Front, as too great a compromise, and the provisions of the Bangsomoro Basic Law, which offers limited autonomy to the Moros, as insufficient. It was in this context that the Maute and Abu Sayyaf Groups declared Marawi the newest caliphate of IS in May 2017. This triggered an extended siege that displaced as many as 600,000 people according to the United Nations, and flattened the Marawi city center, now referred to locally as “ground zero” because of the devastation caused by five months of fighting in the already impoverished and underserved area.

What next?

In the aftermath of the siege, the government of the Philippines faces an immediate challenge: While they “won” the battle for Marawi, they need to ensure that the near total destruction of the city does not further contribute to the narrative for the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups, who already point to what they consider as the Philippine military’s disregard for civilian infrastructure and livelihoods as evidence of the central government’s contempt for the people of Mindanao. This in turn could drive the next round of recruitment for these groups and shore up their popular support.

To disrupt this cycle, it is crucial that effective rebuilding and re-development of the city take place in a timely fashion and is accompanied by a coherent communication strategy to counter the groups’ own messaging, otherwise, the battle of Marawi could very well become a key driver of the next stage of the conflict.

Tackle critical needs

After the siege in Marawi, in meetings and discussions with government and local leaders on the ground, we heard time and time again that the ability of the government to bring normal life back to Marawi is a litmus test of the strength of its convictions in relation to Filipino Muslims. Recognizing this, the government has provided considerable financial and material aid to attend to the most pressing needs at “ground zero,” and there is a growing civil society and humanitarian presence throughout Lanao del Sur, often in coordination with government agencies.

“As always, context is key, and understanding what is happening at the grassroots is crucial to gaining a clear picture of the grievances and perceptions driving the conflict on the ground and is essential for the next stage in drawing up effective post-Marawi planning for preventing violent extremism.”

To continue to “walk the talk” of supporting Marawi’s return to normality, the government of the Philippines should sustain and increase its investments in public infrastructure rehabilitation and restoration of agricultural lands that form the backbone of the livelihoods of many communities. Camps for internally displaced persons are clearly in need of humanitarian intervention; delivering culturally appropriate and robust assistance to those living in camps is critical. Additionally, as many as 90 percent of displaced Marawians are outside of camps in private homes, squatting, or in other temporary accommodations. Grassroots Philippine organizations like Balay Mindanaw have located many of this population and delivered support to them. These groups need continued government and donor support.  

A building in Marawi is set ablaze by airstrikes carried out by the Philippine Air Force. Photo by: Mark Jhomel

Promote grassroots solutions for grassroots dilemmas

Alongside addressing the immediate needs, it is important to note that the events in Marawi did not happen in a vacuum, and to understand the complex web of historical conflict and grievances that have plagued Mindanao for decades.

Aside from the global jihadist influence, Mindanao suffers deep socioeconomic imbalances, ungoverned spaces, competing armed groups, criminal activity, and a proliferation of small arms. As such, we must avoid the temptation to simply view the conflict through a lens of IS global jihad and understand how groups have acted as political entrepreneurs seeking to exploit existing grievances to their own advantage. As Josef Franco notes “sans the infusion of jihadist iconography, central Mindanao would likely persist as an arena for violent political conflict at the grassroots”.

Assistance, then, should attend not only to physical reconstruction, but to the social: Supporting moderate, respected local leaders to lead dialogue about the political and social grievances that drove — and still drive — support for Maute and ASG; to engage the community — especially youth — in generating tangible local solutions for the practical problems that beset many communities; resolving land tenure and pursuing a meaningful, long-term political solution that has wide community buy-in from the Mindanaoan constituency that will be subject to the Bangsomoro Basic Law.  

As always, context is key, and understanding what is happening at the grassroots is crucial to gaining a clear picture of the grievances and perceptions driving the conflict on the ground and is essential for the next stage in drawing up effective post-Marawi planning for preventing violent extremism. The government of the Philippines has shown that it understands this dynamic; its continued investment in attending to urgent humanitarian needs is a critical demonstration of its commitment to Mindanao. This will need to be followed up by tangible investments in repairing the social fabric and progressing a real political resolution for the Filipino Muslims of the south.

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About the authors

  • Alastair reed

    Alastair Reed

    Dr. Alastair Reed is acting director of ICCT. Prior to this he was research coordinator and a research fellow at ICCT, joining ICCT and Leiden University’s Institute of Security and Global Affairs in 2014. Previously, he was an assistant professor at Utrecht University. Reed’s main areas of interest are terrorism and insurgency, conflict analysis, conflict resolution, military and political strategy, and international relations, in particular with a regional focus on South Asia and Southeast Asia.
  • Michele%2520piercey%2520photo

    Michele Piercey

    Michele Piercey is an international development practitioner with 17 years of experience, including 10 years working on political transition and counter-violent extremism programs in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Tunisia. Piercey currently serves as the senior vice president of the Strategic Solutions and Communications Division at Chemonics. Previously, she was the director of the Peace, Stability, and Transition practice, where she led industry outreach on conflict and CVE, supported new business efforts, and provided technical support to projects.