In May 2017 two groups of Muslim fighters raided the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines. After five months of fighting, the Philippine military finally announced that the city was reconquered from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups that supposedly had ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This incident resembles a crisis in 2013 when members of another armed group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), entered the city of Zamboanga and battled government troops for weeks. But whereas the Zamboanga crisis neither attracted much foreign attention nor was linked to international jihadism, the fighting in Marawi has been portrayed as part of larger conflict between militant Islamism and the civilised world – a narrative that is lacking substantial empirical evidence.
While the Philippines are a country with a predominantly Christian population, its southern island, Mindanao, hosts a large Muslim minority. Consisting of ethnically and culturally diverse groups, they are commonly referred to as the Moros. For decades, various armed groups claiming to fight for the Moro interests, defined in secular or religious terms, have emerged. The MNLF dominated the Moro struggle for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s several rival groups split off – among them the more religiously oriented Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf.
After the terror attacks of 9/11 the US administration decided to launch its second front in its global War on Terror in Southeast Asia claiming that local armed groups had close links to al-Qaeda. Although no evidence for significant cooperation existed, the respective discourse gained traction in media and scientific representations of the conflicts between the Philippine state and the Moro armed groups.
Zamboanga: Fighting for Peace?
With the Obama administration shifting its focus away from the War on Terror, so did the international interest in conflicts in the Philippines. The MNLF had already been co-opted in the wake of a peace agreement with the government in 1996. After the national discourse on the Moro rebellion had again refocused on the domestic agenda advocated by the MILF, new possibilities for negotiations emerged. In the early 2010s the talks between the MILF and the government led by President Benigno Aquino came close to an agreement.
In this situation, a faction of the MNLF proclaimed the independent state of Bangsamoro in 2013 and seized control over large parts of Zamboanga. Fighting between government forces and the MNLF lasted for weeks leaving hundreds dead and destroying major parts of the city.
With the threat posed by al-Qaeda having become remote and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) not yet being at the heart of international attention a discursive link to global jihadism was neither drawn in the media nor in political discourse. Instead, local, national and Western commentators agreed on a widely shared narrative that focused on the national dimension of the crisis for explaining the surprising move of the MNLF.
They consistently attributed the escalation of violence to a failing negotiation strategy of the Aquino administration that had concentrated solely on the MILF and ignored the interests of the MNLF, which perceived itself to be the potential looser in any new deal between the MILF and the government. Therefore, a faction of the MNLF decided to fight their way back to the negotiation table.
Rather surprisingly, local and national media also signalled a high degree of understanding for the strategy taken by the MNLF-fighters, who were predominantly labelled as “rebels”, and perceived as following an understandable and righteous cause – finally putting an end to Moro discrimination and achieving a durable peace. Put simply, media reports indicated that this cause at least to some extent legitimized the radical and violent means that ultimately resulted in several hundred deaths of combatants and civilians.
Marawi: Fighting for the Caliph?
Since the proclamation of a caliphate by ISIS in 2014, there have been warnings about possible effects on the conflict between Moro-separatists and the Philippine state. In late 2014 a faction of the Abu Sayyaf and shortly afterwards the recently formed Maute group pledged allegiance to ISIS.
In late 2016 the newly elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared that he would wipe out both groups and ordered the Armed Forces to take respective action. Importantly, however, Duterte argued that the eradication of these groups was necessitated by their involvement in the production and trade of illegal drugs in the Philippines.
Against the backdrop of intensified military pressure by government troops, the combined forces of these two groups conquered and fortified themselves in Marawi. As in Zamboanga, urban warfare occurred, devastating large parts of the city and killing hundreds of people – among them many civilians. It took the Philippine military until October 2017 to regain full control of the city.
In this case the narrative of an ISIS-link immediately dominated the international and national media discourses as well as academic analyses. The capture of Marawi was interpreted as a move aiming at establishing an ISIS province in Southeast Asia. Only the local media dissented from this narrative, albeit by omission. Local media reporting largely abstained from providing any political frame for the rebels’ choice to raid Marawi. Instead it focused on the suffering of the civilian population and thereby established a de-politicized discourse.
The national media on the other hand utilized the ISIS-frame, underlining this with the two groups’ pledges for allegiance and reports on a small number of foreign fighters reportedly killed in the fighting. The reasons for the escalation were seen in the rising influence of ISIS and the vulnerability of Mindanao’s Muslim population to radicalism. Consequently, the national political level was relieved of any responsibility for the escalation. This new ISIS-frame allowed for a mainstream discourse on the national level that denied the “terrorists” (not “rebels”) any legitimacy and strongly supported President Duterte’s strategy of military annihilation. The Western media in turn framed the Marawi crisis as a local symptom of a global conflict between ISIS – or transnational jihadism in general – and the civilised world. Mirroring depictions in the early 2000s Southeast Asia was again perceived as additional front in yet another global War on Terror.
This would be unproblematic, if sufficient evidence for the supposed global jihadist links as determining factor of the local violence dynamics was provided. This, however, is not the case. There is not much evidence to support the supposed ISIS-link – apart from various video clips and the ISIS flags, that the groups are using. These symbols are hardly more than a propaganda tool by two local armed groups trying to enhance their collective ego in a situation when they are under severe pressure by government troops. Various ISIS propaganda outlets approving the groups’ actions also shouldn’t be treated as reliable source of information as it serves ISIS’ interests to be perceived as globally active and threatening. Nonetheless, not only the international media, but also many “terrorism experts” followed this narrative without question. Although hard facts lending plausibility to the thesis are by and large lacking, the message of an ISIS-link is constantly repeated. Thereby, an unsubstantiated hypothesis is presented as an unquestionable truth – with serious political implications.
The Politics of Labelling
The sociological Thomas-Theorem states: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” This also holds true for the framing of the Marawi crisis as being a local expression of a global fight against ISIS in the Philippines.
Local political dynamics, the deplorable socio-economic situation, traditions of local warlordism, as well as the links between criminality and “rebellion” are all but ignored by international actors, who unhesitatingly come to the aid of the Philippine Armed Forces in its fight against “ISIS.” By conceptualising Maute and Abu Sayyaf as fanatics without reason, military “solutions” are perceived as only viable strategy to confront them. With reference to Marawi the US and Australia have been expanding their military assistance to the Philippines, providing intelligence and weapons. On the national level, the unopposed ISIS-narrative resulted in a hardening of politicians’ positions with respect to finalizing a viable political framework that would allow the peace agreement with the MILF, signed already in 2014, to be implemented. Hardening stances on a political solution enhance the probability of further radicalization of disgruntled groups and a corresponding strengthening of more militarized strategies for subduing armed “Islamist” resistance.
In the Western media, the Marawi crisis is an example of a largely pre-determined frame being applied to local news without sufficient evidence for an empirical fit between frame and news item. This in turn reinforces the established threat perception and leads to a reification of misperceptions along the lines of the pre-established overarching framework. The habit of applying frames that fit audience expectations, of reducing complexity to easily understandable bits of information as well as insufficient familiarity with the local situation coalesce into a whole that brings about a specific glocalization of the narratives characterized by a dominance of the global frame over the local one. As such, however, it only fits the perceived needs of the global but not the local communities.