From criticizing the administration for denying the presence of the Islamic State in Mindanao to accusing President Duterte of exaggerating the IS threat to justify the proclamation of martial law, the pendulum has again swung to the other end. This time, the President is being criticized for failing to grasp the magnitude of the IS threat because of his singular preoccupation with his war on illegal drugs.
The President had in fact warned of IS presence in Mindanao in the past months, but admitted that the government had been complacent about the threat. From recent developments, it looks like he at least got one aspect right: drug trafficking is being used for terrorist financing.
Now that even the international community is expressing concern about the possibility that IS might be able to set up a base if not a caliphate in this part of the world, all eyes are on the response of the Philippines to the threat. It is not surprising that IS would pick the southern Philippines as its hub for outsourcing terrorism. Certain parts of Mindanao are showcases for the weakness of this republic – places with high levels of poverty and yawning income disparities, where there is no gun control to speak of and where laws are broken with impunity.
The administration, eager to hammer out a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, never pursued the accusation of Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano when he was a senator about the MILF running a gun manufacturing operation that was capable of churning out even Barrett sniper rifles – the powerful semi-automatic weapons that tore apart the bodies of the Special Action Force commandos who went after terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir in Mamasapano in 2015.
IS and its acolytes in the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups also apparently enjoyed support from certain sectors in Marawi City, where government forces are still trying to exterminate the terrorist infestation. Many of the reasons for the terrorists’ decision to target Marawi are also present in certain other areas in Mindanao. While President Duterte makes good on his promise to “pulverize” the terrorists, he must also confront the factors that make Mindanao a soft target for IS expansion.