The recent lack of Islamist militant activity in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao is deceptive. In 2020 and 2021, militancy in the region saw an apparent sharp decline. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) overran militant strongholds and accepted the surrenders of large numbers of insurgents, particularly from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).
Despite this recent silence, however, the AFP recently announced the identity of the new leader of Dawlah Islamiyah (DI), a nomenclature used by the Philippines authorities to describe the various Islamic State-affiliated groups active in the country, in Mindanao on 2 March 2022. Fahrudin Hadji Satar (alias Abu Zacariah), leader of the DI Lanao (previously known as the Maute Group), is now being hunted by the AFP after being identified as the new emir of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia, as claimed by Brig. Gen. Jose Maria Cuerpo II, Commanding Officer of the 103rd Infantry Brigade.
Following the identification of Abu Zacariah, civilians in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte, where DI Lanao is based, have expressed concerns about a second Marawi Siege-style assault. Many recall that the five-month battle between the AFP and the East Asia Wilayah (EAW) of the Islamic State was preceded by the public declaration of the identity of EAW’s emir, Isnilon Hapilon. The Marawi Siege in 2017 has since been dubbed the most significant urban battle in Southeast Asia since World War II.
The AFP spokesperson has reassured Lanao residents that the probability of a second Marawi Siege-style attack is unlikely. However, it is difficult to avoid the parallels between the anointment of Abu Zacariah and that of Isnilon Hapilon in 2016, though there are also significant differences in the operational context on the ground. This article explores the militant build up in Lanao del Sur since 2017.
Silent but Deadly
DI Lanao, or the Maute Group, has not been actively involved in military skirmishes and bombings over the past four years. However, the potential threat of Abu Zacariah cannot be underestimated. DI Lanao has been actively recruiting militants in Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte in northern Mindanao.
From the end of the Marawi Siege in 2017 up to his death on March 27, 2019, Owaida Marohombsar (alias Abu Dar), the leader of DI Lanao and the Maute Group, recruited and trained fighters in the mountains of Lanao. Abu Dar was said to be a charismatic speaker and appeared to be knowledgeable about the Quran. In 2018, it was reported that remnants of the Maute Group, under Abu Dar’s leadership, had fled with $38 million looted from Marawi City. These funds were reportedly used for recruitment, attracting approximately 250 teenagers. Then, sources claimed that parents were offered 70,000 pesos ($1,380) for their children, who were given a monthly salary of 30,000 pesos ($590). If the amounts indicated were accurate, the Maute Group would have sufficient funds to sustain its recruitment operations at the same rate for 22 years.
While not much is known about Abu Zacariah, it is possible that he has inherited similar skills and resources as that of Abu Dar, including having the same ability to recruit individuals to the IS cause in the southern Philippines. Abu Zacariah allegedly has extensive networks across Mindanao and Southeast Asia. He had purportedly reached out to all Islamist militant groups in Mindanao to establish his authority over the region following the death of Salahuddin Hassan in October 2019, the last reported leader of Islamic State in the Philippines and the leader of DI Maguidanao. All five khatibas (“battalions” in Arabic) in Mindanao have recognized Abu Zacariah’s leadership except for DI Sulu which is currently leaderless.
Overall, despite the recent absence of high-profile attacks, the threat of DI Lanao cannot be underestimated.
Who is Abu Zacariah?
Abu Zacariah is not unknown to the Philippine authorities. According to Dr. Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippines Institute of Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR), Abu Zacariah has been a target since the death of Abu Dar in 2019.
On March 2 of this year, the AFP launched a pre-emptive airstrike on Abu Zacariah’s hideout in Lanao del Sur. Abu Zacariah survived the airstrike and is currently on the run. An AFP spokesperson explained that the airstrike was intended to clear the landmines planted around the area before a ground offensive.
But why did it take three years for the authorities to take action against Abu Zacariah? This trend is not unprecedented. The AFP had also marked Abu Dar as a target after the Marawi Siege in 2017 but it took them two years to hunt and kill him in 2019. With the advancements in military technology, why is it still difficult to decapitate the leader of insurgent groups?
Banlaoi explained that the operational environment in Lanao remains complex. Abu Zacariah is supported by his relatives and followers, and is able to hide among the civilian population. Hence, there is almost no way for the AFP to distinguish friend from foe. Despite the new focus on Abu Zacariah, there is still insufficient information on him, highlighting the lack of the sorts of “actionable intelligence” that would be necessary to launch a targeted attack.
Should We Expect Marawi Siege 2.0?
Despite active attempts to recruit militants for DI Lanao, it is unlikely that a second Marawi Siege will occur. Importantly, the environment in 2016 allowed the Maute Group to raise a force of approximately 1,000 fighters that was able to hold Marawi for five months. These fighters included 150 militants freed during two prison breaks, the internal migration of 200-300 Abu Sayyaf members, significant numbers of regional foreign fighters introduced by IS recruiter Dr. Mahmud Ahmad, and approximately 100 non-regional foreign fighters who heeded the call of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria for hijrah (migration) into Mindanao.
The operational context today is different. While Lanao remains hostile to security forces, militancy in Mindanao has largely been crippled. Today, groups such as the Abu Sayyaf and BIFF suffer from high rates of surrenders. During 2020 and 2021, 372 Abu Sayyaf (Sulu faction) members and 418 BIFF members surrendered to the AFP. The AFP also reported the surrender of 30 DI Lanao militants after its airstrike in early March. These high numbers suggest a militant community that is fraying under pressure, whether due to internal or external forces.
In addition, Banlaoi claimed that DI Maguindanao has been dispersed since the killing of Salahuddin Hassan. DI Maguindanao remnants have allegedly joined the BIFF’s Turaife, Bongus, and Karialan factions. Since then, members who joined Bongus and Karialan have mostly surrendered to the authorities even though the Turaife faction remains a threat.
Hence, the current operational environment does not favor the insurgents, making a Marawi Siege-style assault unfeasible for now. In this light, it is highly likely that Abu Zacariah will exercise strategic patience and play the long game – evading the authorities as long as possible while building up his forces in the densely forested mountains of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte.