Filipinos are heaving sighs of relief at news that Marawi was liberated this week from an Islamic State franchise and fellow militant outfits, after nearly five months of fighting.
The killing on Monday of Isnilon Hapilon, who led one faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group, and Omar Maute, the last of the brothers who headed the Maute Group, makes the official end of the Marawi fighting a clear, fully triumphant victory.
DNA tests need to be conducted to establish the identities of Hapilon and Maute beyond any doubt; these are required not only to support the Duterte administration’s claim to victory, but also to allow release of the substantial amounts of reward money involved.
Hapilon alone, who was the first Filipino terrorist to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, and who styled himself the “emir” of a territory he wanted designated as an IS “wilayah” or province, had a $5-million bounty placed on his head by the US government as well as a 10-million-peso bounty offered by the Philippine government (Bt166 million and Bt6.5-million).
Hostages held by IS Ranao testified that Hapilon and Maute had been killed, which, along with photographic evidence studied by Philippine forces, is strong evidence that two of the three main leaders of IS Ranao have indeed been killed in battle. (Omar’s brother Abdullah was killed last September.)
But it might have been premature to declare the official liberation of the now largely destroyed city on Tuesday, when some 30 terrorists, including a few foreign nationals fighting under the IS cause, remain at large.
We worry that a false sense of complacency, among victorious soldiers or returning residents, might lead to more deaths. We hope that Philippine forces will move with all necessary speed to subdue the remaining terrorists and rescue the last hostages.
This is not to diminish the scope of the military victory in Marawi; despite the long siege against enemies who knew the battle zone intimately, Philippine forces were able to contain the terrorist leaders and, eventually, kill them. Mopping up the last remaining members of the group and preventing any more casualties would consolidate the victory and bolster its significance.
But while the victory is decisive, the consequences of the months-long conflict are just as clear. The scale of destruction is so massive that the first priority after securing the area must be to restore the basic conditions of normal life: running water, working electricity, cleared streets, the burial of the dead.
Then the residents can be allowed to return – in itself a Herculean task – and the much-touted rehabilitation of Marawi begin in earnest.
The government and its traditional allies have set aside a considerable amount of money to begin that process, but if Marawi is to regain its former stature as the country’s “Islamic City”, much more money will be needed.
The worst consequence of the conflict, however, is in the invisible infrastructure that connects communities: the hearts and minds of the impressionable youth, not only in Marawi and the rest of Mindanao but also in other parts of Southeast Asia.
These youths may look at the five-month siege and see a small band of fighters holding off a large established army; they may look at the ruins of the city and see the breeding ground of more radicals, eager to try their hand at extremist violence; they may view the pictures of the dead Hapilon and imagine their own emir, in their own wilayah.
To a degree it has not yet shown, the Duterte administration must focus on addressing these consequences with undiminished attention and all the brainpower it can muster. The last thing it wants to do is turn a clear victory into a sorry excuse for another, longer war.