The Philippine army has been fighting for over a week against more than one hundred Islamist militants (including many foreigners) from Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups in Marawi. Both domestic rebel groups, which pledged allegiance to IS, emerged from their jungle hideouts to attack the medium-sized Muslim city. At the end of May, more than one hundred people were reported dead, approximately 90 of which were jihadists. The attack may have been a reaction to the failed attempt by the security forces to capture the leader of Abu Sayyaf and the head of the local IS group allegedly hiding in Marawi. On an official visit to Moscow where, among others, he asked for military support against IS, President Duterte cut short his visit to return home and imposed martial law on Mindanao island, the country’s southernmost province. He said he would extend it to the rest of the country if necessary.    

Impact on country risk

The recent clashes are testimony of the rising threat from IS-affiliated groups against security forces, expatriates, tourists and civilians over the entire territory of the Philippines. Abu Sayyaf, a longstanding local threat on Mindanao, may be trying to unite domestic and regional rebel groups, which would increase the security risk in the Philippines. This would represent a major test for President Duterte who gives high priority to the wavering peace process and improving security on Mindanao. The risk would also be to see if Mr Duterte uses the fight against terrorism to run an authoritarian security policy and hinder the rule of law, as seen with the controversial deadly campaign against drug dealers. Martial law is constitutionally limited to two months and should reduce the security risk in Mindanao. However, with Congress in favour, extending it to other provinces or beyond two months has not been ruled out, even though it could be unpopular if unjustified, bearing in mind the bitter memory of ex-dictator Marcos’ martial law in the 1970s-80s. The evolution of domestic security risk will most likely be a major factor in assessing Mr Duterte’s presidential mandate when it ends in 2022.

Analyst: Raphaël Cecchi, r.cecchi@credendo.com