From wannabes to warriors: the Maute group were underestimated

From wannabes to warriors: the Maute group were underestimated

From a small ‘clan’ of fighters, the Maute group have become part of a sophisticated transnational network of militants. Their cultural heritage, business ties and international reach present a serious security threat for the Philippines and the broader region.

Having been pushed back in Iraq and Syria, much discussion has focused on Islamic State’s (IS) prospects of making inroads in Southeast Asia. In April 2016, IS proclaimed the restive Southern Philippines province of Mindanao its new caliphate. As discussed, sociocultural, geographical and political factors combine to create ideal conditions for militants there.

Numerous armed groups – including Abu Sayyaf (ASG), Ansar Khalifa Philippines and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters – are well-established in the Philippines. But only under the lesser-known Maute group is a coordinated strategy taking shape. The deadly skirmish in Marawi provides clear evidence of this.

This year Maute joined forces with ASG leader and so-called ‘emir’ of IS in the Philippines, Isnilon Hapilon. This, Head cautions, is ‘a new and potentially dangerous alliance’. Whereas ASG are known more for kidnap-for-ransom operations, the Maute in Sidney Jones’ words provide ‘the brains behind’ the operation. They provide enhanced fighting capability and strategic thinking, and will move Mindanao closer than ever towards an ‘alliance loyal to IS’.

The Maute’s prominence is remarkable considering they were a minor rebel group barely known several years ago. The government has been caught off-guard by this group, whose cultural heritage and business ties inside and outside of the country run deep. Their success in Marawi shows what is possible when regional groups combine experience and align tactics.

Cultural heritage

Despite emerging relatively recently (bombing a nightclub in Cagayan de Oro in 2013 but most notable for the Davao City street market bombing in September 2016), the Maute have deep familial ties and cultural heritage.

The group was founded in 2012 by brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute, two petty criminals from Butig. They herald from the Maranao clan, a heritage which is shared with the Mindanao-based separatist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Both groups are subsequently tied in various ways by blood and marriage. Maute group’s ‘jihad’ is grounded in the broader culture of armed struggle through which MILF materialised. Although MILF disarmed in 2014, rogue sections of that organisation likely strongly sympathise with Maute’s cause.

Through MILF, the Maute have also gained access to weapons, resources, operational expertise and locally-focused combat skills that have been shared among insurgents for decades. This explains Jones’ comment that Maute have ‘the smartest, best-educated and most sophisticated members’ of all the Filipino black-flag groups. To be sure, the Marawi siege stands out for its sophistication and duration; likeable to urban guerrilla warfare.

Business ties

The Maute fund their operations through crime, running a protection racket in Butig and conducting kidnap-for-ransom operations. Significantly, they have also branched into the illegal drugs trade. President Rodrigo Duterte claimed they are integral to the drugs pushing groups in the Philippines, producing shabu (methamphetamine) for local addicts. It was alleged that Maute have gained total control over illegal drugs operations in Marawi, making it the largest narcotics producer in Mindanao.

As The Diplomat explains, ‘the shabu trade is primarily overseen by Chinese organized crime groups, which suggests that Philippine militant-criminal groups cooperate with both local and transnational criminal organizations’, using the international drugs trade to fund their terror activity. The Maute thus likely not only hold ties with powerful local drug lords, but with international organised crime networks.

Much has been made of the arrests of the Maute brothers’ mother and father, Ominta ‘Farhana’ Romato-Maute and Cayamora Maute. Due to the matriarchal tradition of the Maranao tribe, Farhana is purportedly the ‘mastermind’ of the organisation. She directs its operational movements, and manages the finances and international networking.

Despite their arrest, it is important not to underestimate Maute group’s reach. Farhana is a renowned businesswoman and manages not only various Maute-owned strongholds in Mindanao but also properties in key cities across the country. Consequently, the Mautes potentially have a wider reach. Certainly in the age of social media, we should not assume they are a small, localised group.

The Maute have expertly and extensively used social media to propagate their ideology and attract fighters from as far as Kuwait, Yemen, Chechnya, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. They are well-organised and funded by various parties, including other militant groups, corrupt ‘narco-politicians’ and even a rogue, Kuwaiti-owned local business.

Regional implications

There are also important regional implications. Jemaah Islamiyah, the terror group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing, sent approximately 40 fighters to fight with the Maute. In Francis Chan’s words, ‘the Marawi siege has reinvigorated Indonesian jihadists’.

Regardless of the result, the ‘audacity’ of the rebels’ actions, and their impressive endurance, will allegedly ‘draw recruits from across the region, including members of other Islamic militants groups still disaffected and dissatisfied with a moribund peace process’. Maute fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere may return ‘battle-hardened with combat experience’ to coordinate attacks on home territory.

According to the Voice of Asia, foreign influence has ‘add[ed] an unwelcome new mystery’ for the armed forces in Marawi, and could sustain the Maute in future battles. Further increasing confusion is the lack of knowledge about Maute’s total numbers: estimates vary from the hundreds to the thousands.

More importantly, this transnational collaboration between militant groups shows that the IS operation in Southeast Asia is consolidating and aligning. There is allegedly ‘increasing coordination, cooperation, and cohesion’ between IS and its partner groups in Southeast Asia. But it also reinforces Hapilon’s bid to make Mindanao a caliphate, having attracted fighters from neighbouring countries loyal to the IS cause.

Should Duterte and other Southeast Asian leaders fail to deal with this, then it will snowball into an ever-greater security risk. The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have promised closer cooperation in the fight against terrorism. But the difficulty of developing standardised border control procedures in the Sulu Archipelago, aside from requiring extensive resources, means that tracking militant movements is a near-impossible feat. The Marawi siege is the clearest sign yet that current methods are insufficient, and more urgency is needed in formulating a combined regional response.

Whilst important not to overestimate Maute’s threat, it is more perilous to underestimate them. Their success so far in Marawi has irreversibly established them as a serious player. Whether or not the siege ends soon, Maute group have changed the narrative of armed resistance. It is in IS’s interest to officially recognise their efforts, for they have reinvigorated the jihadist struggle in Southeast Asia.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Alexander Macleod

Alex is a Manchester-based Analyst specializing in Southeast Asian political and security risk. He holds a PhD in Politics and Geography from the University of Newcastle, where he examined the role that online media play in promoting and sustaining Malaysia’s racialized political landscape during general elections. Alex also freelances as a social media manager for a digital marketing consultancy. He blogs at seaofrisk.wordpress.com/