Five Years After the Philippines’ Marawi Siege: Lessons from Within

It has been almost five years since armed militants from two ISIL-affiliated organizations, Abu Sayyaf and the Maute, battled with Philippine government forces on May 23, 2017. The siege ensued when the military attempted to arrest senior ISIL leader Isnilon Hapilon.

As a result, attackers retaliated, proclaiming the city a nascent caliphate of ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq, and the Levant, more commonly known as ISIS. Before capturing the city’s major thoroughfares and significant bridges, the armed militants caused severe damage to Catholic churches, the city jail, and two schools. Militants also beheaded a police officer and took churchgoers and residents hostage.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law across the entire island of Mindanao on the evening of the assaults. Initially, President Duterte expected the fighting to finish in a matter of weeks. However, he had no idea that this was simply the beginning of a more bloody and horrific assault.

Who Were the Perpetrators?

The main commanders of this unprecedented assault, Isnilon Hapilon, and brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute were members of the local armed groups, Abu Sayyaf and Maute. Both groups have historically been responsible for bombings, attacks on government forces, and hostage-taking in the Philippines. However, foreign militants participated in the war, including those from Malaysia, Indonesia, Yemen, and Chechnya. There is also evidence that the terrorist members involved in this attack enlisted a significant number of radicalized children and teenagers, many of whom were recruited from Marawi’s local schools.

During the conflict, an estimated 1,200 people were declared dead. Although the majority of these were militant extremists, Amnesty International claimed that the militants also carried out kidnappings and extrajudicial executions.

Mission Accomplished

The capture of Marawi prompted the Philippines’ most prolonged armed combatant insurgency. Government troops seized a stronghold on October 16, 2017, killing both Hapilon and Maute. After troops subdued the remaining ISIS fighters on October 23, 2017, five months after the siege began, Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana said there were no more “militants” in Marawi, which ended the long, weary battle.

The Aftermath of the Marawi Siege

The Marawi crisis, which affected many residents, had a significant impact on the local market and the daily needs of Marawi families. According to the United Nations Human Rights Commission Philippines, the Marawi armed conflict between government troops and pro-ISIS insurgents has internally displaced 98% of the area’s overall population, as well as villagers from nearby municipalities, who were forced to flee due to severe food scarcity and political and economic restrictions.

How is Marawi Now?

After years of planning and reconstructing the country’s sole Islamic city, Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBM) is nearing the completion of the major rehabilitation operation for internally displaced families. Even within Marawi’s most impacted area, or “ground zero,” the Maranaws, particularly those displaced by the 2017-armed war, are now reaping the first dividends of the government-led rebuilding.

Meanwhile, the Marawi Fire Substation, a Maritime Outpost, the Rorogagus Barangay Health Station, the Marawi Central Police Station, and a solar power irrigation system were all completed, to help the Maranaws embrace a complete and secure community with peace and stabilization.

Furthermore, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) administration has set aside P500 million for Marawi’s reconstruction in 2021 as part of the newly-formed government’s 12-point priority plan.

Lessons Learned and Reflections as a Filipino Counter-Terrorism Practitioner

I have learned that the scars of this historic siege will undoubtedly persist in the hearts of those who were affected, as well as the troops who were determined to defend the people, even if it meant risking their lives. The standard narrative is that it is their job. However, I am referencing their fortitude in the midst of their weapons’ failure; terrorist groups have also leveraged technical advancement in plotting, recruiting, and networking, making it even more difficult to obverse.

Filipinos are known for their “resilience.” Most people define it as the ability to bounce back from setbacks, embrace change, and persevere in the face of adversity. It is meaningless to be resilient if the Philippine government’s response to these issues is ambiguous. How eager and probing is the government to promote research to fight atrocities in the aftermath of the Marawi Siege? Is this enough, if there is a movement at all? What was the intensity of the response to the Marawi crisis?

We should not box our belief that resilience is the only chance. There is also hope, the ability to recognize important goals, the measures required to achieve them, and the willingness to take those steps. This requires an extensive effort of the government to connect with the civil society in order to prioritize their goals in the field of local security. Although the resilient superhero is often thought to be preferable, it has a dark side; it possesses the same characteristics that hinder self-awareness and, as a result, the ability to maintain a realistic self-concept.

As a Filipino, I believe we should start by assessing where we stand in terms of counter-terrorism operations, such as preventing and suppressing terrorism financing, and encouraging constructive dialogue on counter-terrorism challenges, particularly based upon the principles between state officials and the private sector, social service organizations, and news outlets. Although there is evidence of a deterrent, the government should always consistently take action to prevent such unprecedented happenings.


Kristian N. Rivera, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

Al Shabaab

The New Fight Against Al Shabaab

To counter the growth of Al Shabaab in Somalia, the Biden Administration has made the decision to deploy U.S. troops to Somalia. This decision came with a request from the Department of Defense to provide a persistent presence in Somalia.  In the previous administration, former President Trump withdrew all 700 U.S. troops from the country, a decision made during his last weeks in office. It is estimated that 450 special forces troops will be deployed to continue U.S. counterterrorism operations within Somalia.

Al Shabaab’s Rise to Power

Al Shabaab came to power in June of 2006 when they overtook Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. After an invasion in December of 2006 by Ethiopian forces into Somalia to counter Al Shabaab, the terrorist organization was forced to flee to the south of Somalia. Following this invasion, from 2006 to 2008, Al Shabaab’s membership skyrocketed from the hundreds to the thousands. By 2012, the group also announced its allegiance to Al Qaeda. As of 2020, there are an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 members of Al Shabaab in Somalia and its surrounding countries. The objective of Al Shabaab is similar to that of the Islamic State being that their ultimate goal is to create an Islamic State in Somalia and rule with their interpretation of Sharia Law.

Differentiation from the U.S. Invasion of Afghanistan

Comparing this issue to that of Afghanistan, President Biden’s statements about ending the “forever war” in Afghanistan by withdrawing all troops contradict his actions of redeploying U.S. troops to counter yet another Al Qaeda affiliated terrorist organization, Al Shabaab.  This troop deployment is justified due to the more direct threat of Al Shabaab and its affiliation with Al Qaeda, which pose a greater risk to U.S. security. Al Shabaab presents a more direct threat to the U.S.; its strategic relationships and location make this terrorist organization an increased threat in comparison to the Taliban.  Thus far, the Taliban does not have the capacity nor stated desire to presently become a danger to the U.S. and its allies.  However, Al Shabaab’s intentions for this have been made clear and entirely possible.

The Plans of the U.S. Government

All soldiers planning to redeploy will be U.S. Special Operations forces.  This operation aims not to engage in direct combat but to train local Somali forces to counter Al Shabaab and its affiliates effectively. This decision was a part of a larger request from the Department of Defense to have the U.S. military establish a base of operations in Somalia; they believe that a persistent presence from the United States military could help mitigate the growth and spread of Al Shabaab and their ideology. In support of this strategy, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby stated, “our forces are not now, nor will they be directly engaged in combat operations. The purpose here is to enable a more effective fight against al-Shabab by local forces. The pattern of popping in to conduct limited operations was inefficient and increasingly unsustainable.”

Growth of Al Shabaab Without Any Intervention

It has been argued that from the perspective of Army General Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, that the initial withdrawal of troops from Somalia in January of 2021 hindered the ability of local and international forces to counter Al Shabaab. If no efforts to counter this group’s exponential growth are applied, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies estimates the group’s violent attacks are set to rise by 71%.

Newly Elected Somali President’s Stance on Working with the West

This decision to redeploy troops is in conjunction with the election of a new president of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, on May 15, 2022, following a five-year hiatus from the presidency. Mohamud is set to align with the West and has a desire to collaborate with the international community to counter the growth of Al Shabaab. During Mohamud’s hiatus, Al Shabaab spread throughout Somalia, fending off African Union Forces. The African Union will be one of the confirmed affiliate organizations that U.S. forces will work with in tandem.

Outlook for Future Mitigation

This growing threat of terrorism in East Africa, specifically from Al Shabaab, has fueled President Biden’s administration’s decision to redeploy U.S. Special Operations forces.  The chaos that ensued through the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan makes another invasion to counteract terrorism worrisome that the U.S. will be caught in another never-ending war.

As the U.S. deploys troops, a clear plan is essential with clearly articulated end goals to ensure that the U.S. military does not get involved in another decades-long war. This deployment of troops brings hope to the people of Somalia that they may finally be able to live in their country without fear of constant terrorism. Nonetheless it is unclear exactly when we will see tangible results from redeployment, training of Somali troops, and coordination with other international entities.


Claire Spethman, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow


The U.S. Removed Five Extremist Organizations From Its Terrorism Blacklist

The U.S. is expected to remove five extremist groups from its Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) blacklist, all of which are thought to be defunct, including several that formerly represented substantial risks, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of people across Eurasia and the Middle East. Although terrorists have different reasons for being inoperative in these circumstances, patterns emerge in why they decide to abandon the terrorist or extremist organization. Some members have left after growing disillusioned with the organization’s planning and strategy. Aside from that, the group is undeterred because it lacks strong leaders or is unable to make a public impression, which makes them undaunted in civil society.

Despite the fact that the five organizations are no longer functioning, the judgment is politically controversial for President Biden’s administration and the nations in which they operate. This is because many of their victims are still plagued by the attacks they perpetrated, and it could lead to backlash from casualties and their families who have lost loved ones. However, the decision has come under speculation as to understand why these groups are now no longer considered a threat.

The State Department said in special notices to Congress that the five groups’ terrorism classifications will be legally withdrawn when the conclusions are released in the Federal Register, which is likely to occur this week. According to Secretary of State Blinken, the common motivation for the revocation is the same in each case: they were constituted based on a five-year administrative review of the designations, as required by law. On Sunday, the State Department said that revoking FTO designations ensures that the terrorism prohibitions are current and credible. It does not reflect any change in policy toward any of these organizations’ previous activities.

Removing the organizations from the FTO list immediately lifts a slew of restrictions that had been imposed as a result of the designations. Asset freezes and travel bans are among them, as is a prohibition on any American supplying material aid to the groups or their members. All but one of the five organizations were recognized as FTOs for the first time in 1997 and have opted to stay on the list for the past 25 years. Officials familiar with the case said the choices were made after lawmakers were consulted some months ago about whether the latest five-year reviews should go forward.

Only the classified parts that prompted the notifications, which are not classified on their own, provide the particular reasons for each of the removals. These portions are marked “SECRET/NOFORN,” indicating that U.S. officials can only disclose their information with appropriate security clearances, not by foreign governments. The Basque separatist group ETA, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, the radical Jewish group Kahane Kach, and two Islamic groups active in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Egypt are among those being removed from the list.

Final Thoughts: Classification Over Emotions

It is critical to remember that a terrorist organization has always had the option of deterring, surrendering, and redeeming itself. When the government continues to subjugate these groups, it encourages these organizations and individuals to grieve and retaliate with additional attacks, even if they lack resources. One essential counterterrorism lesson learned is that terrorists, no matter their ideology or objectives against the government and society, still have weak points. Their inactivity could indicate that the government’s counterterrorism actions are effective and efficient.


Kristian N. Rivera, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow


The Taliban’s Opium Ban Will Prove Unsustainable

In 2020, around 85% of all opium was grown in Afghanistan. The Taliban has previously exploited this trade by placing taxes on the movement, production, and sale of opium. Officials estimate these taxes amounted to nearly $200 million per year for the Taliban. However, the Taliban have just placed an outright ban on opium production, usage, transportation, trade, export, and import. As Afghanistan’s economy continues its freefall, opium production remains the only reliable option for impoverished Afghanis. Some interpret this ban as an optimistic sight for counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism measures, as high rates of opium production are one of the strongest predictors of high levels of terrorist activity in Afghani Provinces. The banning of opium could have significant implications on economic and terrorist activity in the region. Still, it remains doubtful that this ban will be sustainable.

Since the recent Taliban takeover, there have been increasing pressures from the international community to halt the opium trade in Afghanistan. The U.S. has already spent nearly $9 billion on counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, signaling this issue’s importance to U.S. politicians. The Taliban see this ban as a step toward gaining international recognition and the humanitarian aid they lost. This move also comes amidst a severe humanitarian and economic crisis and likely will have some counterintuitive effects.

For one, banning the production of opium eliminates one of the last resorts for some of the poorest farmers. As Afghanistan’s economy continues to fall, farmers turn toward illicit crops, primarily opium, to bring quicker and higher returns. The enacting and enforcement of a ban will leave these farmers with little to no options. This will also lead to a significant backlash against the Taliban, which could increase the risk of radicalization to oppose the Taliban. Should this backlash prove strong enough, the Taliban may even begin to change their stance on drug production. This was the case following the poppy ban at the end of their last rule, which faced severe popular outrage and led the Taliban to almost entirely change their stance.

Secondly, this ban is challenged by market forces. Over the past few months, the prices of opium have skyrocketed out of uncertainty in the market. As the ban was just announced, the prices will likely continue to increase dramatically. In 2001, when the Taliban previously banned opium, its price quadrupled from $87 per kilogram in 2000 to $385 in 2002. This creates massive incentives for farmers to continue to grow opium. While production comes with a newfound risk of opposing the Taliban, farmers have few options. They are already at risk of food insecurity and starvation. This short-term, drastic reduction in opium production is likely unsustainable and could in fact increase opium production in the long term.

Next Steps

Counter-narcotics face a bleak future in Afghanistan. While the Taliban’s ban is likely to reduce production in the short term, a truly effective solution would address the root causes of the opium trade. Poverty and food insecurity remain commonplace, forcing individuals to find alternative sources of income. Political instability makes restrictions and governance unpredictable and inadequate. And the lack of humanitarian aid provides no lifelines to this crisis. Until these underlying issues are addressed, measures to reduce the production, trafficking, and sale of narcotics will be inhumane and unreliable. While future U.S. policy to address the opium trade is unclear, policymakers should act under the assumption that the Taliban’s current ban on opium will be unsustainable and a quick fix to a complicated issue.


Rise to Peace Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow


Afghanistan’s Economic Crisis Means Rapid Growth for Terrorist Cells

On May 7, 2022, the Taliban enacted a measure stating that women must wear face coverings in public.  This is seen as yet another example in the long line of punitive restrictions on women and religious minorities by the Taliban.  This trend signals the Taliban’s lack of willingness to uphold human rights, which will result in the loss of remaining aid from foreign donors.  The World Bank previously suspended over $600M dollars worth of development projects, citing their obligation to women’s rights.  These cuts in funding come amidst a severe economic and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, with nearly 95% of families experiencing food insecurity, and mark the loss of one of last lifelines for Afghanistan.  These economic conditions are likely to accelerate the growth and capabilities of terrorist nodes operating in Afghanistan, primarily the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-K) and Al-Qaeda.

For both organizations, failed economic development creates a larger pool of young individuals that have very few alternative options, or nearly zero opportunity cost.  While this is not a direct predictor of terrorist action, these individuals are natural targets for radicalization.  It is expected that Al-Qaeda and IS-K will enjoy accelerated growth in the coming years, resulting in part from the higher volume of potential recruits.


Al-Qaeda, which has close relations with the Taliban, is also likely to build new training camps in Afghanistan.  These training camps, bolstered by more recruits, will increase the capabilities of Al-Qaeda.  While it is unlikely that Al-Qaeda is currently capable of an attack on the U.S. homeland, increased capabilities could lead to attacks on U.S. and Western targets in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, or Africa in the coming months.  U.S. intelligence agencies predict, under current circumstances, Al-Qaeda may be capable of an attack on U.S. homeland within one to two years.

Islamic State-Khorasan Province

IS-K, which is a sworn enemy of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, will receive the same overall increase in recruitment prospects.  However, economic conditions also contribute to increased dissatisfaction with the Taliban.  IS-K is likely to exploit this dissatisfaction and attract individuals that look to oppose the Taliban.  For example, some previous Afghan soldiers and intelligence professionals are turning to IS-K, the only armed group opposing the Taliban.  While the Taliban will apply pressure on IS-K, the organization is expected to grow rapidly.  By some estimates, IS-K has doubled in size in less than a year from two to four thousand operatives. They have already conducted more than seventy-six attacks against the Taliban this year, as opposed to eight the year before.  While an attack against the U.S. homeland is unlikely, an act against the U.S. or Western countries abroad is feasible, as evident by the bombing of Kabul Airport on August 27th.  U.S. intelligence agencies estimate, under current conditions, IS-K will be capable of an external attack on U.S. homeland in as little as one year.

Next Steps

Regardless of future U.S. policy in Afghanistan, each U.S. response suffers from a lack of intelligence in the region.  In an interview with the Associated Press Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said “we’re probably at about 1 or 2% of the capabilities we once had to look into Afghanistan.”  The next step for counter-terrorism measures in the region is rebuilding the intelligence infrastructure necessary to monitor terrorist organizations.  This requires a two-pronged approach.

Firstly, The U.S. should reestablish connections with internal, anti-Taliban networks in Afghanistan. These contacts are key for confirming and generating intelligence on the location of terrorist cells, training camps, and activity.  With local partners, the U.S. will be able to conduct counter-terrorism action more effectively in Afghanistan.

Secondly, the U.S. should negotiate access to air-bases within neighboring countries.  These bases will help intelligence and surveillance gathering within Afghanistan.  This will also serve to compliment HUMINT efforts, allowing the U.S. to confirm on-the-ground intelligence.  This may require time and effort, but it remains a necessary step for effective counter-terrorism measures.

As the Taliban continues repression, isolating Afghanistan from the international community, the economic and humanitarian crisis continues to compound.  In this crisis, Al-Qaeda and IS-K are quickly growing their ranks and capabilities.  While both organizations’ capabilities do not yet match their ambitions of a U.S. homeland attack, U.S. intelligence agencies predict this may change within 12 to 18 months, barring intervention.  Without decisive action by the U.S. to rebuild intelligence and counter-terrorism infrastructure, the U.S. will be unprepared and in the dark for the next large-scale attack.


Rise to Peace Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

Rise to Peace