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Mindanao's Mosaic of Conflict Understanding the Roots, Repercussions, and Road Ahead cover

Mindanao’s Mosaic of Conflict: Understanding the Roots, Repercussions, and Road Ahead

An ASEAN Institute Briefing

Introduction to the Briefing on Islamic State Militant Activities in Mindanao
Section 1: Recent Bombing Incident in Marawi
Section 2: Location and Timing of the Attack in Marawi
Section 3: Government Response to the Marawi Attack
Section 4: Potential Retaliation and Escalation Dynamics
Section 5: Socio-Political and Economic Underpinnings of the Conflict
Section 6: Regional and International Implications of the Conflict
Section 7: Counterinsurgency and Peace Initiatives in Mindanao
Section 8: Human Rights and Humanitarian Concerns in the Mindanao Conflict
Section 9: Policy Recommendations for U.S. Engagement in Mindanao
Section 10: Conclusion and Future Outlook

Introduction to the Briefing on Islamic State Militant Activities in Mindanao

Contextualizing the Conflict Landscape

This briefing is designed to provide a comprehensive understanding of the complex and evolving conflict landscape in Mindanao, Philippines, with a particular focus on the activities and impacts of Islamic State (IS) militants. The region of Mindanao has long been a tapestry of diverse ethnic, religious, and political narratives, which have interwoven to create a unique yet volatile environment. This briefing aims to dissect these narratives, elucidate the historical context, and offer insights into the current situation, including the recent attacks attributed to IS-affiliated groups.

Mindanao’s Historical Conflict Spectrum

The conflict in Mindanao is not a singular narrative but a mosaic of interconnected disputes, rooted in a history of colonization, resistance, and political marginalization. The Bangsamoro people’s struggle for self-determination, central to this discourse, has morphed over time, influenced by various internal and external factors. This section will explore the genesis and evolution of the Moro conflict, shedding light on the factors that have shaped the current landscape.

The Emergence of Islamic State Influence

The infiltration and influence of IS in Mindanao represent a significant shift in the region’s conflict dynamics. This section will analyze how and why IS has gained a foothold in the region, examining the confluence of local grievances, global jihadist ideologies, and the strategic interests of IS in extending its influence to Southeast Asia.

Recent Attacks and IS Modus Operandi

This section will provide a detailed analysis of the recent attacks in Marawi and other parts of Mindanao, attributed to IS militants. It will delve into the operational tactics, target selection, and messaging strategies of IS-affiliated groups in the region. Understanding their modus operandi is crucial for anticipating future threats and formulating effective countermeasures.

Socio-Political and Economic Underpinnings

The social, political, and economic dimensions of Mindanao’s conflict are intricate and deeply interwoven. This section will explore the socio-economic disparities, political disenfranchisement, and the impact of internal displacement on the escalation of conflict. It will also examine how these factors have been exploited by IS and other militant groups to garner support and recruit members.

Regional and International Implications

The conflict in Mindanao transcends local boundaries, having regional and international implications. This section will assess the impact of the Mindanao conflict on Southeast Asia, particularly in terms of security, migration, and the potential spread of extremist ideologies. It will also explore the role of international actors, including geopolitical interests and foreign interventions.

Counterinsurgency and Peace Initiatives

Various counterinsurgency strategies and peace initiatives have been employed in Mindanao over the years. This section will critically analyze these efforts, highlighting successes, limitations, and unintended consequences. It will provide insights into the challenges of implementing peace agreements and integrating former combatants.

Human Rights and Humanitarian Concerns

The human cost of the conflict in Mindanao has been profound. This section will focus on the human rights violations and humanitarian crises resulting from the prolonged conflict, including the plight of internally displaced persons, the impact on women and children, and the challenges in delivering humanitarian aid.

Policy Recommendations for U.S. Engagement

Given the complexity of the Mindanao conflict and the involvement of IS militants, this section will offer targeted policy recommendations for U.S. engagement. It will focus on areas where the U.S. can effectively contribute to conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and the prevention of extremism in the region.

Conclusion and Future Outlook

This concluding section will summarize key insights from the briefing and project potential future scenarios in Mindanao. It will provide a strategic outlook, highlighting areas of concern and opportunities for positive intervention in the pursuit of long-term peace and stability in the region.


Section 1: Recent Bombing Incident in Marawi

Overview of the Incident

On December 3, 2023, Mindanao, a region historically embroiled in complex conflicts, witnessed a harrowing incident that further underscored the persistent volatility to crime, violence, and terrorism in the area. (McKenna, 1998). Islamic State (IS) militants claimed to have executed a bombing at a Catholic Mass in Marawi City, leading to the tragic death of four individuals and injuring 50 others. (Counter Extremism Project, 2023). This incident, occurring in a university gymnasium, not only shattered the tranquility of a religious gathering but also created unnecessary security tensions and fear within a community that is still slowly recovering from trauma and other effects of a major armed conflict, adding to the sufferings that have plagued the region for decades.

Islamic State’s Claim and Significance

The Islamic State’s claim of responsibility, disseminated through their media channels, is not merely an assertion of perpetration; it is emblematic of the group’s strategic intent to sow discord where there is none. By targeting a Catholic congregation, this act of terror underscores IS’s pursuit of a broader destabilizing agenda, extending beyond mere territorial control as spoilers of peace, insinuating the existence of a religious divide. This is significant because pointing to religious differences as causes of conflict is unacceptable as existing between the mainstream Filipinos and the Muslims in the Philippines. When this is put into the literature of the Mindanao Problem, it is in effect animating and giving life to what does not exist. Thus, it adds a new dimension to an already volatile situation. 

The former and departed Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), Jesse M. Robredo, as a young student working on his master’s thesis on constitutional accommodation of a Moro Islamic system in the Philippines personally asked Ustadz Salamat Hashim (then Chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front) several questions and one of them is, “Is there any particular message that you may have for the Filipino leaders and people? And his written answer on the questionnaire was this: “We would like to say to our friends in Manila and the rest of the Filipino people that the conflict on our part has nothing to do with ideology. We are not fighting because the Manila government is dominated by Christians. We are not against the Christian Filipinos. We are not against religion of any kind. We are simply against oppression. And to us, the worst oppression is the long deprivation of the Bangsamoro people of their inalienable rights to freedom and self-determination.” At another point in the same research study, Ustadz Salamat said, “We are Muslims, never fundamentalists or terrorists.”

Contextualizing Marawi in IS Strategy

The Islamic City of Marawi, having previously endured the Marawi Siege of 2017 —the longest battle fought in postwar Philippine history— represents a focal point in the IS strategy in Southeast Asia. (International Crisis Group, 2018). The historic capital city, which served as the main area of militant activity and fierce resistance against government forces in attempts to establish an Islamic state in the province, renders it a recurrent target for IS. The choice of Marawi for the recent bomb attack demonstrates the capability of IS-linked militant groups to maintain relevance and influence in the region, despite setbacks in recent years, and despite diminishing numbers within these groups and their influence among the local communities. (Joscelyn & Clarke, 2017).

Tactical and Operational Insights

The modus operandi employed in the Marawi bombing aligns with the IS-linked local Dawlah Islamiya (DI) terror group’s tactical preferences, which include high-profile attacks on soft targets to maximize civilian casualties and media attention. Based on investigative reports, the tactics were the same as those they employed in previous bomb attacks such as the Jolo Cathedral twin bombing in 2019 in Sulu province. (Banlaoi, 2019). The recent use of a university gymnasium during a religious service indicates a calculated approach to target gatherings that would yield significant emotional and psychological impact. The attack’s execution suggests a level of operational capability and local support within Mindanao, raising concerns about the remnants of IS’ infiltration and network in the region. (Banlaoi, 2017).

Immediate Responses and Security Measures

Following the attack, there was an immediate condemnation from national and local leaders, including Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who labeled the bombing as “senseless and heinous.”(Reuters, 2023). Security measures were promptly heightened, with police and military forces being mobilized in the southern Philippines and around Metro Manila to prevent further incidents. This rapid response reflects the Philippine government’s acute awareness of the fragile security situation in Mindanao and its commitment to counter-terrorism efforts.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) expressed grief over the attack and stressed community solidarity and their continuous efforts for dialogue towards peace and development in Mindanao, noting that on the morning of the bomb explosion at the gymnasium, “Maranao students immediately took measures to protect their Christian schoolmates from further harm following the blast.” (ABS-CBN News, 2023).

Implications for Sectarian Dynamics

The Marawi bombing holds significant implications for sectarian dynamics in the Philippines. It serves as a grim reminder of the ongoing vulnerability of religious minorities in conflict-prone areas and the potential for such attacks to exacerbate sectarian tensions. (Vitug & Gloria, 2000).The incident necessitates a careful balancing act in response strategies, ensuring that security measures do not inadvertently deepen communal divides or alienate marginalized groups, which could fuel further radicalization.


In conclusion, the recent bombing incident in Marawi, whose perpetrators have been identified as members of the Islamic State-affiliated Dawlah Islamiya (DI)Maute Group is not an isolated event but a manifestation of the complex interplay of historical, religious, and socio-political factors in Mindanao. This attack highlights the area’s volatility to crime and terror threats posed by IS and similar groups in the region and underscores the need for nuanced and multifaceted approaches to counter-terrorism and peacebuilding in Mindanao.

Section 2: Location and Timing of the Attack in Marawi

Marawi: A City at the Heart of Conflict

Marawi, situated in Lanao del Sur province on the island region of Mindanao, has been historically significant in the context of Islamist militant activity in the Philippines. The city, predominantly Muslim in a country where the majority are Christian Catholics, stands as a poignant symbol of the complex interplay of religious, ethnic, socio-economic and socio-political narratives that define the Mindanao conflict. (McKenna, 1998). Marawi’s recent history, particularly the 2017 siege, positions it as a microcosm of the larger struggles impacting the entire region.

The 2017 Siege: A Turning Point

In May 2017, Marawi became the epicenter of a brutal conflict when it was seized by militants affiliated with the Islamic State, including the DIMaute and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). This siege lasted five months, resulting in extensive humanitarian and infrastructural devastation and marking one of the most significant episodes of modern and urban warfare in the history of the Philippines. The siege not only illustrated the operational capabilities of Islamist militants in the region but also underscored their resolve to establish a foothold in Southeast Asia, akin to the IS strongholds in the Middle East.

Strategic Significance of the Attack’s Location

The recent attack’s location—a university gymnasium—bears significant strategic and symbolic implications. (Franco, 2019;Arguillas, 2018).). Universities are traditionally seen as safe spaces for learning and cultural exchange, making the attack a direct assault on these values. By targeting a strategically-located and prestigious educational institution, the militants aimed to instill fear and disrupt the societal fabric. (Banlaoi, 2017). This choice of location also demonstrates a tactical shift in IS strategy, indicating a willingness to target civilian spaces to achieve maximum psychological impact to boost their group’s dwindling presence.

Timing and its Implications

The timing of the attack is equally significant. It followed a series of successful and effective military operations against local terrorist and armed groups in the southern Philippines, suggesting a possible retaliatory motive. This timing also indicates an adaptive and responsive strategy by the militants, capitalizing on opportunities to strike when government forces might be perceived as vulnerable or preoccupied. Furthermore, the attack was typically carried out not only during a festive period in preparation for Christmas and the New Year, but also during the annual Mindanao Week of Peace —a period of celebration in the entire region including the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). This indicates the intent to spoil and disrupt peace in the community and the on-going peace process in BARMM. (Abinales, 2020).

Marawi’s Role in the Broader Conflict

Marawi’s role in the broader Mindanao conflict is multifaceted. As a city with historical and cultural significance to the Moro people, it represents a symbol of resistance and identity. The 2017 siege and the recent bombing are not just isolated incidents but are reflective of Marawi’s strategic importance to various militant groups seeking to assert their influence and challenge governmental authority in the region. (McKenna, 1998).


The selection of Marawi as the location for this attack, and its timing, are deeply interwoven with the city’s history and ongoing struggles. This incident is not merely an act of violence but a calculated move in the larger chessboard of the Mindanao conflict, where location and timing are employed strategically by militant groups to further their objectives. As we continue to analyze the situation, it is crucial to keep in mind the symbolic weight that Marawi carries and how this influences the actions of both the Philippine government and the militant groups operating in the region.

Section 3: Government Response to the Marawi Attack

Immediate Condemnation and Leadership Stance

In the wake of the devastating bombing in Marawi, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. promptly issued a condemnation, characterizing the attack as “senseless and heinous.” ( Masters, 2020).This immediate and unequivocal denouncement from the highest level of government is critical in multiple aspects. Firstly, it signals a strong, unified stance against terrorism and extremism, reinforcing the government’s commitment to upholding security and peace. Secondly, it serves as a moral compass for the nation, guiding public sentiment and discourse in the aftermath of such tragedy.

Increased Security Measures: A Dual-Edged Sword

The bomb attack was an indication of lapses in deterrence and implementation of security measures and protocols within the university campus despite having its own Peace Keeping Force. The presence on campus of both the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) military and Philippine National Police (PNP) forces was no longer necessary after Martial Law was lifted following the 2017 Marawi Siege. Furthermore, prior to the incident, there were intelligence-based warnings issued by the AFP on a plausible retaliatory attack —warnings that were not heeded with appropriate and preparatory action at the university.

In response, therefore, to the attack, the Philippine government swiftly implemented heightened security measures with the renewed albeit temporary presence of state forces on campus, as well as across the southern region  and in the vicinity of Metro Manila in the National Capital Region (NCR). These measures include increased military and police presence, heightened vigilance at checkpoints, and enhanced intelligence operations. While these steps are essential in ensuring immediate public safety and preventing potential follow-up attacks, they also carry implications that warrant careful consideration. (Howard & Sawyer, (Eds.). (2015).

Enhanced security, particularly in conflict-prone areas, can lead to a paradoxical effect. On the one hand, it acts as a deterrent against further militant activities and reassures the public. (Mann, 2018). On the other hand, if not managed sensitively, it can exacerbate feelings of oppression and alienation among local communities, potentially fueling the narratives used by extremist groups for recruitment and propaganda. Therefore, the balance between ensuring security and respecting civil liberties and human rights is crucial.

Political Implications and Leadership Challenges

President Marcos Jr.’s response to the attack also has broader political implications. (Landler, 2017).) His leadership style and strategies in addressing such crises are closely watched, both domestically and internationally, as indicators of his administration’s approach to the complex issues of terrorism and internal conflict. The ability to navigate these challenges effectively is key to maintaining national unity and the credibility of his government.

A Holistic Approach to Counter-Terrorism

In addition to security measures, there is a pressing need to strengthen support for a holistic and whole-of-nation approach to counter-terrorism and armed conflict that addresses the drivers and root causes of radicalization and insurgency. (Schmid, 2013). This includes socio-economic development, political inclusion, and dialogue with affected communities. Unavoidably, the government needs to address the number of hostilities between the military and persistent Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs) that have been proliferating not only in BARMM but other parts of the nation, as well as to contend with political violence and the broader issues of insurgency and separatism in Mindanao.

While thwarting destabilizing internal conflicts and threats, terrorist groups and other spoilers of peace, the government’s response to the Marawi attack warrants a sincere and continued commitment to deliver basic goods and services, and provide livelihood and compensation to conflict-affected communities, particularly BARMM’s more than 120,000 current internally displaced persons (IDP) from armed conflicts alone, a number which includes those awaiting the completion of the government’s Marawi Rehabilitation Program and their return home to the Main Affected Area (MAA) in the besieged city of Marawi.   


The government’s response to the Marawi bombing, led by President Marcos Jr., is a critical component in the immediate aftermath of the attack and in shaping the longer-term strategy for peace and stability in Mindanao. While the emphasis on security is necessary, it should continue to  be part of a broader, more comprehensive approach that addresses the underlying factors contributing to the conflict. This response sets the tone not only for the current crisis management but also for the overall trajectory of conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts in the region.

Section 4: Potential Retaliation and Escalation Dynamics

Understanding Retaliatory Dynamics

The recent bombing in Marawi is not an isolated event but should be contextualized within the broader retaliatory dynamics that characterize the insurgency in Mindanao. The attack followed a series of proactive military operations against local pro-Islamic State groups in the southern Philippines. This suggests a potential retaliatory motive, where insurgent groups respond to government offensives with acts of violence as a form of reprisal and deterrence. (Jones et. al., 2013). Understanding this cycle of action and reaction is crucial for anticipating future patterns of violence and formulating effective counterinsurgency strategies.

Military Operations and Insurgent Responses

Prior to the bombing, the Philippine military had intensified operations against IS-affiliated groups, including the Dawlah Islamiya-Maute Group, ensuring the neutralization of its leaders. One such operation resulted in the killing of a significant leader of this group, as well as another of the ASG who was the brains behind the 2019 Jolo bombings. Such high-value target operations, while important in degrading the capabilities of insurgent groups, can also provoke immediate and violent responses. In this context, the Marawi bombing can be seen as a form of irregular warfare, where non-state actors utilize terror tactics to counter the conventional superiority of state forces. (Cordesman, 2002).

The Role of Symbolism in Retaliatory Attacks

The choice of Marawi and the specific target within the city – a university gymnasium during a Catholic Mass – is laden with symbolism. Marawi, having been a site of intense conflict during the 2017 siege, holds significant emotional and historical weight. By striking at this location, IS militants not only aim to cause physical and psychological damage but also seek to reinforce their presence and relevance in the region. The targeting of a religious ceremony further exacerbates a communal pain and trauma which can be exploited by extremist groups to deepen social vulnerabilities and garner support. (Bloom, 2005).

Implications for Security and Peacebuilding

This pattern of retaliation has significant implications for security policies and peacebuilding efforts in Mindanao. (Kilcullen, 2010). It highlights the need for a nuanced understanding of the local context in military planning and operations. While aggressive military tactics may yield short-term gains, they can also exacerbate the cycle of violence, leading to further radicalization and recruitment into extremist groups. (Paris, 2004).

Furthermore, this dynamic underscores the importance of integrating intelligence-led operations with broader efforts to address the underlying grievances that fuel insurgency. Efforts to strengthen community resilience against radicalization, promote dialogue and reconciliation, and address socio-economic disparities are vital components of a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy.


In conclusion, the retaliatory nature of the Marawi bombing is a stark reminder of the complex interplay between military operations and insurgent responses in Mindanao. Breaking this cycle of violence requires a multifaceted approach that combines tactical military action with strategic efforts to address the root causes of the conflict. As we explore further into the nuances of the Mindanao insurgency, it becomes increasingly clear that sustainable peace necessitates a balanced approach that prioritizes both security and socio-economic development.

Section 5: Socio-Political and Economic Underpinnings of the Conflict

The Interplay of Socio-Political Factors

The Mindanao conflict, including the recent surge in activities by Islamic State-affiliated groups, cannot be fully comprehended without delving into the intricate socio-political tapestry of the region. Mindanao’s history is marked by a struggle for political autonomy and recognition, stemming from a sense of marginalization felt by the Bangsamoro people. This struggle has been further complicated by the national government’s historical policies, which have often been perceived as neglectful or oppressive by the local Muslim population. (McKenna, 1998).

Historical Dimensions

The conflict in Mindanao is deeply rooted in historical developments that have morphed to become complex and multifaceted. (Abinales & Amoroso, 2005). This division has been exacerbated by historical migration policies that encouraged the resettlement of Christian Filipinos in Mindanao, leading to demographic shifts and subsequent land disputes. These policies have not only fueled territorial conflicts but have also heightened a sense of cultural and religious alienation among the Moro Islamic population.

Economic Disparities and Marginalization

Economic factors play a pivotal role in the Mindanao conflict. Despite being rich in natural resources, Mindanao remains one of the poorest regions in the Philippines. The disparity in wealth distribution and the perceived exploitation of Mindanao’s resources by external entities have contributed to economic marginalization. This economic disenfranchisement provides fertile ground for radicalization, as extremist groups exploit these grievances to recruit members and garner support. (Rodell, 2002).

Impact of Internal Displacement

The 2017 Marawi Siege led to significant internal displacement that has continued six years onwards, creating a humanitarian crisis that further exacerbates socio-economic vulnerabilities. (International Displacement Monitoring Centre, 2018). Displaced individuals often face limited access to basic services, employment opportunities, and education, making them more susceptible to radical narratives propagated by groups like the Islamic State.

The Role of Governance and Political Representation

Governance issues, including corruption, weak rule of law, and inadequate political representation, have also contributed to the conflict. The failure to effectively integrate the interests and rights of the Bangsamoro people into the broader national framework has been a source of ongoing tension and conflict. While recent initiatives, such as the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) governed by affiliates of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), represent steps towards political inclusion, the full realization of these efforts remains a challenge. (Franco, 2011).

In retrospect, in the same study of Robredo, he said that in the course of answering one of his research questions, Ustadz Salamat wrote to answer, “There is one thing common in the three groups (MNLF, MILF, and the National Democratic Front) negotiating with the government. They are all facing a government that does not respect human rights, an oppressive government serving its masters. Had it not been for her unscrupulous desire to continue her wanton violations of human rights, the problems with the three groups could have been solved already because the solutions are so simple. For the MILF and the MNLF, the solution is a referendum. For the NDF, just recognize it as a legal political party. Let them participate in the elections at all levels so that they can share in governing the country.”

In this material, Robredo was all praises for the departed Ustadz Salamat. Robredo said of Ustadz Salamat, as a big loss – not only for the MILF and the Bangsamoro people but also for the Philippines and the Filipino people. The latter and their leaders may not realize it but we lost a great one – one who could have continued to be part of the solution to the Bangsamoro problem.


In summary, the socio-political and economic underpinnings of the Mindanao conflict are complex and multifaceted. Understanding these underlying issues is crucial for addressing the root causes of insurgency and creating sustainable pathways to peace. Efforts in conflict resolution must go beyond military and security measures, encompassing socio-economic development, political reform, and the promotion of inter-religious dialogue.

Section 6: Regional and International Implications of the Conflict

Regional Security and Stability Concerns

The conflict in Mindanao, particularly with the involvement of Islamic State (IS) militants, extends beyond the Philippine borders, impacting regional security and stability in Southeast Asia. (Banlaoi, 2019).The presence and activities of IS in Mindanao have implications for neighboring countries, as they can serve as a catalyst for transnational jihadist movements. This raises concerns about the spread of extremist ideologies, the potential for cross-border terrorist activities, and the movement of foreign fighters within the region.

Impacts on Migration and Refugee Flows

The protracted conflict in Mindanao has also contributed to migration and refugee flows within the region. People fleeing violence and instability often seek refuge in neighboring countries, creating humanitarian challenges and potential security concerns. The handling of these refugee and migrant flows is a significant issue for Southeast Asia, requiring coordinated regional responses to ensure humanitarian assistance while addressing security implications. (Croissant & Barlow, 2020).

International Terrorism Networks

The linkages between local militant groups in Mindanao and global terrorist networks, such as IS, highlight the international dimension of the conflict. (Singh, 2018). These connections facilitate the exchange of resources, training, and tactical knowledge, enhancing the capabilities of local groups. The international community’s focus on countering global terrorism thus directly intersects with the efforts to address the insurgency in Mindanao.

Geopolitical Interests and Foreign Interventions

The strategic location of Mindanao and the broader Southeast Asian region has drawn the interest of various global powers. International interventions, both military and diplomatic, have been a feature of the conflict, with countries like the United States and others in the region playing roles in counter terrorism operations and peace processes. These interventions bring with them geopolitical dynamics that can influence the direction and intensity of the conflict. (Storey & Cook, 2021).

Economic Interests and Development Aid

International economic interests, including investment and development aid, are also part of the conflict’s broader context. (Liow, 2020). While foreign investment and aid can contribute to socio-economic development and, by extension, peacebuilding efforts, they can also become sources of contention, especially if perceived as exploitative or misaligned with local needs and aspirations.


In conclusion, the Mindanao conflict, particularly with the recent involvement of IS-affiliated militants, is not an insular issue but one with significant regional and international ramifications. Understanding these broader implications is essential for formulating effective responses that not only address the immediate security concerns but also contribute to long-term regional stability and security. Collaborative and coordinated efforts among nations and international organizations are crucial in tackling the multifaceted challenges posed by this conflict.

Section 7: Counterinsurgency and Peace Initiatives in Mindanao

Overview of Counterinsurgency Efforts

Counterinsurgency in Mindanao has historically been a challenging endeavor, marked by a blend of military operations and peace initiatives. These efforts have been directed at dismantling insurgent capabilities, disrupting their networks, and addressing the grievances that fuel the insurgency. However, the nature of the conflict, characterized by deep-rooted historical, social, and political complexities, demands a nuanced approach that goes beyond conventional military tactics.

Military Operations: Achievements and Limitations

The Philippine military has conducted numerous operations targeting Islamist militants, including those affiliated with the Islamic State. These operations have had successes in terms of neutralizing key leaders and disrupting militant activities. However, military actions alone have proven insufficient in resolving the conflict. (Abinales, 2010). The limitations of a purely militaristic approach lie in its potential to exacerbate civilian grievances, inadvertently fueling the narratives used by insurgent groups for recruitment and support. (Banlaoi, 2017).

The Armed Forces of the Philippines has had significant success with the application of a Soft Power approach even during the 5-month long onslaught in Marawi. Through their efforts to win hearts and minds, they managed to forge a mutually beneficial bond of trust that was unheard of in recent Philippine history. Achievements such as these merit wider support.

Peace Agreements and Autonomy Efforts

Significant peace agreements have been signed with major groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) represents a landmark achievement in granting political autonomy to the Moro people. (Ferrer, 2014). These agreements aim to address the political and socio-economic roots of the conflict, offering a framework for lasting peace.

Challenges in Implementing Peace Agreements

While these agreements are pivotal, their implementation has faced challenges. Issues such as the decommissioning and integration of former combatants, the establishment of effective governance structures, and the equitable distribution of resources are critical for the success of these peace initiatives. (McKenna, 2013). Ensuring the commitments made in peace agreements translate into tangible improvements in the lives of the people in Mindanao is a complex task, requiring sustained effort and resources.

Community Engagement and Countering Radicalization

An essential component of counterinsurgency is engaging with local communities to build resilience against radicalization. This involves promoting dialogue, supporting community-led development projects, and enhancing education and employment opportunities. Such initiatives help in addressing the underlying socio-economic factors that contribute to the insurgency and are crucial in preventing the emergence of future generations of radicalized youth.

International Collaboration and Support

International collaboration and support have been vital in both counterinsurgency and peacebuilding efforts. Assistance in the form of training, intelligence sharing, and development aid from international partners, including the United States, plays a significant role in enhancing the capacities of the Philippine government to effectively address the conflict.


In conclusion, counterinsurgency and peace initiatives in Mindanao require a multifaceted approach that combines security measures with political, socio-economic, and cultural strategies. The path towards lasting peace involves not only dealing with immediate security threats but also building a foundation for sustainable development and political inclusion. The success of these initiatives hinges on the commitment and collaboration of various stakeholders, both domestic and international.

Section 8: Human Rights and Humanitarian Concerns in the Mindanao Conflict

Human Rights Violations: A Grave Concern

The Mindanao conflict, characterized by prolonged insurgent activities and counterinsurgency operations, has given rise to significant human rights concerns. Reports of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detentions have been documented. These violations, often occurring in the heat of conflict, not only contravene international human rights laws but also exacerbate the grievances and mistrust between local communities and government forces. (Human Rights Watch, 2020). Addressing these violations is imperative for establishing a foundation of trust and legitimacy, essential for any sustainable peace process.

Impact on Civilians: The Human Cost of Conflict

The civilian population in Mindanao bears the brunt of the conflict. (International Committee of the Red Cross, 2019). They face a multitude of challenges, including displacement, loss of livelihoods, and limited access to essential services like healthcare and education. The psychological trauma associated with violence and instability has long-term implications on the well-being and social fabric of affected communities. Ensuring the protection and well-being of civilians is not only a moral imperative but also a critical component in building peace and stability in the region.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs): A Crisis Within

The conflict has resulted in a significant number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Mindanao. These individuals often find themselves in precarious situations, living in overcrowded and under-resourced camps or with host communities. The lack of adequate shelter, food security, healthcare, and education for IDPs is a humanitarian crisis that requires immediate attention. Moreover, the plight of IDPs must be a central consideration in any peacebuilding or rehabilitation efforts in the region. According to the UNHCR IDP Profiling Reports, the 2017 siege displaced 98 percent of Marawi City’s total population. Of that number, over 16,000 families or approximately 80,300 individuals continue to be labeled as IDPs, many of whom live in the dire conditions of their temporary shelters six years after. (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2018).

The Plight of Women and Children in Conflict

Women and children are particularly vulnerable in conflict settings. (United Nations, 2020). They are at risk of gender-based violence, including sexual violence, exploitation, and human trafficking. The disruption of normal life and the breakdown of social structures during conflict heighten these risks. Children, on the other hand, face the danger of recruitment into armed groups, loss of education, and psychological trauma. Protecting the rights and well-being of women and children is crucial for the recovery and resilience of communities post-conflict.

Humanitarian Aid: Delivery and Challenges

The delivery of humanitarian aid in conflict zones like Mindanao is fraught with challenges. These include security risks, logistical hurdles, and at times, restrictions imposed by conflicting parties. (OCHA, 2021). Ensuring that humanitarian aid reaches those in need, in a manner that is timely, efficient, and in accordance with the following humanitarian principles, is a significant challenge that requires coordinated efforts among government agencies, international organizations, and NGOs.


In conclusion, addressing the human rights and humanitarian aspects of the Mindanao conflict is essential for any comprehensive peace and stability strategy. Efforts to resolve the conflict must include mechanisms for accountability for human rights violations, targeted support for vulnerable populations, and a strong commitment to the principles of humanitarian assistance. The respect for human rights and the provision of humanitarian aid are not only ends in themselves but are also vital in building a conducive environment for sustainable peace.

Section 9: Policy Recommendations for U.S. Engagement in Mindanao

Strategic Context and Rationale for U.S. Involvement

The conflict in Mindanao, with its complex blend of insurgency, terrorism, socio-political unrest, and human rights concerns, has significant implications for regional stability and international security. (Banlaoi, 2008). Given these stakes, the United States must engage in a manner that is constructive, sensitive to the local context, and aligned with broader foreign policy objectives. This engagement should aim to support peacebuilding, counterterrorism, and development efforts, while upholding human rights and international law.

Recommendation 1: Strengthen Counterterrorism Collaboration

  • Enhance intelligence sharing and joint training programs with Philippine security forces, focusing on human rights-compliant counterterrorism strategies. (Hellmich, 2008).
  • Support initiatives to counter radicalization and violent extremism, with a focus on community engagement and addressing the root causes of radicalization.

Recommendation 2: Support for Political and Peace Processes

  • Facilitate and support ongoing peace processes between the Philippine government and various insurgent groups, ensuring that these processes are inclusive and address the underlying issues of the conflict. (Lederach, 1997).
  • Encourage political reforms that promote greater autonomy and representation for the Bangsamoro people, contributing to a sense of political inclusion and legitimacy.

Recommendation 3: Economic Development and Aid

  • Direct development aid towards projects that address the economic disparities and underdevelopment in Mindanao, with a focus on creating sustainable livelihoods, improving infrastructure, and enhancing education. (Croissant & Barlow, 2007).
  • Ensure that aid efforts are coordinated with the Philippine government and local stakeholders to maximize impact and sustainability.

Recommendation 4: Humanitarian Assistance and Protection of Civilians

  • Increase support for humanitarian efforts aimed at assisting IDPs, ensuring adequate provision of basic needs, healthcare, and educational support.
  • Advocate for and support measures to protect civilians, particularly women and children, from the impacts of conflict and human rights violations.

Recommendation 5: Promote Human Rights and Rule of Law

  • Use diplomatic channels to encourage the Philippine government to adhere to international human rights standards in its counterinsurgency efforts.
  • Support initiatives that promote the rule of law, judicial reform, and accountability for human rights violations.

Recommendation 6: Engagement with Regional Partners

  • Engage with ASEAN and other regional stakeholders in a collaborative approach to address the transnational dimensions of the conflict, including refugee flows and cross-border terrorism.


The United States, as a significant global actor with vested interests in Southeast Asian stability, has a critical role to play in Mindanao. Its engagement should be multifaceted, combining security assistance with diplomatic, developmental, and humanitarian efforts. By adopting a holistic approach that addresses both the symptoms and root causes of the conflict, the U.S. can significantly contribute to the prospects for lasting peace and stability in Mindanao and the broader region.

Section 10: Conclusion and Future Outlook

Synthesis of Key Insights

This briefing has traversed the multifarious landscape of the conflict in Mindanao, elucidating its historical roots, current dynamics, and the multifaceted approaches required for sustainable resolution. The involvement of Islamic State militants has added a layer of complexity, intertwining local grievances with global jihadist ideologies. (Jocano, 2017). The response, as outlined, must be equally complex, balancing security concerns with socio-political, economic, and humanitarian considerations.

Immediate Future: Continued Complexity and Challenges

In the immediate future, Mindanao is likely to remain a complex and challenging environment. The potential for sporadic violence and insurgency persists, given the deep-seated grievances and the presence of multiple armed groups with varying agendas. The situation is further complicated by the potential for external influences, such as the involvement of transnational terrorist networks and geopolitical interests in the region.

Long-term Outlook: Pathways to Peace and Stability

The long-term outlook for Mindanao hinges on the successful implementation of peace agreements, effective governance, and sustained socio-economic development. The creation and stabilization of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) represent a significant step towards addressing the historical grievances of the Moro people. However, the journey towards lasting peace requires continuous effort, inclusive governance, and the resolution of ongoing socio-economic disparities.

Role of the U.S. and International Community

The United States, along with other international stakeholders, has a pivotal role in supporting the peace process and development initiatives in Mindanao. U.S. engagement should be strategically aligned with the goals of supporting democracy, human rights, and regional stability. (Adams, 2020). Collaboration with regional partners, international organizations, and local stakeholders will be crucial in addressing the transnational aspects of the conflict and ensuring coordinated and effective responses.

Policy Implications and Recommendations

U.S. policy towards Mindanao should remain adaptable, responsive to the evolving situation on the ground, and sensitive to the historical and cultural context of the region. Continued support for counterterrorism efforts, coupled with initiatives to promote human rights, rule of law, and socio-economic development, will be key components of a comprehensive strategy. (Liu, 2021).

Conclusion: A Call for Sustained Commitment and Collaboration

In conclusion, the situation in Mindanao presents both significant challenges and opportunities for peacebuilding and regional stability. The path to peace is intricate and requires a sustained commitment from all stakeholders involved. The U.S., in partnership with the Philippine government, regional allies, and international organizations, has the potential to significantly contribute to a future of peace and prosperity in Mindanao.

This briefing was written in consultation with an expert group of peace, development, and security practitioners from the private, public, civic, and security sectors based in Manila and Mindanao, Philippines.

Additional Material:

Counterterrorism in the Philippines: Review of Key Issues

Detecting Future ‘Marawis’: Considering Alternative Indicators for Assessing the Potential for New Manifestations of Violent Extremism in Mindanao


The Mindanao Peace Talks: Another Opportunity to Resolve the Moro Conflict in the Philippines

Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks

Bibliography: Terrorism by Region – Southeast Asia

The Challenges Facing the Philippines’ Bangsamoro Autonomous Region at One Year

Division of Lanao Del Sur 1, DepEd-ARMM: Its Vital Role in Peacebuilding and Reconciliation in the Post-Conflict Settings



ASEAN-IPR Shares Lessons Learned from Facilitation of Peace Process in Mindanao 1993-1996 in the Seminar on the Outcome of its First Research Project

Separatist Conflicts in the ASEAN Region: Comparing Southern Thailand and Mindanao

SSOAR: Separatist conflicts in the ASEAN region: Comparing Southern Thailand and Mindanao
By: Rupprecht, Kathrin

The ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation and Its Role in Preventing Crises

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