Southeast Asia

Battle in southern Philippines is related to Duterte's drug war, says finance chief

Key Points
  • Fighting between Philippine troops and militants in the southern city of Marawi is related to President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, said Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez.
  • The Maute group, a key player in the siege of Marawi, is primarily driven by money, not ideology, Dominguez warned.
Philippine President Duterte wants reduction in poverty, law-abiding and peaceful citizens
Marawi militants are about money, not ideology, says Philippine finance secretary
Marawi siege continues

Manila's ongoing battle with extremists in the southern Philippine city of Marawi is related to President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, the country's finance chief said.

"This particular group that we are going after is actually in the drug trade," Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez told CNBC over the weekend, referring to the homegrown terror cell known as the Maute group.

In late May, fighters from Maute as well as local network Abu Sayyaf took control of Marawi — a Muslim-majority city with a population of 200,000 located on the island of Mindanao — and more than 300 are believed to be dead as Philippine troops try to retake the city, according to local media.

Both Maute and Abu Sayyef are allied to Islamic State, or ISIS, and the siege erupted following Manila's unsuccessful attempt to capture Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf leader who is known as ISIS' Southeast Asia emir.

U.S. special forces are currently on the ground in Marawi but their role is limited to assisting with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, not fighting, a Philippine military official told Reuters. Mindanao, a longtime stronghold of Abu Sayyaf and other Muslim separatists, is now under martial law, adding to fears of growing ISIS influence in Southeast Asia.

Duterte's anti-terror offensive has shifted the spotlight from his controversial anti-drug campaign that has dominated headlines since he entered office nearly a year ago, but Dominguez insisted that both matters were intertwined.

People watch as smoke billows from houses after aerial bombings by Philippine Airforce planes on Islamist militant positions in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on June 17, 2017. Philippine troops have been pounding militants holding parts of Marawi City with air strikes and artillery. The death toll has risen to more than 300 after nearly a month of fighting.
NOEL CELIS / AFP / Getty Images

Speaking on the sidelines of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank's annual meeting in South Korea, the former Philippine Airlines CEO explained that the Mautes "have been financing their operations through the sale of meth, or what we call shabu."

But because of pressure on the business front, the group has chosen to "become ISIS wannabes" so they decided to control Marawi, Dominguez said, adding that money, not ideology, was the group's primary motivation.

It will take a couple more weeks for Manila to win Marawi back, Dominguez said, noting how Islamist rebels were embedded in high rise buildings with snipers. The conflict, however, is contained within the city and Manila currently has the upper hand, he claimed.

Making the country more law abiding is one of Duterte's key goals, the minister stated, adding that the president would like to see a Philippines "where obedience to law is not optional."