The Battle for Marawi and Assad’s Fake News

On Tuesday, the Filipino military began an operation to ambush and neutralize a meeting of separatist rebel leaders in Islamic City of Marawi, Mindanao. Involved was Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, whose intention of the meeting was to join the Maute, a rival militia. What then ensued was a military raid to either apprehend or terminate Hapilon and the leadership of both Maute and Abu Sayyaf, which, by all indications, went terribly wrong.

Fighting took to the streets as militants fled into a hospital and later a church, while using light vehicles to block off the streets to protect their movements.

This was a desperate retreat, with rumours from inside the city construing this as a siege and invasion.

Soon, the hashtag #PrayforMarawi was trending on Twitter, with concerned Filipinos tweeting support and praying for loved ones more than 200k times; although it took 48 hours for it to reach the Western news cycle.

As of most recent updates, 46 people have been killed in battle, 15 soldiers and security forces and 31 militants. No more than 40 militants are estimated to remain hiding in the city.

Outside of Marawi, however, far away from the Philippines, a young writer in Denmark was writing his own interpretation of events, with exaggerated claims that more than 500 ISIS militants had invaded and seized the city, and has killed more than 80 Filipino soldiers.

This was published by Al Masdar News, or AMN, who filed the report on the conflict from Damascus, Syria. Described by many as an Assadist “pro-regime” outlet, they describe themselves as “Pro-Government”.

“In pictures: ISIS takes control of its first city in the Philippines”  was published on Tuesday the 29th of May, written by Chris Tomson, a Danish student who claims a special focus on “strategical military analysis”.

“Some 500 ISIS insurgents are said to be present in Marawi. These heavily armed jihadist fighters have taken control of the city center and set up roadblocks in several districts.”

Not long after it was published, one Filipino commenter rebuked their claims:

Comment: “This article is false. Marawi city is not under ISIS control right now and the ones who attacked are just bandits who wants to be part of the international terror group. The perpetrators are named Maute group. The city right now is blocked and patrolled by military and police which means the city is not under the Maute group.”

However, instead of seeking to clarify their sources, Al Masdar continued to publish unverified hyperbole and fake news:

“With fierce clashes ongoing in the contested Philippine city of Marawi, ISIS militants destroyed a handful of armored vehicles in its southern countryside on Thursday and also burned down an army barracks in the area.”

“Meanwhile, the Philippine Army sent a fresh batch of reinforcements to Marawi to replenish its ranks after some 80 government troops have been killed since Tuesday…”

“The Philippine Army is currently on a manhunt to track down Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, believed to be commanding some 500 insurgents across the city.”

Other news sources sought local opinions and those of the military on the ground, such as Lieutenant-Colonel Jo-ar Herrera, a military spokesperson, who on Thursday clarified there were no more than 40 fighters believed to be hiding in Marawi. Much different to the legion of 500 we were led to believe.

So why did we believe this?

The answer: because ISIS told us so.

As is likely obvious, Al Masdar News has no reporters or journalists in the Philippines. Officially filing reports from Damascus, their editors are mostly based outside the MENA. Although their website claims to bring news about the Arab world, only their founding editor lives there. Two others live in Scandinavia, another in Russia and last in Australia. It’s better described as an outsourcing Baathist propaganda website.

Most of their articles regarding ISIS only cite the Amaq Agency as their sole source of information. Amaq has been described as ISIS’ official media outlet. Given ISIS’ tendency to exaggerate its influence and successes around the world, it’s therefore hardly surprising that most of Al Masdar’s articles have employed the same hyperbole used by ISIS in their releases.

Given Al Masdar’s pro-Assad and anti-Sunni agenda, however, this is hardly forgivable journalistic error, but deliberate forgoing any fact-checking or verification. When claiming “ISIS takes control of its first city in the Philippines” with no authentic sources in the Philippines outside of ISIS’ own word, this is simply manipulative. Given their lack of evidence, a more fitting article title and subject would be “ISIS claims to take control…” instead.

Despite this gross violation of proper media practice and deliberate to obscure the truth, there is still a battle taking place in Marawi against Maute separatist bandits, and real lives have been taken.

So why is this important?

The thousands of Filipinos tweeting late at night, fearing for their loved ones in Marawi, Mindanao and beyond, is why this is important. Impartial media telling the truth is important because it affects the reality people live their lives in.

Not only that, but the real crisis taking place in Mindanao needs clear-headed leaders and politicians ready to grapple with the issues, armed with facts, and willing to compromise.

When Solicitor General Jose Calida justified the imposition of martial law in Mindanao, he was no longer using the moderated speech of a compromising President Duterte, who was elected on a platform of bringing the separatist insurgency to a peaceful conclusion.

“What’s happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens. It has transmogrified into invasion by foreign terrorists, who heeded the call of [IS] to go to the Philippines if they find difficulty in going to Iraq and Syria.”

This is dangerous as Duterte’s government was to represent all Filipinos, both Christian and Muslim; hence his willingness to compromise with Moros whom he’d established a connection and trust with. Now with his government referring to the separatists as an “invasion”, this may seek to absolve him of any commitment to negotiate or seek peace with them. Given how other Southeast Asian nations have sought to resolve insurgencies in the past, with unrelenting force, this will have a dire impact on the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire or mistaken as enemies.

While the government’s decision may not have been affected whatsoever by a news website as insignificant as Al Masdar, the real and genuine fear they exacerbated in everyday Filipinos at home and abroad was.