Over the past two weeks, the East Asia division of the so-called Islamic State (IS) has held parts of the southern Philippine city of Marawi. Different IS-linked groups came together to meticulously plan the city’s siege. The division wanted territorial control to win recognition from IS leaders in the Middle East.
The Philippines government has yet to fully retake the city, despite declaring martial law in the south on May 23 and deploying planes, combat helicopters and ground troops. Militants still hold about a tenth of Marawi.
The ranking leaders of IS engaged in planning the attack against Marawi. These included Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of IS Philippines (pictured above); Humam Abdul Najib, the founder and leader of Khilafah Islamiyah Mindanao; and Abdullah Maute, the leader of Islamic State Lanao, who oversaw the entire operation. Maute’s brother, Omar, was killed in battle in Marawi but another sibling, Madie Maute, was involved in the planning phase.
IS planned to control Marawi during the Muslim month of Ramadan. But the plan was disrupted when the Philippine government received intelligence that Isnilon was recuperating in Marawi.
When a combined army and police team launched an operation to capture or kill Isnilon, about 100 IS operatives including foreign fighters took up positions to control the city. Through the lake, mountains, and by road, some 200 to 300 fighters arrived in Marawi in the following days.
Plotting and executing the siege
When Islamic State declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq in late June 2014, one of the first people in Southeast Asia to pledge allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, was Isnilon, the former deputy leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).
“We pledge to obey him on anything which our hearts desire or not and to value him more than anyone else. We will not take any leader other than him unless we see in him any obvious act of disbelief that could be questioned by Allah in the hereafter,” Isnilon said in declaring his loyalty to IS the following month.
Sixteen groups including Islamic State Lanao (ISL), Ansar Khilafah Mindanao (AKM), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), ASG Basilan and a faction of ASG Sulu also joined IS.
With the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) stepping up operations in Basilan, Isnilon moved with nearly one hundred fighters from the Sulu archipelago to mainland Mindanao in late 2016. He combined forces with ISL, led by the Maute brothers in Lanao del Sur. After Isnilon was wounded in an airstrike in Sitio Basudan, Butig on Jan. 25, 2017, he relocated to Marawi together with the ISL rank-and-file.
Protected by his own team of IS fighters, including foreigners, Isnilon lived in a residential and commercial area of Marawi between the campus of Mindanao State University and the police headquarters in the city’s center.
When the combined military-police team approached the apartment in Marawi city at 1:45 p.m. May 23 to arrest Isnilon, heavy fighting broke out in Barangay Basak Malutlut. As two dozen heavily armed men – who had previously served with ASG – fought fiercely, foreign and local IS fighters hiding in the neighborhood joined the gun battle.
As it expanded into a deadly rampage, IS fighters attempted to take control of the city by taking up positions strategically. Replacing the Philippines national flag with its iconic black flag, IS fighters armed with heavy weapons and homemade bombs began the siege.
IS placed snipers on top of buildings and at checkpoints along key roads, and commandeered vehicles. IS used megaphones to urge a shocked public to join the “Dawlah,” a reference to the “Islamic State.”
This screen grab from a video shot by IS-linked militants shows a map being drawn of Lanao del Sur with key exit-and-entry roads to Marawi, Iligan, Kapai, Butig, Malabab and Mindanao State University in Marawi. [Courtesy of Rohan Gunaratna]
An IS attack in Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014 provided IS Philippines with a template for the siege of Marawi. But contrary to IS expectations, there was no local Maranao support for IS. Except for a handful of political figures opposed to the leaders of Marawi, the people of Marawi rejected the IS message.
The IS strategy was to shock the city by attacking centers of government. IS attacked the Marawi police station in the downtown area and set fire to it. After attacking the city jail, IS freed 107 prisoners, including IS fighters. The militants also attacked areas near the 103rd Brigade, based at Camp Ranao in Marawi city, but the military prevailed.
After desecrating and burning both the Mary Help of Christians Cathedral and the Bishop’s House in Marawi, IS fighters abducted Vicar General Teresito “Chito” Suganob, and took others hostage. After taking an injured IS fighter to the Amai Pakpak Hospital, IS killed Senior Inspector of Police Freddie Manuel Solar.
In addition to torching several homes, IS set fire to the Ninoy Aquino School and Dansalan College. To spread terror and create a human shield, IS claimed to have taken nearly 250 hostages and to have killed government officers and Christians.
Soon, the entire population started to move out on foot and vehicles. Power and communication lines were shut down. The mass exodus transformed Marawi into a ghost town. Although the number of fatalities and casualties was placed at 200, a larger number died, many of them civilians.
Marawi City, the capital of Lanao del Sur province, has 220,000 people, 99 percent of them Muslim. Hundreds of mosques and madrassas ring Lake Lanao, which sits in a green bowl circled by distant mountains. Considered the Islamic capital of the Philippines, Marawi is like the rest of Mindanao, where Christians and Muslims coexist.
The IS interpretation of Islam was challenged by a traditional Islam that characterized Marawi for centuries. The stoning, amputations, flagellations or other Islamic punishments are against the laws of the Philippines.
IS will stay in Marawi and fight until Ramadan is over. IS will also hold hostages elsewhere and as human shields in Marawi, demanding the withdrawal of government troops.
Although IS ideology had no appeal to Marawi Muslims, large-scale destruction can make them vulnerable to the IS belief system. While it was essential for the government to have declared martial law, it is also important to be very soft on the population.President Rodrigo Duterte cut short a trip to Russia late last month and vowed to crush the militants in Marawi, saying: “Anyone now holding a gun, confronting government with violence, my orders are spare no one, let us solve the problems of Mindanao once and for all. If I think you should die, you will die. If you fight us, you will die. If there’s an open defiance, you will die, and if it means many people dying, so be it. That’s how it is.”
He added: “I made a projection, not a prediction, that one of these days the hardest thing to deal with would be the arrival of ISIS. The government must put an end to this. I cannot gamble with ISIS because they are everywhere.”
Rohan Gunaratna is professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technology University and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.