Updated at 1:05 p.m. ET on 2017-06-23
After a month of intense close-quarters combat, entrenched Islamic State (IS) fighters and Philippines government forces are still fighting for control of Marawi, capital of Lanao Del Sur Province in the country’s south.
The battlefield resembles Aleppo, Mosul, Raqqa and other cities in Iraq and Syria. By the time the Philippine government recaptures Marawi, the toll of militants, government personnel and civilians killed, maimed and injured will exceed several hundred.
The IS siege of Marawi is a game changer in terrorism. It is motivating the extremist community to follow in the footsteps of Islamic State Philippines. IS supporters have created telegram groups – Expansion of the Caliphate in East Asia, Sharq Asia, East Asia Wilayah – spreading a narrative to attract foreign recruits to the Philippines and encouraging others to fight their own governments and non-Muslims.
Until IS attacked Marawi, Southeast Asian governments never believed it could overrun a city. Regional governments believed IS was a classic operation-based hit-and-run group. On the contrary, IS wanted to control territory and is determined to fight to the death.
Marawi build up
IS conceived the idea of attacking the Islamic City of Marawi in March 2017. Starting in April, fighters began infiltrating the city and building a clandestine operational and support network.
After successive defeats in efforts to wrestle control of Butig in Lanao del Sur, the Maute terror group accompanied IS Philippines leader Isnilon Hapilon to Piagapo and on to Marawi. In Butig, Hapilon suffered a shoulder injury and in Piagapo, he was nearly captured on April 22.
As IS regrouped its fighters in Piagapo, troops serving in the Joint Task Force ZamPeLan launched air and land offensives on April 21. After three days of fighting, militants retreated and troops recovered an IS flag, rifle, fragmentation grenades, bomb-making materials, a passport of an Indonesian identified as Muhammad Ilham Syahputra, three motorcycles, a video camera, cellular phones and camouflage uniforms.
The recovery of Syahputra’s passport showed a build-up of foreign fighters. Syahputra had arrived in the Philippines on Nov. 29, 2016, and was killed along with three other foreigners. While about 30 IS Lanao (ISL) fighters were killed, most IS fighters were already in Marawi City.
The Philippines intelligence community knew by early 2017 that Lanao del Sur had emerged as the center of gravity for IS Philippines. They had observed that from Basilan, Hapilon had moved to Lanao del Sur and teamed up with ISL, the largest and most resourceful IS group in the Philippines. The intelligence community also observed a buildup in Marawi City in April.
Government intelligence teams then traced Hapilon moving with Otto Maute, a leader of the Maute group, into Marawi. But military leaders said they wanted “an eyeball of the target” before they could initiate an operation.
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi orders Marawi capture
The instructions to attack Marawi City came from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled IS caliph. Accordingly, Omarkhayam Maute, the ISL deputy leader, showed a video of al-Baghdadi ordering them to attack Marawi City. One of the primary targets was the 103 Brigade Headquarters.
When the military raided an apartment building in Marawi on March 23, Hapilon and ISL leader Abdullah Maute were able to escape while directing their fighters to repel the soldiers and siege the city.
As fighting intensified, IS in Marawi received reinforcements from Lanao, Maguindanao and Basilan. The estimated manpower of the IS at the start of the attack in Marawi City was about 300 fighters – 150 from ISL, 40 foreigners (mostly Indonesians and Malaysians), 50 from Abu Sayyaf Group, 30 converts to Islam and 30 Maguindanao people. Wearing full battle gear and flanked by the Maute brothers, Hapilon coordinated and commanded the operations. As government troops targeted high-value leaders, they retreated to fortified buildings.
Of 33 terrorists killed in the first wave of fighting, eight were foreign nationals, indicating that foreign fighters formed an unusually large component of the fighter population and emerging IS demography in Southeast Asia.
Among the most prominent foreign fighters in Marawi is Dr Mahmud bin Ahmad of Malaysia. Before he fled his country, he recruited Malaysians to fight in Iraq and Syria, including the first Malaysian suicide bomber in Iraq, Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki.
Together with his closest associate, the late Najib Hussin, Mahmud united disparate Muslim groups to create IS East Asia Division. A former university lecturer, Mahmud planned to develop the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah as a transit point for South Asian and Southeast Asian recruits to train and fight in the Philippines.
He instructed Nurhan Sahi Hakim (alias Abu Zaman), a Filipino living in Sabah, to recruit Bangladeshi and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and arrange for their travel to Mindanao. Abu Zaman and two Bangladeshis were arrested in Malaysia in January.
‘A place of ill repute’
In June 2016, IS released a video showing a Filipino, an Indonesian and a Malaysian calling Muslims to fight in Syria or the Philippines. From Syria, Malaysian fighter Rafi Udin said: “If you cannot go to [Syria], join up and go to the Philippines.” The video demonstrated that IS ambitions clearly went beyond its heartland of Iraq and Syria.
To create support for its action in Marawi, a fighter explained that the group seized control over the city to make it truly “Islamic.” The jihadist, “Semion Almujaheed,” distributed the English message across pro-IS Telegram chat groups on May 28. Marawi, he wrote, is a place of ill-repute, with alcohol, gambling, and prostitution, in addition to churches and Shiite mosques.
“We are the soldiers of Khilafah and we proclaim this land as an Islamic state of Marawi as the expansion of the Islamic state reaches East Asia!” he wrote.
Marawi was not an intelligence failure. It was a failure to appreciate intelligence and act. Even after Marawi, other cities, towns and villages in the Philippines can fall to IS.
Today, governments in the region are coming together to support the Philippines. Many Southeast Asian leaders are concerned that IS will expand from the Philippines and affect the entire region. They are willing to support the Philippines to fight the existing and emerging IS centric threat.
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.
An earlier version of this commentary misspelled the name of Malaysian IS figure Mahmud bin Ahmad.