A Month Later, Fight Against IS-inspired Militants in Marawi Grinds On

Felipe Villamor
2017.06.20
Marawi, Philippines
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170620_PH_Marawi_month-final-620.jpg Smoke rises from an area targeted by military airstrikes in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, June 17, 2017.
Felipe Villamor/BenarNews

Tough-talking Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is in a quandary as he strives to crush vicious resistance by Islamic State-linked militants in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, where the gunmen have thwarted troops with their firepower for the past four weeks.

As the military pours hundreds of troops into Marawi, an estimated 400 militants have responded with deadly sniper attacks and ambushes, displaying a mastery of the terrain and using hostages as human shields.

The gunmen – Abu Sayyaf and Maute group members, backed by fighters from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia – appear to have taken Duterte's troops by surprise, gaining an upper hand by posting snipers in strategic points and slowing a steady advance by troops more accustomed to jungle warfare.

But while the government claims it has slowly regained enemy territory, and retaken 16 buildings so far, progress has been painfully slow.

"We are dealing with a new threat variety and a new genre of groups who have capabilities and training to ensure a long and sustained war," Rommel Banlaoi, head of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, told BenarNews.

He said Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged leader of the Islamic State here, and brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute appeared to have "prepared for urban asymmetric battle to endure conventional warfare of government forces."

Deadlines come and gone

And the enemy strategy appears to be working. The military has used destructive artillery and dropped bombs from airplanes almost daily, scarring the once beautiful Marawi landscape, and leaving many neighborhoods destroyed.

The battles have also emptied Marawi of its estimated 200,000 inhabitants, many of whom have called on the government to end the airstrikes that have destroyed ancestral homes and potentially killed civilians trapped in the chaos.

The death toll provided by government officials as of Tuesday was 258 militants, 65 soldiers and policemen, and 26 civilians. Twenty-four other people have died from diseases in packed evacuation centers, officials said.

Fighting erupted on May 23, when Hapilon and his men easily thwarted military and police officers sent to bring him in. The militants burnt buildings, took positions on vital installations and held hostage a group of Christian hostages, including a Catholic priest.

They have positioned themselves in strategic areas and targeted troops who were crossing at three vital bridges that lead to Marawi's downtown area, pockets of which remain under the control of the militants four weeks later.

Duterte, who was in Russia when the fighting erupted, quickly placed the entire southern region under martial law, giving the military police powers to quell the militants.

Bombing runs continued on Tuesday, and the military said it was aiming to free the city before the Eid al-Fitr celebrations early next week to mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

But earlier deadlines have come and gone, with the army at pains to explain the slow advance after earlier declaring it was carrying out "surgical" strikes.

"We are aiming to clear Marawi by the end of Ramadan,” military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said in nearby Cagayan de Oro city Tuesday.

But he conceded: "We cannot definitely say when we could end this because we are fighting door to door and there are booby traps which pose danger to our troops.”

Alarm bells

The sacking of Marawi has alarmed Southeast Asian nations which fear Islamic State is trying to set up a stronghold in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, which it could use as a springboard to launch attacks across the region.

The growth of the Islamic State has largely gone unnoticed by officials in the Philippines, Asia's only predominantly Christian country, analysts said.

Many had dismissed the Abu Sayyaf as a bunch of bandits and criminals, more prone to kidnapping foreigners and beheading those whose governments refuse to pay ransom money.

When American forces were first deployed in the south in 2002, as part of a "global war on terror" in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, many thought it would weaken the Abu Sayyaf, but instead it dispersed its leadership, with the group eventually returning to their bases stronger than ever.

"The supposed crown jewel of US counter-insurgency efforts had zero impact in weakening the Abu Sayyaf," said Sidney Jones, the director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC).

She said many Abu Sayyaf fighters just moved out to Jolo island, further to the south, and then regrouped. They eventually moved back to Basilan, where the movement was formed by Islamic firebrand Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani who was slain in 1998.

The government, meanwhile, has failed to challenge Mindanao warlords who viewed the Abu Sayyaf as allies necessary in regional politics in the clannish south.

"When a few of them went over to ISIS, the government had no appropriate tools to challenge them," she said, using another name for the Islamic State.

‘The new top spot for jihad’

While the figure of regional militants in the Abu Sayyaf ranks could not be confirmed, Jones said what was clear was that there has been a "steady stream of (online) exhortations" from Indonesia and elsewhere "that the Philippines is the next place to go."

"As it became harder and harder to cross the Turkish border into Syria, the message on social media changed from ‘Join us in Syria’ to ‘Look to the struggle closer to home,’" she said.

"So ironically, while Western governments like the U.S. and Australia have seen the biggest danger coming from foreign fighters coming from Syria and Iraq to the Philippines, in fact, the bigger threat was from would-be fighters in the region who had never set foot in the Middle East," she said.

Mindanao, she said, has become "the new top spot for jihad for the would-be terrorists from Southeast Asia."

Julkipli Wadi, head of the University of the Philippines' Institute of Islamic Studies in Manila, said the military was partly to blame for ignoring the influence of the black flag of IS on local militant groups.

"It was a dilemma," Wadi said. "The militants would get IS attention if the government recognized its existence."

Acknowledging them would mean "emboldening" their image and eventually attracting the attention of the Islamic State, he said.

Taken by surprise

Interviews conducted by BenarNews with people who know the Maute brothers claim that they had studied Islam in the Middle East – contradicting  an earlier statement by Duterte that they were former policemen who turned to building drug factories in Marawi.

Omar is married to an Indonesian woman he met while studying in Egypt, where he first learned to embrace Islamic militancy, according to military intelligence. He went to Indonesia to teach at a madrassa there, but eventually went back home to pursue his dream of establishing a state purely for Muslims in Mindanao.

His older brother Abdullah was more radical, and inherited his father Cayamora’s ideals as a former official of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Cayamora and wife Farhana – described by police as the group's financier – have been recently arrested separately.

The brothers later established the Daulah Islamiyah, a group which the police and military had previously branded as composed of small time crooks operating in the cities and towns near Lanao’s lush forests.

But from petty operations, they grabbed national headlines when they claimed responsibility for bombing Duterte's home town of Davao, killing 15 people in September last year.

Duterte at the weekend admitted that the militants had taken the military by surprise, and appeared to have stocked weapons in Marawi.

He said he "never, never, never really thought that they were able to bring that much number of bullets into Marawi."

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