Members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force patrol after an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was found near the US Embassy in metro Manila on Monday. Photo: REUTERS/ Romeo Ranoco

Largely unheard of until recent months, the so-called Maute Group has become the focus of the Philippine military’s latest counter-terrorism operation.

For the second time this year, the military – on Sunday – launched an offensive in Butig, an impoverished town in the province of Lanao del Sur, in the Muslim part of Mindanaoa. Members of the group had occupied various buildings under the flag of Islamic State. Brigadier General Restituto Padilla reported on Monday that 19 members of the terrorist group had been killed.

Anxieties were further heightened on Monday after it was reported that an improvised explosive device (IED) had been discovered near the US Embassy in Manila. Philippine National Police Chief Roland Dela Rosa said the IED, comprising an 81 mm mortar round, detonating caps, a cellular phone and a 9-volt battery, was similar to a device previously used by the Maute Group.

Led by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, the organization came into existence in 2013. Initially, its members were from the long-established Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a group demanding an autonomous region for the Moro (or Muslim) population in Mindanao, but the military believes it has recruited new, younger warriors. The group has taken to using black flags and arm bands emblazoned with IS symbols.

The military previously launched an offensive against Maute when it took over Butig in February. That campaign lasted for about a week and resulted in the deaths of 20 Maute gunmen and three Army soldiers. In March, the group took six sawmill workers hostage and beheaded two of them on suspicion of being military assets.

Before and since coming to power in June, President Rodrigo Duterte has described Maute as a rising extremist organization. The military maintains that the group does not have international support, however. “They are projecting to the public that they have the support of ISIS, which is not true,” Padilla said, adding that members use the IS flag in order to attract that organisation’s notice and secure funding from it.

In June, the military overran the Maute’s main camp in Butig, Camp Darul Iman. Despite claims that the group had been flushed out, however, an explosion shortly afterwards rocked Davao City, President Duterte’s hometown, killing 15 people and injuring dozens more. Three Maute members were arrested in connection with the bombing.