Philippine soldiers guarding members of the extremist Maute Group aboard a military vehicle in Marawi City in the southern island of Mindanao, a day after they were arrested at a military checkpoint and who were later on August 27, 2016 freed by their comrades in a daring jailbreak. Photo: AFP/Richele Umel

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of martial law across the southern island of Mindanao represents a dramatic escalation of Manila’s conflict against Islamic militants, one that promises to shift his administration’s main security focus from external to internal threats.

The Islamist Maute Group’s surprise siege of Mindanao’s Marawi city forced Duterte to cut short a trip to Moscow, where he reportedly sought access to sophisticated Russian-made weaponry to combat and neutralize Islamic State-linked insurgents at home. The timing of the siege could thus hardly have been coincidental.

The Maute Group has led the violent siege, set off by the Islamic militant outfit’s decapitation of a local police chief and killing of soldiers who were trying to arrest Abu Sayyaf Group leader Isnilon Hapilon, who has a US government US$5 million bounty for his capture.

Both Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf Group have declared allegiance to Islamic State.

Duterte’s martial law order places Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Eduardo Ano as the region’s new administrator. The extraordinary military powers vested in the order have apparently already taken lethal effect, with at least 31 Maute militants and 15 soldiers killed since the military was deployed to quell the unrest.

Philippine soldiers reinforce comrades at a military camp in Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao on May 25, 2017, days after Maute Group extremists attacked the city. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

The violence could soon widen and accelerate. Before leaving for Moscow on Monday, Duterte announced he would seek Russian-made precision munitions to be used against ISIS-linked terror groups active in the southernmost provinces of Sulu, Basilan and Lanao Sur.

Duterte claimed that the bombs currently used by the AFP, dropped mostly from planes, are not as accurate as Russia’s satellite or laser guided KAB-250 and KAB 500 munitions. He even acknowledged that some aerial bombardments of insurgent positions had in the past caused unintentional casualties among civilian populations.

Duterte noted that Russia has used the weaponry in support of Syrian government forces in its fight against Islamic State in Syria.

If Duterte’s request is granted by Moscow, though not yet apparent, the AFP could soon start using precision bombs for the first time in its long history of counter-insurgency operations in Mindanao, an island of 22 million people and myriad insurgent outfits.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 23, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

Those munitions would add to an increasingly complex battlefield. Marawi Mayor Majul Usman Gandambra said that the presence of Maute militants in his city could be a tactic to divert government attention from on-going military offensives against Maute militant positions in various Lanao del Sur provincial towns.

Apart from the Maute Group in northern Mindanao, the AFP is also combating the Abu Sayyaf Group in the island’s southern regions. The government had earlier deployed 10,000 soldiers to defeat the rebel group before June 30, 2017, a hard deadline Duterte has handed down to the military to eliminate the long-standing group.

While Abu Sayyaf has been a thorn in successive administrations’ sides, the Maute Group, also known as the Islamic State in Lanao (ISIL), is less known. Based mostly in central Mindanao, the militant group is headed by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, both Islamic radicals fighting for religious as well as territorial issues.

The military estimates the rebel group has around 100 soldiers under heavy arms, though some analysts believe the number is much higher. Security officials had previously overlooked the Maute Group as insignificant guns-for-hire until it ambushed a military checkpoint in 2013. The group has since evolved into one of the country’s top terror threats, in part because of its pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

It’s not clear how many of its fighters, if any, are returnees from the wars in Iraq and Syria. The Marawi city siege represents at least the second time the AFP has underestimated the group’s fighting capabilities, recently enhanced through the provision of sophisticated firearms and improved warfare tactics.

Last September, Maute Group launched its first intensive battle against government forces in Butig town in Lanao del Sur province. The rebels were eventually able to seize the town’s seat of government.

Since announcing last year its allegiance to Islamic State, the group now flies a similar black flag over territories it controls, including at least momentarily over Marawi. The group has also recently developed clear strong links to the Abu Sayyaf Group, known for its kidnapping-for-ransom and piracy activities.

A government soldier checks a vehicle of evacuating residents from Marawi city in Mindanao on May 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

What’s less clear is Maute Group’s relations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Islamic revolutionary organization in the country that recently forged a peace agreement with Manila that includes provisions for livelihood assistance to former rebels.

Many Maute fighters are known to have previously served with the MILF or are currently married to MILF leaders’ offspring. However, the MILF issued a statement in the wake of the Marawi city siege condemning the “violence and terror.”

But as Duterte’s forces begin to exercise their new extraordinary powers under martial law to snuff out Islamic State affiliated insurgents, one challenge will be to identify exactly who are they fighting against.

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