Over three months since Islamic State-aligned militants laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi, military authorities insist that the end of the death, devastation and destruction is in sight.
But even when the last rebels are dislodged from their urban redoubts, it’s not clear Manila’s fight against IS-inspired militancy will be over anytime soon.
Philippine Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez Jr, commander of the Western Mindanao Command, estimates the city’s battle zone is now confined to a mere 400 to 600 square meter area, in which 40 or so fighters aligned with the local Maute Group are holed up with more than two dozen hostages allegedly being used as human shields.
In a recent briefing for reporters, he claimed that many of the remnant fighters are wounded and running out fast of ammunition and food due to strict security measures imposed on the military-encircled city. The recent retaking of the town’s central mosque and two strategic bridges, the government claims, has significantly reduced the rebels’ earlier room for maneuver and replenishment.
“I’m confident the end is already near,” he said, predicting troops would “normalize” the situation in the besieged city by September or October.
Restoring normality will be no easy task. The fighting continues to displace some 360,000 civilians, mostly ethnic Maranao Muslims, and has laid waste to what was the Philippines’ most religiously significant Muslim majority city on the southern island of Mindanao.
More than 800 people, mostly militants but also troops and civilians, have been killed since the fighting first erupted on May 23. The military estimates it has rescued over 1,700 people that were either taken hostage or trapped by the fighting.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has said it will cost around 56 billion pesos (US$1.1 billion) to rebuild the devastated city, as well as provide social welfare and other services to the displaced. The government recently announced it would float 30 billion pesos (US$600 million) worth of government bonds to help finance the reconstruction.
President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire southern island of Mindanao, long a hotbed of insurgency and rebellion, under martial law hours after the first clashes broke out in Marawi, a decision some saw as administrative overreach. He has since visited the urban warfare zone on three occasions.
Duterte has repeatedly urged his forces to quickly finish off the internationally supported militants, in hope of stopping the spread of Islamic State ideology outside of Marawi. During his most recent visit on August 24, the populist president even fired a sniper rifle in the direction of the militants in a macho show of support for his troops.
But after three months of heavy ground assaults and aerial bombardments, armed forces continue to miss official deadlines to rout the militants and reassert state control over the city and surrounding areas. Their mission has been undercut by hidden local support for militants the military believes it has recently significantly severed.
Galvez asserted that the IS-aligned militants’ stated vision of creating an Islamic caliphate in Mindanao is actually “getting smaller” as troops constrict the battle zone to a narrow pocket of resistance.
The recent arrests of Cayamora and Farhana Maute, respectively the father and mother of Abdullah and Omar Maute, the leaders of the eponymous Maute Group, has hit the militants.
The military claims the two Maute parents had provided financial and logistical support for the siege, the most devastating in the country’s long history of insurgency. Cayamora died on August 27 in state custody. Both Cayamora and Farhana were included in a martial law ordered arrest list of 310 individuals accused of rebellion for contributing to the assault on Marawi.
Another alleged prominent Maute Group supporter, former Marawi mayor Fajad Salic, was also recently arrested in Mindanao. Former Marawi mayor Omar Solitario, another prominent suspected Maute Group backer, is still at large, as are most of the other 300 suspects on the government’s arrest list.
Even so, the military claims to have broken the Maute Group’s hold on Marawi. On September 4, Galvez claimed that Abdullah Maute had been killed in a government air strike, though the claim has not yet been independently corroborated. He claimed the militants’ morale was “sagging” due to deprivation, injuries and the decapitation of its leaders.
That may or may not be the case. It’s unclear how many of the fighters have peeled away to nearby mountain areas or among internally displaced people camps with an eventual aim to regroup and relaunch their attacks. Galvez acknowledges that even after Marawi is eventually liberated from militant control, armed forces will face an uphill struggle combating Islamic State’s radical ideology.
“There is another battle after this battle,” said Galvez. “The battle that we will be fighting is the recruitment. Some Maute supporters are using the Marawi siege as leverage (to drum up local support),” he said, claiming some new recruits have been as young as 14-years old and easily swayed with anti-state messages disseminated over social media.
The prolonged fight at Marawi has at the same time awakened the military, largely trained and prepared for jungle fighting against rebel groups, to its deficiencies in combating modern urban warfare tactics deployed by the foreign-linked Maute Group.
Galvez refers to the Maute Group as a “hybrid terrorist group”, reference to its links with the local Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), an Islamic extremist group that has also declared its loyalty to Islamic State. Filipino troops’ attempt to arrest ASG leader Isnilon Hapilon, currently on a US government terrorist list and Islamic State’s designated ‘emir’ in Southeast Asia, sparked the initial fighting in Marawi.
He notes that past fighting with rebel groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), two ethnic Moro groups that have since signed ceasefire agreements with the government, seldom entailed long siege, high casualty fighting.
While certain former MILF members are now fighting with Maute Group, and with others linked through marriage, MILF has repeatedly condemned the group’s scorched earth tactics at Marawi.
Manila will also face a tall order in winning over those worst affected by the Marawi siege. Many of the displaced have expressed anger not only against the Maute Group for its destructive tactics, but also the government for laying waste to their city through perceived indiscriminate bombings and firefights.
Some analysts have viewed the death and devastation as a sort of propaganda victory for Islamic State-linked militants that has put Southeast Asia on the map of global terror organizations. Fighters from neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as from countries in the Middle East, have joined the fight.
In response, the military deployed last week an all-female team, consisting of over 100 soldiers and police officers, to help local government units address the urgent needs of families displaced by the security crisis.
The Philippine National Police (PNP), for its part, recently designated a locally respected Islamic religious leader Superintendent Ebra Moxsir Al Haj as Marawi’s new police chief. He previously served as president of the Imam Council of the Philippines, one of the country’s most influential Muslim organizations.
“After the battle in Marawi is over, we need to intensify our counterterrorism measures,” Moxsir recently said. “We should also counter the wrong ideology propagated by the Maute Group,” he added, noting that Islam is a “religion of peace” that “doesn’t tolerate killing or violence.”
But with some 360,000 internally displaced people and little progress made yet on reconstruction, many Marawi residents are destined for long waits in squalid evacuation centers and under-provisioned transitional shelters, pockets of deprivation and desperation where the government and Islamic State will compete to win heavy hearts and minds.