Some harrowing images are coming out of Marawi, the city in Lanao del Sur in the Philippines southern Mindanao region where jihadists from the Maute Group, Abu Sayyaf and others – all with sworn allegiances to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – have been holed up for the past six weeks.
Reports have been coming through of forced marriage and sexual slavery; of citizens being forced to loot houses for food and ammunition and bear arms against the Philippine military – and tales of forced conversion to the Salafist form of Islam; the ultra conservative, brutal fundamentalist doctrine espoused by ISIS.
There are stories of people surviving by eating cardboard dipped in rainwater; dogs and chickens have been seen feeding on the bodies of the dead. This is an ugly inhuman war – a road to Hell paved with the worst intentions.
We fear, however, there will be worse images to come. There always are, and we should be prepared for that. This is a heavily besieged group of fighters that’s now completely cornered within the city’s commercial district; all exits from Marawi are blocked; supplies – though Maute planners prepared well for this action – will be starting to dwindle. Literally, there’s no way out – and if ISIS battles of the past are any guide, surrender will not be the first option.
From the sketchy statistics recently released by military and government sources it’s understood that to date more than 400 people have been killed in Marawi; among them at least 300 terrorists. That figure, however, is likely to grow once the full extent of the bloodletting has been revealed.
Reportedly there are around 120 Islamist fighters still in the city, confined to some 10% of the urban area. With them are anywhere between 100 and 150 hostages who’ve been used as human shields, frustrating an all-out assault by government troops who’ve been restricted to house-to-house fighting as they run the gauntlet of sniper fire.
Urban combat makes air power virtually impotent; the risk of serious civilian fatalities from bombing is too great – particularly without precision-guided smart bombs which the Philippine military don’t have. Elsewhere in that neighborhood are between 500 and 1,000 trapped civilians.
What’s happening in Marawi is a microcosm of what’s happening in two other cities – Mosul in northern Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In all three cities right now ISIS and ISIS-linked fighters are surrounded by military forces; and they’re fighting to the death from behind a human protective shield. Many will be ready to die as ‘soldiers of Allah’; ‘martyrs of a glorious and godly cause’.
The topography of this battlefield was always in the terrorists’ favour. Insurgents know that fighting street to street as they set up ambush zones and sniper emplacements and use civilians to inhibit large-scale counter attacks gives them a distinct advantage, irrespective of how heavily outnumbered they are. Urban combat has been described as “the underdog’s battlefield of choice”. They can secure it and defend and use the civilian population as insurance while transferring combat risk to counter-insurgent forces.
This is asymmetric warfare – it’s unconventional; it has few rules. Lined up in Marawi is a regular army with superior fire power and greater numbers against an irregular army with honed skills in guerrilla fighting. The military’s book on conventional warfare tactics has gone out the window. It’s virtually useless in this setting.
Military operations carried out in such terrain can often end up being protracted – the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 raged for nearly six months; the siege of Sarajevo lasted from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996; the Battle of Mosul is now in its ninth month. Invariably, the superior force wins – but the cost is often high. Eighty two members of the Philippine military have been killed in Marawi.
While in Mosul and Raqqa the top echelons left before the net tightened around their former strongholds, it remains unclear whether the leadership of the ISIS-linked groups remained behind is Marawi City.
It’s thought some may have got out concealed among the droves of citizens who fled the city in the early weeks of the conflict – among these may have been Isnilon Hapilon, the chef de guerre of ISIS-linked forces in the Philippines. Some reports, however, say he’s still in the city but we won’t know definitely until the jihadists have been defeated and the clean-up by the Armed Forces of the Philippines – the rescue operations, the retrieval of bodies, the dismantling of booby traps – has been done.
Right now this looks very much like the death throes of the Islamists’ battle for this southern Philippines city as the government spares few resources in bringing it to an end. Possibly the impetus for that is to have this over with before 24 July when President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his State of the Nation Address to the Philippine people.
Deadlines and projections for the end of the Maute occupation have been tossed about in the past, but that particular date – not mentioned by the government; it’s purely our conjecture – would seem to be an ideal target. It would be the best news Duterte could deliver to the nation – particularly to the approximately 22 million inhabitants of Mindanao whose island region was placed under martial law shortly after the terrorists’ entered the city.
In any event though, it’ll likely be bitter-sweet news as the full extent of the horrors of what the Maute and their brothers-in-arms have been doing in the dark spaces they’ve occupied since 23 May finally emerges.
The real concern is for the innocent civilians seized by the terrorists or those left stranded as the storm of war rages all around them. Some of these undoubtedly will have been executed; others will have been killed or injured in the fighting; or fallen sick. Many will be severely traumatised; or will have suffered unspeakable degradation.
There’s also the fear of a final killing spree being unleashed by the Islamists – something that ISIS head office can brag about later; claim responsibility for; wear like a sick badge of honour in some future recruitment video.
The massive territorial losses incurred by ISIS in Iraq and Syria over the past few months has greatly raised the spectre of their relocation to parts of Southeast Asia – in particular to Mindanao. ISIS has been progressively grooming the small terror groups in this region since 2014 and has effectively merged a number of them under a loose ISIS banner.
Foreign fighters from parts of the Middle East, from Chechnya in the North Caucasus and from Southeast Asian neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, have supplemented this amalgam of terror in the southern Philippines and were part of the force which took over Marawi. One estimate puts the number of foreign fighters who took part in the Marawi assault at 100 – that’s one fifth of an estimated 500-strong force that attacked the city. If that’s true it’s a very worrying statistic.
A number of them have been killed there – but no one knows how many remain in Marawi; nor how many are in other parts of Mindanao. We’ve seen estimates of 1,000 plus; but the fact is no one has any way of knowing the true figure. The Philippine coastline is extremely porous and stretches for 22,548 miles – that’s 6,500 miles longer than Australia’s. It’s impossible to police.
Moreover, these are not people who’ll give up the fight easily. These are hardcore individuals who came to the Philippines to establish an ISIS bridgehead en route to their goal of creating a Southeast Asian caliphate that would stretch from Mindanao to southern Thailand; men who answered the call of Islamic State’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for fighters to go to the Philippines. They’re committed and they’ll complete their mission or they’ll die trying.
Given that element, the next phase in the Battle for Marawi could be the most lethal – a fight to the death.