Marawi: The 'Mosul of the Philippines'

Jihadis in the south, Maoists in the east – can Duterte keep his promise to fight them all?

Marines walk towards the main battle area in Marawi in the Philippines during fighting to clear Islamist insurgents last year
(Image credit: Jes Aznar/Getty Images)

Philippines counter-terror officers descended on the southern city of Marawi just after lunchtime on 23 May following reports that Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of Islamic State's operation in southeast Asia, had set up camp with his followers.

As the officers closed in, men belonging to the homegrown extremist group Maute swarmed into the city streets brandishing assault rifles.

"We did not expect the outcome, the reactions," Major General Rolando Bautista told the local news outlet Rappler. "We did not expect also their sniping capability."

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Officers were forced to retreat, empty-handed and under gunfire, while dozens of jihadi fighters raced to take up pre-planned strategic positions.

Less than three hours later, the black flag of Islamic State was flying over a nearby hospital. That night, President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the Mindanao region.

More than 600 have died in the battle for Marawi, which its occupiers see as the beginning of an East Asia wilayah (province) of Islamic State's global caliphate.

Showdown in Marawi

Marawi is the capital of Lanao del Sur in the Muslim autonomous region of Mindanao, the country's second-largest island.

Despite their relatively small numbers, IS insurgents have captured many key buildings and kidnapped civilians including a Catholic priest.

More than 600 have died, including 453 militants, more than 100 government troops and at least 45 civilians, according to official government figures.

Around 3,000 government troops currently surround the city, now partially destroyed by airstrikes and improvised explosive devices.

"When I've looked at other war zones, the closest thing to compare it to is Mosul," security analyst Sim Tack told CNN. "I haven't seen battlefields where all houses were destroyed like that.

Although the militants are outnumbered and their territory miniscule, the obstacles that prevent a full-scale military assault on Marawi will be familiar to those following the Iraqi army's drawn-out operation to retake Mosul from IS.

First, there are the civilians. Hundreds of residents trapped in the city are at risk of becoming hostages or human shields in the event of an all-out assault.

Then there are the unique set of problems that accompanies urban guerilla warfare. Recapturing the city would mean house-to-house combat through streets infested with snipers and booby traps.

Nonetheless, army spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla has described the army's task as "mopping up", claiming the insurgents occupy less than a square mile of the city's business district, The Economist reports.

Winning the peace

There was previously much government distrust in Marawi, a Muslim-majority city in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. The occupation and siege exacerbated those tensions, particularly Duterte's declaration of martial law across the entire Mindanao region.

Tens of thousands of evacuated civilians are living in makeshift refugee camps, which could develop into restive hotbeds of radicalism if Marawi is not brought back under control soon.

Several other Islamist terror groups are active throughout the Mindanao region. Armed Forces Chief Eduardo Ano warned the Philippine Congress last week that "there was an order for them also to do their own version of Marawi in other areas".

Re-homing the displaced civilians and rebuilding the city before it becomes "fertile ground for extremist recruitment" will require the government's "urgent attention", says the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC).

The organisation's tangled web of international ties means that the repercussions of the battle for Marawi are likely to be felt far beyond the Philippines.

Malaysian scholar Dr Mahmud Ahmad is one of Abu Sayyaf's senior commanders and has facilitated the arrival of foreign jihadis into the group.

Funding for the operations was allegedly laundered through Indonesia and at least 20 Indonesians are thought to be among their ranks.

"Indonesia and Malaysia will face new threats in the form of returning fighters from Mindanao," said IPAC director Sidney Jones.

Danger in the east

While the government struggles in Marawi, around 4,000 armed rebels belonging to the New People's Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Philippines' outlawed communist party, are wreaking havoc in the east of the island nation.

Based mainly in rural villages and jungles, the NPA has been conducting a guerilla war against the government since the 1960s, a conflict which has claimed more than 30,000 lives, the BBC reports.

The government's relationship with the Maoist rebels is more complex than with the jihadis, however.

In June, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, an umbrella coalition of far-left groups that includes the NPA, indicated they would be receptive to Duterte's suggestion that they join forces with the government to drive the Maute fighters out of Marawi.

The President rejected their overture, however, saying that "the shots my soldiers would get might all be on the back, not on the front".

The rejection brought hopes of a detente to an end. The NPA has stepped up its attacks, seeking to exploit the diversion of the government's military resources to the battle for Marawi.

On 23 July, following a week of what Al Jazeera calls "tit-for-tat attacks" between rebels and government troops, Duterte declared that the government was calling off plans to engage the rebels in peace talks.

"After we finish off those fools there [in Marawi], we will re-orient our offensive against the New People's Army," he vowed.

Having thus committed to "fighting on all fronts," says the Sydney Morning Herald, Duterte is now doing the only thing he can do – beefing up the military. The President has ordered new planes, drones and the recruitment of up to 40,000 additional soldiers.

If there's anything that the Philippines has learnt from its 48-year war against its Maoist insurgency, however, it's that numerical and technical supremacy is no guarantee of an easy victory in Marawi.

"It is disheartening – I thought the casualties would be minimised because we're nearing the end of the crisis, but the clashes are getting fiercer," Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said. "This could take a while.

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