The Battle for Marawi City

Soldiers take positions while evading sniper fire as they try to clear Marawi City of militants on May 25, 2017. Jes Aznar—Getty ImagesSoldiers take positions while evading sniper fire as they try to clear Marawi City of militants on May 25. Jes Aznar—Getty Images

What the siege of a Philippine city reveals about ISIS’ deadly new front in Asia

By JOSEPH HINCKS / Marawi City

On what was to be her wedding day, Stephanie Villarosa ate chocolate-flavored rice porridge out of a styrofoam cup. Under normal circumstances—rings exchanged, fidelity promised, bride kissed—she and her family would have been feasting on lechón, roasted suckling pig, a delicacy in her fiancé’s hometown of Iligan City on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Instead, Villarosa was huddled on an institutional plastic chair 38 km south of Iligan, inside Marawi City’s provincial government building. Outside, sniper fire crackled over the mosque-dotted hills to the east and military FA50 fighter jets thundered overhead. Wedding or no, the porridge was nourishing, and Villarosa was happy: “God is good. Today we survived.”

Survival has become a daily battle in Marawi, the capital of Mindanao’s Lanao del Sur province and whose mostly Muslim 200,000 population make the city the biggest Islamic community in what is otherwise an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Villarosa, a teacher in Marawi, was handing out wedding invitations when black-clad fighters of what the locals call Grupo ISIS swarmed the streets. She ran, hid, and took shelter in a nearby house with 38 other people. Outside, she heard, her workplace Dansalan College was burning, and Christians were being killed. “We rescued ourselves—no military,” says Villarosa. “We had to run, walk, crawl.” Seven of her colleagues, including the school’s principal, were unaccounted for, but, low on food and water, and with news that the military was set to bomb the area, Villarosa decided to get to the sanctuary of city hall. “It looked like a movie outside, it looked like The Walking Dead,” she says, referring to the post-apocalypse U.S. TV series.

The battle for Marawi began on May 23, when the Philippine military tried to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the head of a southern militia that has pledged loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the army met fiercer than expected resistance. Allied with another pro-ISIS brigade called the Maute Group, Hapilon’s fighters took a priest and his congregation hostage, freed prisoners from the local jail, and overran the city. More than three weeks later, the fighting persists, hundreds have died—militants, soldiers, civilians—and hundreds more residents remain trapped in the city. Many have no electricity or running water. Food stocks are diminishing fast. As residents seek safety, much of Marawi has become a ghost town.

Iligan’s Capin Funeral Homes, one of a scattering of morgues in the area for Marawi’s minority Christians, is where some bodies from the conflict have been taken. A handwritten stack of crocodile-clipped papers logs newly received cadavers. In parenthesis, next to the names of two bodies that arrived one Saturday, a note says “decomposed.” That Sunday, six more decomposed bodies were logged, including two women and a girl. On Monday, another eight bodies were registered. A Marawi survivor later told local journalist Jeff Canoy that those were his colleagues from a rice mill. About a hundred of them had hunkered down at the mill, the survivor said, and the Muslims taught their Christian co-workers Islamic prayers to deceive the militants. After four days hiding, the rice millers made a break for it. Most reached the army checkpoints ringing the city, but a few didn’t. Their remains were found in a ravine with the word munafik—traitor in both Arabic and the local Maranao language—written on placards across their chests. As TIME toured the Capin morgue, four men wearing masks hoisted in another cadaver from Marawi. It was missing its head.

Smoke rises after aerial bombings by Philippine Air Force planes on Islamist militant positions in Marawi on June 9, 2017. Noel Celis—AFP/Getty ImagesSmoke rises after Philippine Air Force bombings on militant positions on June 9. Noel Celis—AFP/Getty Images

Since he came to power a year ago, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s obsession has been his brutal war against drug dealers and users. Now he is facing a different fight. When Marawi hostilities broke out, Duterte declared martial law for 60 days across Mindanao. “The dream of the Maute Group, which has pledged allegiance to ISIS and its flag, is to transform Mindanao into an Islamic state,” said Jose Calida, solicitor-general of the Philippines. The situation has become so serious that the U.S. is now involved. Washington no longer has military bases in the Philippines.

But a 1951 mutual defense treaty allows the two governments to come to the aid of each other, and more recent agreements have seen American military personnel acting as advisers to Philippine forces, especially in Mindanao and the adjacent Sulu archipelago, both hotbeds of insurgency. On June 9, a U.S. Navy P3 Orion plane hovered in the cloudy skies above Marawi providing surveillance support to Philippine ground troops. A Philippine military spokesman later confirmed that the U.S. was providing “non-combat assistance.”

Marawi is the latest front in what has been a recent surge of apparently ISIS-linked attacks beyond the carnage in Iraq and Syria. These include: a bloody late May assault on Coptic Christian pilgrims in Egypt; the suicide bomber at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, the London Bridge assailants the following week; twin suicide bomb attacks that killed three policemen in Jakarta; and twin attacks in Tehran.

Marawi eclipses all those in deaths and duration. But perhaps its most crucial significance is the potential for ISIS and its affiliates to grow and spread in Southeast Asia, where many countries are Muslim-majority or have sizable Muslim populations. At a recent security conference in Singapore, the city state’s defense minister, Ng Eng Hen, said: “If the situation [in Marawi] is allowed to escalate or entrench, it would pose decades of problems … It can prove a pulling ground for would-be jihadists.”

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Referring to a summer 2016 video in which fighters speaking Filipino and Malay urged their compatriots to head to the Philippines, Calida had earlier said in Manila: “What’s happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens—it has transmogrified into invasion by foreign terrorists.” Philippine officials say at least eight foreign fighters—from Indonesia, Malaysia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya—have been killed in the Marawi fighting. Said Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, also at the Singapore security meeting: “The death group’s area of operation has gone global.”

ISIS and its affiliates have tagged Singapore as a target in jihadist publications and videos and plotted two attacks on the city state, according to a June 2017 government threat assessment report. The second of these—a plan to launch a rocket at the massive Marina Bay Sands waterfront resort—was foiled by authorities in Indonesia, where the would-be attackers were based. Malaysia suffered its first ISIS attack last June—a grenade injured eight people at a nightspot in the capital Kuala Lumpur—and disrupted another seven plots in 2016.

Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation, is particularly concerned about ISIS using the southern Philippines as a gateway to establish a foothold in Southeast Asia. The two countries are separated by poorly policed waters through which militant extremists can flow. “It’s easy to jump from Marawi to Indonesia,” Indonesia’s armed forces chief, General Gatot Nurmantyo, told reporters in Jakarta on June 13.

Indonesia also knows what it’s like to be terrorized. In the early 2000s, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a homegrown extremist group allied with al-Qaeda and with cells in neighboring countries, was responsible for a spate of attacks, the deadliest of which were the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people. Like the Mindanao militias, JI’s goal was an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. Through a counter-terrorism offensive aided by the U.S., Jakarta eventually broke JI. Now the danger is ISIS, or local extremists inspired by ISIS. In January 2016 ISIS claimed responsibility for a firefight in downtown Jakarta which killed two civilians and injured 20. “In almost every province [of Indonesia] there are already ISIS cells,” General Nurmantyo told reporters. “But they are sleeper cells.”

Though estimates vary, only about 600 Indonesians are thought to be fighting with ISIS in Syria, making them proportionately one of the least represented nationalities—about two fighters for every million people, compared to 27 for Denmark and 40 for Belgium. Even fewer Filipinos are engaged in militant jihad overseas. A year ago local news agency Rappler reported that just one Filipino fighter had been confirmed in Syria. However, Indonesia, a secular democracy, is seeing a rise of right-wing Islamist politicians and activists. A 2015 Pew survey found that 4% of the population held a “favorable” view of ISIS. That’s 10 million people. Says Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC): “The mistake [in the Philippines] has been to see the danger as foreign fighters coming from Iraq and Syria coming back. The problem is foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia, very close by, who’ve never set foot in Syria but who are attracted by the struggle.”

Suspected ISIS-linked militants are taken away on June 3 by authorities after they were caught trying to escape by crossing a river on June 3. Jes Aznar—Getty ImagesSuspected ISIS-linked militants are taken away on June 3 by authorities after they were caught trying to escape by crossing a river on June 3. Jes Aznar—Getty Images

For now that struggle revolves around Marawi and Mindanao. On a recent Saturday, nearly 200 families were squeezed into Iligan’s rapidly repurposed Buru-un evacuation center. Some occupied squares of floor space partitioned by wooden slats and shared with bags, cardboard boxes, and tupperware containers of milk powder. Others spilled onto an adjacent sports field or baked under the tarp of U.N. tents. Two weeks earlier, this center had been a school assembly hall, says camp manager Eva Dela Cruz. It isn’t clear where these families will, or can, go when classes restart.

While the Marawi militants have targeted Christians, as elsewhere in the world, the majority of victims of the Islamist terrorism are Muslims who reject violence. Tens of thousands of inhabitants have been forced to flee since the fighting broke out. Many have ended up in evacuation centers like Buru-un. Among those in limbo is Naima Abdullah, who says that she left the city with her five children, including a five-month-old baby, her 100-year-old lola (grandmother) whom she carried on her back, and a live chicken. “We walked for five hours because there was no transportation available and we had no money,” she says. “The [youngest] ISIS boys were around 12 or 13 years old. They had guns. They were wearing black suits with the flags of ISIS. There were so many armed men. We feared for our lives.”

As uncertain as the future is for Abdullah and her family outside Marawi, it is more confusing inside the city. The number of ISIS-allied fighters, as stated in military press briefings, has ranged from 150 to 1,000. At least two deadlines for clearing the city of militants have elapsed. And while the military officially pegged the death toll at 290 on June 14—including 26 civilians—both evacuees and army officials who declined to be named told TIME they thought more than 1,000 people had perished. “There is going to be an epidemic because there are so many rotting bodies in the streets,” says Norodin Lucman, a local clan chief and businessman.

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Information out of the President’s office has been similarly muddled. Reports that militants had beheaded the local police chief, referenced by Duterte in his declaration of martial law, were proven false when the chief showed up alive some days later. A claim that a hospital was attacked and its staff taken hostage—detailed in the government’s seven-page martial law report—was later denied by the hospital chief and the army. There have been contradictory reports as to the number of Filipino troops killed in a friendly-fire air strike—now thought to be 10. Reports of another errant airstrike that hit a small town 22 km from Marawi remain unconfirmed.

One critical error appears to be a failure to sufficiently acknowledge or act on the threat posed by ISIS. “We knew this was coming,” says Major-General Carlito Galvez, head of the West Mindanao Command, who seems to imply that Manila downplayed the threat: “The problem is that our economy is booming. When you say that ISIS is here, the investment will change. We don’t want to be affected by that.” Richard Heydarian, an assistant professor of political science at Manila’s De La Salle University, told TIME a few weeks before the Marawi siege: “The Philippines is already getting a lot of bad publicity because of the war on drugs and the sense of a lack of rule of law. The Philippine government has minimal interest in adding another concern for an already jittery business sector of investors and tourists.”

A video obtained by Associated Press shows Hapilon with brothers Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute discussing plans to capture the city over hand-drawn blueprints of its streets. Despite reports that he was injured—and speculation that he might have been killed—in a February 2016 airstrike, Hapilon appears alive and well. Meanwhile, Maute Group attacks on the smaller Lanao del Sur town of Butig last year seemed, in hindsight, a dress rehearsal for Marawi.

A screengrab from an undated video shows the purported leader of the Islamic State group Southeast Asia branch, Isnilon Hapilon, center, at a meeting of militants at an undisclosed location. AP

A screengrab from undated footage shows Isnilon Hapilon, center, at a meeting of militants. AP

The battle for Marawi has its roots in the complex and bloody history of Mindanao, where four decades of armed struggle have claimed more than 150,000 lives. According to official tallies, a little over 5% of the Philippines’ total population of 100 million is Moro, a collective term for various Muslim indigenous groups. Most live on Mindanao, where poverty rates are higher and the provision of education is lower than in the rest of the country. The southern Philippines also has a tradition of rido—clan feuds. One of the reasons the militants have been able to hold on for so long, says a military official, is that Marawi’s buildings are replete with hideouts, sniping niches and basement shelters built with clan warfare in mind.

The suffering of the Moro dates back to Spanish and American colonialism—the latter encouraged Catholic Filipinos to populate dissenting Moro lands—and continued through the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, whose soldiers massacred thousands under martial law. Since 1972 the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and its offshoot, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), have fought for either greater autonomy or full independence from the central government in Manila. Many Mindanao Muslims had hoped that Duterte—who is from the island and claims Moro blood—would accelerate a sputtering peace process, but that hasn’t happened.

Over the years, various smaller groups have splintered from the MNLF and MILF. Four of these have pledged allegiance to ISIS, according to Jakarta’s IPAC. The biggest of these, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), beheaded two Canadians in 2016 and a German earlier this year, igniting fears of a growing ISIS presence in Mindanao. In April ASG made a brazen attempt to raid the central Philippine tourist island of Bohol, hundreds of kilometers from its jungle lairs on Jolo and Basilan islands in the Sulu archipelago.

Experts say that groups like ASG are motivated more by poverty and political disenfranchisement than militant jihad. During the first six months of 2016, ASG made the equivalent of $7.3 million from ransom, according to a Philippine government report. Suicide bombings are practically unheard of in the Philippines. “Reliance on criminal acts is symptomatic of the lack of ideological commitment by ASG and the largely financial motivations that drive membership,” Joseph Franco, a terrorism expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University wrote in an April essay titled Mindanao no place for a caliphate. Franco later told TIME that ISIS responded to Hapilon’s 2014 pledge of allegiance by making him an emir, or commander, but, crucially, stopped short of naming him as governor of his own wilaya, or province, of ISIS. “To be a wilaya, it’s not enough to run around with a flag or behead people,” says Franco. “You have to have a semblance of governance.” Others note that Hapilon, who leads ASG’s Basilan faction—distinct from the more maritime Sulu chapter—has not been involved in any of the recent high-profile kidnap-for-ransom cases. This, they say, should have alerted Philippine authorities that the group was receiving funds from probably foreign sources.

According to Major-General Galvez, ethnic Tausugs from ASG’s Sulu faction, as well as fighters from smaller militant groups, coalesced in Marawi. That suggests that in moving from his Basilan base and allying with Lanao del Sur’s Maute Group, Hapilon has had some success in overcoming clan and ethnic divisions to unite pro-ISIS militias.

Displaced residents at a temporary evacuation center in Saguiaran, Marawi, on June 10. Richard Atrero de Guzman—€”NurPhoto/Sipa USA/APDisplaced residents at a temporary evacuation center on June 10. Richard Atrero de Guzman—€”NurPhoto/Sipa USA/AP

The Maute Group is newer and less understood, though, according to Franco, its roots also lie in extortion and criminality. Last November a former MNLF commander, Omar Ali—who popularly goes by the name Solitario—went to the foothills of Lanao del Sur’s Butig mountains for a meeting with Maute brothers Omarkhayam and Abdullah, considered the masterminds of the assault on Marawi. Earlier that year the Mautes had led an attack on the town of Butig, which is about a tenth the size of Marawi, and held out for days against security forces. In a separate attack, they stormed the Marawi jail and sprung militants held prisoner there. Solitario, who is in his 60s, had made the journey to persuade the Mautes to lay down arms.

Deeply wrinkled under a crisp prayer cap, Solitario has the bearing of a fighter but the slow, careful speech of a diplomat. That November meeting, he tells TIME, was his first encounter with the Maute brothers even though he knew the family well—he had gone to school with their father years before, and his brother was married to a relative of their clan. He also knew the Philippine authorities well: as an MNLF commander, Solitario spent years fighting them. He’d been in Tripoli, Libya, and later in Jakarta for the signing of successive peace agreements, and was a former mayor of Marawi. “I proposed to [the Mautes] to temporarily stop fighting the government until the program of the President, of changing the political structure and system, can be started,” says Solitario, referring to Duterte’s plan to implement federalism in the Philippines, which would give greater autonomy to Mindanao. Should the President not make true on his promise, Solitario told the Maute brothers, they could take up their guns again.

But, says Solitario, the Maute brothers were not interested in compromise or in greater political autonomy for the Maranao. They were against non-Muslims interfering in their affairs. They were also against Shia Muslims and “obstructionist” Sunni Muslims. And they were prepared to kill them. Says Solitario: “[They told me] we have to do a cleansing process. We do not want Muslims to be neutral. They either have to join us or be our opponent: you are with us or you are against us.” Solitario isn’t sure whether the Maute brothers picked up their ideology during their schooling in Jordan and Egypt, or from family connections to Indonesia and possibly JI. Either way, he says, “when they arrived [back from overseas] they brought with them that virus.”

Besides Solitario, most Marawi citizens, Muslims and Christians alike, who tired of conflict and want to defeat that virus. Among them is clan chief Lucman. When the fighting broke out on May 23, some 70 people—mostly Christians—fled to his large house in Marawi. After sheltering them for 10 days and then leading them past Maute checkpoints to safety, Lucman shared his story with TIME. On two occasions, Lucman said, armed men came to his gate asking to come inside. The first time, he didn’t recognize the ISIS fighters. They were not local Maranao, and quoted Koranic verses at him. Lucman, who studied Islamic jurisprudence at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, turned them away. “Nothing comes out of their indoctrination: killing innocent civilians, distorting the teachings of Islam, and destroying their own communities.”

The second time, ISIS sent a Maranao. Lucman recognized the 28-year old in the black uniform as one of his distant relatives. “I said, what are you doing with that gun? He said, this is jihad. I told him, there’s no way you can win, take off your clothes, I will hide you, I will talk to the government for you to surrender. He said: ‘No, I will die.’”

With reporting by Merlyn Manos/Iligan City

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