The Fallout of a Failed Jihadist Insurgency in the Philippines

The Battle of Marawi is a stark reminder of a forgotten conflict at the edge of the Islamic world

The Fallout of a Failed Jihadist Insurgency in the Philippines
Soldiers take in the view over the southern Philippine city of Marawi on May 23, 2021. (Ferdinandh Cabrera/AFP via Getty Images)

In the early afternoon of May 23, 2017, right before a lunch break in a small seaside village on Mindanao, an island in the southern Philippines, I received a text message that told me something had happened in Marawi, a town I had visited just hours earlier. My police contact offered few details on the phone, but he sounded troubled. There were reports of gunfire in the city. An hour later, the first images went viral on social media. The entire world could see armed men in black carrying high-powered firearms taking control of the Philippines’ so-called “Islamic City.” What followed was a five-month nightmare in a town 5,000 miles from the dying caliphate of the Islamic State group in the Middle East. The battle would obliterate 24 districts, kill more than 1,000 and displace over 200,000 Maranao or Mëranaw people, members of the ethno-linguistic community living in the Lanao provinces of Mindanao.

The history of Marawi and the wider majority-Muslim Bangsamoro region in Mindanao has been intertwined for centuries. If Aceh in Indonesia was Mecca’s veranda, then Mindanao might be Islam’s farthest outpost. Moro sultanates existed long before the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed on the Philippine islands, and indigenous Muslims continued to resist Spanish and American rule. Two decades after Philippine independence in 1945, violence surged after Manila encouraged and supported Christian settlers migrating to Mindanao, building on initial migration that commenced during American rule, and the Bangsamoro lost their land and political power. One of the first clashes between the military and loosely allied insurgents occurred in October 1972 in Marawi, when seven armed groups tried to occupy the city’s university and fought with security forces. In the next decades, the Mindanao wars would lead to around 120,000 deaths. Marawi itself was free from combat in the following years, however. It offered shelter to displaced families and served as a refuge for rebel commanders. Former guerrillas ended up ruling the city even as conflict scarred the countryside.

A landmark peace agreement in 2014 reconciled the Philippine government with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest — and formerly secessionist — Moro Muslim rebel group. Bringing about peace, however, has been more complicated. Islamist outfits have formed outside the MILF and gained increasing popularity as the pact was delayed and formal Moro autonomy slowed despite the peace deal.

The southern Philippines may be on Islam’s periphery, but Mindanao holds a special place in jihadi imagination. The Palestinian cleric Abdullah Azzam mentioned Mindanao in his writings along with Kashmir and Chad as occupied lands to be restored to Islam. The Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki was also aware of the plight of Filipino Muslims and sympathetic to their cause. For most Moro militants, the struggle was not in the Levant but in the Bangsamoro homeland. A new Islamist sentiment, different from the MILF’s discourse of self-determination and commitment to peace talks, was brewing.

One prominent faction at the core of the jihadist coalition that unraveled Marawi was the so-called Maute group. Central to the story are Omar Khayyam Maute and his brother Abdullah, the well-spoken religious scions of an influential clan from the town of Butig in Lanao del Sur. Omar studied at Al-Azhar in Cairo, while Abdullah pursued his education in Jordan and worked in Indonesia as a teacher at an Islamic school. Upon returning, the brothers linked up in around 2011 or 2012 with the jihadist Abu Dar, who allegedly trained in Afghanistan. At first, the nascent group was fighting political rivals, but the Salafi-jihadist creed soon merged with local frustrations. It went by the names Khilafah Islamic Movement, Jamal al-Tawhid wal-Jihad or Ghuraba, but the military labeled it the “Maute group” and later “Daulah Islamiyah.” Locals came to know it as “local ISIS” or “IS Ranao.”

In 2014, the millennial jihadists set up training camps in Butig, a mountainous town known for clan feuds and weak local governance, as well as being the MILF founder Salamat Hashim’s place of death. Butig was also one of the oldest towns in Lanao. The Maute brothers and their followers soon claimed the MILF had abandoned the path of jihad and declared them munafiqs or hypocrites. They stepped up recruitment of both men and minors. In 2015, they pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and scaled up their actions, bombing transmission towers, shooting military and police personnel and targeting religious minorities. In February, June and November of 2016, the group clashed with the Philippine military and attempted to raise the black flag on Butig’s town hall. The fighting motivated hitherto disinterested locals to join in for a mix of ideological and worldly motives.

Things escalated after the third battle in Butig in November 2016. Isnilon Hapilon, one of the few surviving leaders of the infamous Abu Sayyaf Group, a loose network of criminal and militant cells in the Sulu Archipelago, arrived in Lanao and was appointed emir (commander) of the local Islamic State franchise. Hapilon had left his home island, Basilan, when his group came under military pressure. Details remain murky, but the plan to take over Marawi likely emerged around this time, with militants linking up with criminal syndicates. Local politicians supported the militants with cash and protection. Foreign money was arriving through remittance centers and bank accounts.

With more recruits and firepower, militants started infiltrating Marawi and nearby villages. Some of the town’s civilians were alarmed; others remained in denial. The military did not seem too worried, even though an intelligence officer monitoring the group had been killed in Marawi three months before the battle. In April 2017, airstrikes finally targeted Hapilon and the Mautes in Piagapo town.

Divided by the Agus River into two halves, bound to each other by three bridges, Marawi sits above the edge of Lake Lanao, one of the world’s oldest lakes. Although mountains cut through nearby areas and hills stand out in parts of the city, the old town’s districts edging the shoreline are flat. The city is Lanao del Sur’s geographical, cultural and historical bottleneck, home to a community with a deep Islamic history known for its mercantile culture and close kinship ties. Officially labeled the “Islamic City” by its city council, Marawi is home to dozens of mosques.

The final battle in Marawi started with an afternoon raid by Philippine forces on Hapilon’s hideout in Basak Malutlut district. The fighting preempted the jihadists’ plan to occupy Marawi on the first day of Ramadan, but it stirred a hornets’ nest. Hundreds of fighters surged through the streets, occupying key buildings and calling on locals to join them. Clashes erupted in multiple areas. Militants set up checkpoints across town and freed prisoners from the city’s jails. They executed Christian residents of Marawi who could not recite the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith. Others were taken hostage. Fighters set fire to a college, a church, hospitals and the emptied city jail. Some military units were trapped and many citizens started fleeing. By the evening, President Rodrigo Duterte had declared martial law. A few days later, the first airstrikes pummeled the town, engulfing it in black fog.

The military, which claimed to be in control of the situation, took time to realize how difficult the battle was going to be. Meanwhile, the Islamic State used social media to amplify its successes. It would take months of bloody fighting for government forces to regain control. One military unit used over 10,000 mortar rounds in three months alone; others used slingshots to throw grenades at high-rise buildings. At the end of July, the marines took the first of the three bridges leading to Marawi’s old town, the jihadist defense line. By August, a three-pronged assault had confined the fighters to a few blocks. Fewer than 100 made a last stand. In mid-October, government sharpshooters killed Abdullah Maute and Isnilon Hapilon. Duterte declared the city’s liberation. In a strange coincidence, combat ended on the same day as the city of Raqqa was recaptured from Islamic State militants in Syria. Marawi’s old town had been reduced to rubble and dust; the dream of a caliphate evaporated.

The crisis had severe consequences for the Philippines, which are still being felt and understood years later. Two new books tackle the battle for Marawi from related yet different perspectives. “The Battle of Marawi,” by Criselda Yabes, is a chronological tour de force of the military’s campaign to retake the town. “Stories from the Front Lines,” by Carmela Fonbuena, is a layered account of the conflict that draws on voices from civilians to ex-militants, even if the military remains its main protagonist. Fonbuena and Yabes have delivered some of the best war reportage from the Philippines and Southeast Asia. They are among the most knowledgeable writers on Mindanao. Their books provide vivid accounts of the most devastating urban battle in the Philippines’ history since World War II, reconstructing in painstaking detail what transpired in Marawi. Yabes tackles the subject from the vantage points of commanders and grunts (and a stint with elite snipers in Marawi in early August), while Fonbuena builds on her reporting during the battle, including a visit to the battle zone in the fourth month of combat, with additional material from later interviews. The visceral nature of the accounts and their sense of immediacy are the books’ greatest strengths.

The Hapilon raid, which set the events of May 23 in motion, is the natural beginning for the two stories. While the narratives end differently, they both close on a somber note. In a grisly epilogue, Fonbuena writes about the difficulties of Marawi’s reconstruction and flashes forward to the island of Sulu, where several suicide bombings — including the first by a Filipino — have occurred in the years since. Yabes goes back in time to Butig and grapples with the background and motivations of the brothers who started it all. Fonbuena takes a wider perspective, having interviewed not just soldiers and militants, but also civilians, moderate Islamist rebels and politicians.

Yabes is familiar with Philippine military culture. A decade ago, she wrote “Peace Warriors,” a splendid book about the experience of officers and enlisted men deployed in the country’s Muslim south. Unsurprisingly, her book centers on the experience of soldiers, their tactics and the confusion of actual combat. With an ear for dialogue and atmosphere, she reproduces the inner struggles of men facing impossible situations. In other sections, Yabes captures chilly moments, such as when a sergeant trapped in the bathroom of an embattled building is taunted by a militant who wishes him death.

Fonbuena’s book features episodes outside the main narrative of the city’s recapture by the military. It becomes clear that Marawi’s war has affected people in different ways. One chapter describes trapped civilians, their displacement and the role of both civil society and the MILF in setting up a humanitarian corridor. Another describes the so-called “suicide squad” of rescue volunteers and their superhuman task to save the lives of hostages. The book reconstructs the chain of events leading to the battle and describes the genesis of the group acting in the name of the Islamic State. “Any new system you offer becomes attractive if the present system is broken beyond repair,” one ex-fighter tells Fonbuena.

Understanding the intricacies of the battle is essential to understanding what went wrong before and since. The war the authors describe is brutal. The military used air power against the militants freely, with devastating results. The laws of war protect mosques and schools, but the military claimed these buildings were occupied by militants and targeted them. At the height of the battle, a community leader told me bombs were “dropping like strong rain.” One young bureaucrat, who appealed to the military to cease the airstrikes, says, “The anticipation of death is worse than death itself.” Both authors also describe the moment friendly fire hit soldiers and when militants wiped out a dozen marines at the Mapandi Bridge one day in June. Yabes’ account reveals the emotional toll on troops, including the tension among officers, who debated the best way forward to break the impasse. Fonbuena, meanwhile, describes the plight of displaced civilians and those suspected to be enemies by the government.

Some questions linger, however. The exact roles of local politicians and drug syndicates in the build-up to the battle remain unclear, for example. In a similar vein, the books reveal little about the foreign fighters who joined the battle, possibly infiltrating Marawi under the guise of an Islamic convention. Was the battle avoidable? Was negotiation possible to de-escalate after a few days of the conflict? The books offer little insight on these aspects. Voices from Marawi could also tell us more about the experiences of civilians within the battle area and local perceptions of the battle. Yet, taken together, both books offer significant insight into the battle and help illuminate what happened after.

The battle for Marawi marked something of a last stand. After the defeat, the insurgency failed to revitalize. The Maute remnants suffered a fatal blow when the military killed Abu Dar two years after the battle. Marawi discredited some of the appeal of the jihadist vanguard as an alternative to the ex-rebels who have been governing the region since 2019. In addition, the Philippine government has weakened Moro militants not only on the battlefield but also through clever counterinsurgency: dole-outs for surrenders and promises of pardon. Still, the autonomous region’s track record has been mixed. Should the political transition be affected by instability, weak peace dividends and overall delays, it will only be a matter of time before another jihadist avatar emerges. Militants thrive in periods of doubt and crisis.

Marawi is returning to a kind of normalcy. But while some infrastructure has been rebuilt, progress remains slow. According to U.N. statistics, over 80,000 displaced persons cannot return to their homes. The delays are symbolic of the incomplete efforts of the Philippine state to come to terms with the events of 2017. Calls for an official inquiry into Marawi’s conflict failed to gain momentum in the Philippine congress. Up to 100 people are still missing or unaccounted for. Lacking closure, the people of Marawi move on into an uncertain future.

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