KUALA LUMPUR/MANILA: Battle continues to rage in Marawi, the only predominately Muslim city in the mainly Catholic Philippines, more than two months since a siege by the Daesh-backed Maute group.
As deaths mount in the fighting and government forces struggle to defeat the enemy, President Rodrigo Duterte has asked Congress to extend martial law on the Island of Mindanao to address a “looming situation.”
A high-ranking government official in the Philippines told Arab News that Maute has an estimated 1.2 billion pesos ($23.7 million) in cash. The group amassed this wealth from the different banks and houses they looted in Marawi, bagging gold and jewelry, as well as from drug money. This information, he said, was confirmed by a military general who is serving in Western Mindanao Command.
The official, who asked not to be named because he is not allowed to speak to media, said the military has drone footage that shows several sacks of money being loaded into a pickup truck. In this footage, he said, you can see one of the sacks falling down from the truck and paper bills scattered. The 1.2 billion pesos estimate was made based on the footage.
The military earlier quoted residents who were held hostage but managed to escape from the Maute group, saying that they were forced to loot from the houses and government buildings in Marawi.
On July 22, 2017, the Philippine Congress granted Duterte’s request to extend martial law on the Southern Island of Mindanao until the end of the year. This gives the military five more months to regain the city of Marawi from Daesh-affiliated fighters.
In seeking to extend the martial law in Mindanao, Duterte said that “public safety requires it,” as he admitted that despite the progress and significant strides achieved by government forces in the Marawi battle, “a lot more” has to be done to bring back safety in the region.
After spending several hours deliberating the president’s request, lawmakers arrived at the decision to approve the motion and extend the period of martial law.
During the session, Lt. Kent Fagyan, a young army officer injured in the Marawi crisis, appeared before members of Congress and recounted the difficulties faced by the military in its offensive against Maute group members in the strife-torn city.
Fagyan notes that the Maute group appears to have “upgraded” its weaponry, logistics and tactics, making it difficult for the military to end the two-month battle for Marawi. “Compared to our previous encounters with the Maute group, this one in Marawi is an upgrade. They … had lots of .50 caliber (rifles), radio frequency scanners, and they seem to have unlimited ammunition,” said Fagyan, who led the 15th Division Reconnaissance Company of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division.
Beside improved weapons and logistics, the Maute group has also improved its fighting tactics, the government official told Arab News. This, he said, is because of seasoned fighters from Daesh who reached Marawi coming from Mosul and Aleppo to join forces with the Philippine militant group.
“They are professionals and experts in urban fighting; they also know how to use IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and among them there are snipers,” the source said.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana confirmed in a press briefing on June 1 that eight foreign militants fighting with Maute group were killed by government troops in Marawi City. Two were from Saudi Arabia, while other members were from Malaysia, Indonesia, Yemen and Chechnya.
A retired Philippine military commander who served in Mindanao told Arab News that these foreign fighters “use the traditional smugglers’ routes” to enter the country. “They use the sea coming from Malaysia or Indonesia. The most common backdoor they use is the Sabah and Tawi-Tawi,” he said.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has acknowledged this problem and the need to intensify the country’s immigration policies.
“We have to tighten and enhance our security measures, as far as immigration is concerned, but on the part of the military and the security sector, there is really a need to enhance the security in our southern backdoor, which is very porous. We need to enhance and intensify maritime patrols,” Gen. Gilbert Gapay, martial law spokesperson for the Eastern Mindanao Command (EastMinCom), recently said. He admitted there is a possibility the foreign fighters entered through the backdoor channel, as well as, seaports and airports.
This has made the battle of Marawi even more difficult according to Defense Secretary Lorenzana, who also said last month that they have “underestimated the strength and capabilities” of the Maute group. Lorenzana said he initially thought government forces could end the Marawi crisis immediately. “In fact I was in Moscow when I heard about it and I thought it will be over in three days,” he said.
Lorenzana’s estimate of how soon the government can end the crisis was revised to one week, and then two weeks. He later decided not to impose a deadline.
Video by: Provincial Crisis Management Committee (@PCMClanaodelsur)
However, a retired military commander told Arab News that the problem is not with the information, but on the assessment of the information.
“I don’t know if there’s anybody in that office (the Department of National Defense) who has deep understanding of the situation, of what’s happening now in Marawi. Most of the people there now are new,” the source told Arab News.
“What’s important is the assessment of the information. Somebody should be providing the secretary their assessment of the information because that’s where he will base his decisions,” the source added.
Clashes between government forces and the Maute group in Marawi, a city of about 200,000 people, has entered its third month. The latest data released by AFP Public Affairs indicate that a total of 578 people have died in the conflict — 105 government troops, 45 civilians and 428 militants.
“It is serious and it can go out of proportion,” the retired military commander said.
“The biggest danger is if the Filipino militants are able to sustain the united front. Unlike in the case of the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) and the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) who wanted autonomy, this time the issue is deeper, it is based on religious ideology.
“What is new is that even among them, the Maranao, the Tausug, and the other tribes in Mindanao, it already transcended the tribal boundaries … If (Daesh) can sustain to galvanize and bond the Philippine militants (like Maute, Abu Sayyaf and the rest), then that will be very, very difficult to address,” the source said.
A report, published Thursday (July 20) by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), said that the crisis in Marawi “is likely to have long-term repercussions for extremism” not only in the Philippines, but in Southeast Asia.
“These could include a higher risk of violent attacks in other Philippine cities and in Indonesia and Malaysia; greater cooperation among Southeast Asian extremists, and new leadership for Indonesian and Malaysian pro-(Daesh) cells from among returning fighters from Marawi,” found the report titled “Marawi, the ‘East Asia Wilayah’ and Indonesia.”
It also said that initial photographs from the strife-torn city released over social media when the crisis broke out showed “smiling fighters” holding guns on top of trucks, and which “seemed to have the same impact as the iconic ISIS victory photos from Mosul in 2014.” ISIS is another term for the Daesh terror group.
The report added: “They generated a shared sense of triumph and strengthened the desire of ISIS supporters in the region to join the battle … Southeast Asian ISIS supporters in Turkey, Syria and Iraq may also see the Philippines as an attractive alternative as ISIS is pushed back in the Middle East.”
Sidney Jones, IPAC director, pointed out that “risks won’t end when the military declares victory.” Jones said that “Indonesia and Malaysia will face new threats in the form of returning fighters from Mindanao, and the Philippines will have a host of smaller dispersed cells with the capacity for both violence and indoctrination.”
The report called for “greater cooperation between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines in combating extremism.” Supporting Marawi residents who have been displaced and reconstructing the city will held ease ill-feeling among the population and prevent an atmosphere that will lead to “more fertile ground for extremist recruitment,” the report added.