The Battle of Marawi: A Brief Summary

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As the Islamic State (IS) was being driven from its stronghold of Mosul in Iraq and Kurdish fighters were preparing to attack its de-facto capital of Raqqa in Syria, many believed that IS had finally been defeated. However, following a botched raid by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to capture a wanted terrorist commander in Marawi, armed militants stormed the city. The AFP were driven out while militants burnt buildings, desecrated churches, freed prisoners and raised IS’s black standard more than 8,000km away from where they first declared their caliphate. Despite the Philippine government claiming the battle would be over in days it took five months of hard fighting to recapture the city, leaving over 1,000 dead and Marawi in ruins.

This is not the first instance of Islamic militancy in the country, armed groups have fought Spain, America, and the Philippines for over four centuries. The modern conflict started in the 1970’s with several groups fighting for independence in historically Muslim regions of the majority Christian Philippines. Treaties have been signed with the largest two of these groups, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), for varying degrees of autonomy. However more radical factions often made up of splinter groups or former fighters from MNLF and MILF continue to fight the government for independence such as the Maute Group, Abu Sayyef, Ansharul Khilafah Philippines (AKP), and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

Following their declaration of a Caliphate many of these more radical groups fighting the AFP pledged allegiance to IS. The leader of Abu Sayyef Isnilon Hapilon was declared the Emir of Islamic State East Asia (ISEA). A region which encompasses the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia.1. Despite this the Philippine government denied IS had any presence in the country.2. Before pledging allegiance to IS these groups were generally independent from more global Islamic terror organizations, though it is believed Abu Sayyef had links to Al Qaeda.3.

Uniting under the banner of IS these groups began to show greater coordination and ambition. The cell responsible for the Davao city bombings had links to both the Maute Group and AKP, while they recognised Isnilon Hapilon as their overall Emir.4. ISEA groups also undertook bolder attacks including a successful seizure of the town of Butig for a short period in November 2016 by the Maute Group.5. A video found on the phone of a deceased IS fighter during the Marawi battle by the AFP showed leaders from Abu Sayyef and Maute Group planning how to seize the town before the battle. While another video surfaced showing ISEA fighters driving around Marawi before the battle discussing key sites and strategic locations.6. Caches of weapons and supplies have also been hidden throughout the city all clearly showing that the seizure of Marawi had been long planned and prepared for.

On May 23rd Philippines security forces carried out a raid in Marawi with the goal of arresting Isnilon Hapilon.7. However the raid faced tougher than expected resistance from militants, who called for reinforcements and the long-prepared plans to capture the city were put into action. The security forces attempting to capture Hapilon and local forces in Marawi were not prepared for such an assault and quickly retreated. However the attack did not completely succeed with militants failing to seal off all the roads into the city. Furthermore while they forced soldiers back to a military base on the outskirts of Marawi they were unable to capture it. By the end of the day the majority of the city was under ISEA control and martial law was declared across parts of the southern Philippines.8.

No reason was given by the AFP or the Philippine government for what had happened in Marawi, instead they maintained that the situation was under control and would be resolved shortly. Fighting raged for the following days and within a week they claimed to have recaptured 90% of Marawi including parts of the city centre and two strategic bridges.9. A self-made deadline was set for the city to be recaptured by June 2nd however this quickly passed, the first of many such failed deadlines, and it would be over 3 months before those bridges were actually captured. While parts of western Marawi had indeed been recaptured most of the city was not, the reality was a gruelling urban battle against experienced and zealous militants had only just begun. A battle the AFP were not prepared or trained for. Initial claims had put a few dozen militants in Marawi, though by the end of the battle the AFP would claim 1,000 militants participated including many foreign fighters.10. However no independent number for the amount of IS fighters participating in the battle has been presented.
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ISEA resistance was unexpectedly fierce and in response AFP reinforcements flooded into the city, culminating in the first airstrikes against ISEA positions on May 25th. While a much welcome relief for soldiers on the front lines – these would cause significant amounts of damage to Marawi. They were also responsible for several friendly fire incidents, including one on May 31st that killed 11 soldiers.11. A short-lived ceasefire was negotiated by MILF for June 4th allowing more civilians to flee the war-zone, though it quickly broke down as fighting restarted. At this point around 2,000 civilians were estimated to remain in the city, many being used as human shields by militants.12. The Philippine government also came to an agreement with MILF to coordinate humanitarian assistance to people displaced from Marawi.13.

As fighting continued to rage after weeks of clashes, the US announced they were providing technical assistance to the AFP including the use of surveillance planes. While it was later confirmed US forces were present in the city, just not actively fighting.14. An incident on June 16th highlighted the difficulties faced by soldiers in Marawi after they came under attack whilst trying to cross one of the cities bridges. A rocket fired by militants destroyed an armoured vehicle while accurate sniper fire cut into the withdrawing troops. A gruelling 14 hour firefight followed, leading to the death of 13 soldiers and the injury of 40 more.15. Despite such setbacks progress was being made. By mid June 80% of Marawi had reportedly been recaptured, however this is significantly less then previously claimed and likely still an exaggeration.16. At the end of June it was announced that Australia would help in the battle by flying reconnaissance missions over Marawi.17.

July saw more incremental gains made against militants, most notably recapturing the first of several key bridges leading into the heart of Marawi. As the conflict entered August the AFP started making more significant progress, having gotten used to the unfamiliar and difficult urban combat they’d found themselves in. By the end of the month militants had been forced back to 400 buildings in the dense eastern half of the city. However it was only at the end of September that the remaining bridges were recaptured, finally allowing the AFP to start an assault on the militants’ remaining holdouts in the city from all sides.18.

This assault pushed militants back to a final few blocks in central Marawi, though progress was hampered by militants use of human shields and the difficulty of utilizing airstrikes in such close quarter fighting. October 16th saw a major breakthrough, with the key commanders Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute being killed. The following day President Duterte declared Marawi had been recaptured, however fighting continued in the final few buildings for another week.19. On October 23rd, exactly 5 months after the city was seized, Marawi was completely retaken and the final black flag of IS was torn down.
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Despite this victory it does not mark the end of the Philippines problems. The battle took a significant toll, over 400,000 people fled their homes while 165 AFP soldiers died and over 1,000 were reportedly injured.20. Philippine government say 920 militants and 47 civilians were killed in the fighting, though more militants have been killed during clashes in Marawi following the official end of the battle.21. However these numbers have not been independently verified and residents have raised concerns that some of the civilian dead were counted as militants. In fact, over 200 unidentified bodies have been buried as suspected militants while officials estimate 700 more bodies are buried in the rubble.22. No analysis of the destruction in Marawi has been carried out yet, however satellite imagery shows various levels of damage throughout the city. The eastern half of Marawi has suffered extreme amounts of destruction. Entire blocks appear to be flattened while all of the pictures from that half of the city show destruction comparable to Raqqa and Mosul.23.

Although they lost this battle, ISEA militants are by no means a beaten force. They continue to clash with the AFP and MILF, while they have attempted to carry out multiple terror attacks. Marawi also gained them a significant propaganda victory, and signalled to the world just how deadly IS can be even in what are perceived to be weaker branches. So despite much jubilation among soldiers, civilians, and the government alike there must be great caution moving forwards. This battle will plague the Philippines for years, and could be the start of a much more dangerous phase of Islamic militancy in the country. For the Philippine government, this should be a much-belated wake-up call about the continued threat IS poses to the country, for all the innocents that would suffer under future violence, we must hope they heed it.

Robert Postings

Robert Postings is a writer for the International Review whose research focus is the Islamic State. As well as writing for the International Review he co-authored the 'Spiders of the Caliphate' research paper for the Counter Extremism Project and has published work with the Modern War Institute at West Point and The Defence Post.


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