ILIGAN CITY: On May 23, the Maute terrorist group hoisted Islamic State (IS) flags in several areas of Marawi City in Lanao del Sur beginning the siege of this predominantly Maranao enclave that had the Muslim and Christian population fleeing for their lives as military forces engaged the terrorists in a gun battle.
The Marawi siege shocked authorities and local communities for the unexpected show of strength of a group that started with only eight members but whose ranks have swelled to hundreds of jihadist militants viciously fighting the government forces.
The terrorist group was also getting a boost online as the IS propaganda arm, the Amaq news agency, published accounts of the siege as the battle raged on for more than a week. The international jihadist network showed three armored vehicles being shutdown in Marawi even as the IS was losing ground in the Middle East.
The Amaq news agency said the Maute group controlled 80 percent of Marawi during the first day of the fighting. Since then the IS propaganda arm has claimed a number of attacks in Marawi led by the group that calls itself “IS Ranao.”
Military officials, however, said they have regained control of 90 percent of the besieged areas and are now focusing on recovery of the remaining “critical” areas which the jihadists have been holding for more than 10 days.
The government forces have been using ground troops, armored tanks, UV10, F50 and attack helicopters to contain the terror group.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the entire island of Mindanao and suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus to prevent the terrorists from gaining a foothold in the country.
The armed militants that have been engaging the military forces in fierce combat in the lone-Islamic City in the country is led by IS Ranao militants.
The group is known to international terrorism analyst Sidney Jones, director of the Indonesia-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. She previously described IS Ranao as the “smartest” among IS supporting groups in the Philippines.
Abdullah Maute heads the group. He was designated leader in 2016 during the first battle in Butig. Sources said he was chosen leader because of his “academic qualifications” in both Western and Middle Eastern studies.
Maute belongs to a rich and conservative Maranao clan in Lanao del Sur. Most members of the family are associated with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that signed peace agreements with the government.
Many of their recruited members were previously reported as disillusioned by the government’s failure to deliver on its promises of establishing a new Bangsamoro political entity that would replace the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and end the decades-long conflict in the region.
In April last year, the group announced that it has recruited around 100 MILF members in Butig. It was also at that time when they named themselves as IS Lanao. After few days they corrected it to IS Ranao.
The MILF organization, however, disowned its members who have joined the radical group that they say are spreading “virus” ideologies, as previously reported by The Manila Times.
In their recent operation, the jihadists’s planned attack in Marawi was joined by around 200 other local and international jihadists, a reliable source said.
The source confirmed to The Manila Times the presence in Marawi of Isnilon Hapilon, the designated leader of jihadists in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. He was supposedly accompanied by locals and foreigners suspected to be Indonesians and Malaysians during the second day of the fighting.
It was in 2012 when the group declared “Gazwah al-Iftitaah,” the opening of war with the supervision of a foreigner, an alleged member of Jamaah Tawhid wal Jihad (JTJ) and associated with Al-Qaedah in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap).
Authorities are looking into the possible involvement of local political leaders associated with the Maute group.
The group started with only eight people suspected to be from different groups in Mindanao. They were detected sometime in 2013 but the government downplayed the threat group, intelligence authorities claimed.
Its co-founder is Owaidah “Humam” Abdulnajid, who heads a group of strangers called “Ghurabah.” He was reportedly able to convince members of the existing Islamist rebels to join the “caravan” for an Islamic caliphate when they began their recruitment campaigns.
These led to the formation of the umbrella group Khilafah Islamiyah Movement (KIM). It was reportedly discontinued after the fall of Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan in Mamasapano, Maguindanao on January 25, 2015.
Before Marwan was killed, leaders of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM) vowed support to the IS Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014.
New groups were also formed to include the Sarangani-based Ansarul Khilafah in the Philippines (AKP), the IS Ranao also known as the Maute group, the Jundul Khilafah in Sulu, the al-Luzoni and other small groups to support the caliphate.
The groups have continued their recruitment through social media websites, mosque sermons, schools and special events, said a Muslim cleric, who is concerned about the IS threat in the country.
The jihadists are using the long clamor of Muslims in Mindanao for autonomy and misleading interpretation of Islam to justify their jihad, supported by other Muslims issues like the sufferings of the people in Palestine, Syria and Burma, the cleric said.
The source also added that the destruction of civilian houses in the current Marawi Crisis would benefit the group in future propaganda and eventually boost their recruitment by targeting hopeless people.
The provincial government of Lanao del Sur recently tapped moderate ulama or Muslim clerics to engage in an anti-radicalization drive in the Muslim-dominated area. This move has irked the extremists.
This was admitted by Abdulnajid, the KIM and Ghuraba leader, as the battle raged in Marawi. He called the moderate clerics “hypocrites” for fighting their ideologies and local leaders for revealing their whereabouts to the military forces.
“This is for our hypocrite ulama and local leaders… When we were in Butig, you pinpointed us. We went into Poona-bayabao … [and] in Piagapo and again you pinpointed us… Now we are here in Marawi City. We are tired of escaping… We will die here…” Abdulnajid said in statement through hand-held radio.
As the battles in Marawi continue, intelligence authorities admitted that the group, with their “media-savvy” members, is winning the propaganda war.