As the Philippine military was finally able to gun down the two terrorists leading the rebellion in Marawi City, Mindanao, President Duterte has declared Marawi liberated from terrorist influence. The bodies of Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the bandit group, Abu Sayyaf, touted as the “emir” of ISIS in Southeast Asia, and Omarkhayam Maute of Lanao del Sur’s Maute terrorist clan, were recovered and positively identified after a targeted operation last Monday, October 16. The photos of the slain leaders quickly circulated in social media and drone video shots of the operation were shown on TV, signaling a major turning point in this long drawn-out battle.
But this victory comes at a high cost. After months of intense fighting, Marawi, the only Muslim city in the Philippines, lay in ruins. A city burnt to the ground with buildings reduced to rubble, houses riddled with bullets. During the siege, the militants were able to fight off and elude the heavy bombardment and airstrikes coming from the government. This revealed that the terrorist fighters were well armed and prepared. Fighting on the ground was painstakingly slow; going from street to street as the government forces slowly retook portions of the city in an effort to minimize collateral damage. Majority of the residents had to flee, heading towards Iligan City. Since then, 150,000 evacuees have been living in makeshift shelters and centers. The death toll– more than 800 among the militants and 162 from the government’s forces. From the start of the conflict, the terrorists took hostages as they holed up in buildings, houses and mosques. They staunchly fought off the military in a fierce urban war the likes of which has not been seen on Philippine soil for decades. Reports of the terrorists killing hostages and residents unable to flee and caught in the crossfire trickled in as the days passed. There were accounts of women being raped, families separated, houses ransacked. To date, a total of 1700 hostages have been reported as rescued by Philippine forces. The conflict had cost the military at least 2 Billion Pesos and, with the level of devastation levied on the city, officials say more than $1 Billion will be needed to rebuild the city. A new city will have to rise from the ashes, the lives and livelihoods of thousands will have to be rebuilt.
The declaration of liberation was a welcome turn of events but Marawi evacuees still have to wait for the go signal to return to the city. Fighting continues as the city has not yet been totally cleared of terrorists. Speaking to The Associated Press (AP), Gen. Eduardo Ano said Duterte’s pronouncement indicated that the terrorist threat was substantially over. “They’re leaderless and they have no more organization,” the Armed Forces Chief of Staff said. “There are still skirmishes.” According to the military spokesperson, Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr., there are still terrorists left in Marawi, including foreign fighters and they still hold some hostages which include women and children.
There still remains a part of the network that continues to exist in other parts of Mindanao like Jolo, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan and other parts of Lanao as well as Maguindanao and Cotabato, which needs to be addressed continuously for that threat to be managed,” Padilla said. After eliminating Hapilon’s Abu Sayyaf faction and the Maute group, Ano said the military’s next targets would be the other Abu Sayyaf bandits in Sulu and Basilan provinces, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Central Mindanao and the communist New People’s Army (NPA) operating in Mindanao. “So this will continue. There will be no letup. It’s about time [we finished] these terrorists here in Mindanao,” he said.
Martial Law was imposed on the whole island of Mindanao when the fighting ensued. Consultations are now ongoing as to whether Martial Law could be lifted and by when; with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana saying that a decision could be reached before the end of October.
The ferocity and length of the war “defied expectations”.
What started out as a serving of a warrant of arrest to the long-pursued fugitive, Isnilon Hapilon who was traced as being in Marawi triggered this long drawn-out war. Many were surprised by the number of terrorists who were in the city which included some foreign fighters, armed with sophisticated weapons and all-out ready to take on the government. The military was forced to come in as a decision was taken not to negotiate or hold back-end talks with the rebels. As the days rolled by, it became evident that they were well prepared. They used tunnels under the city to move from building to building. They used mosques as headquarters, knowing full well that the government will comply with international standards of warfare which prohibit shelling places of worship. They took hostages as human shields, looted stores and homes for food and additional arms. They knew how to fabricate bombs from scavenged material. The government had underestimated the “enemy” and the military, more used to fighting guerrillas and bandits in the jungles, had to adjust to urban warfare tactics while taking extreme caution so as not to unduly endanger hostages and expose soldiers to unnecessary harm.
To date, cleanup of some of the communities in areas considered as safe zones has begun. The government has been meeting with barangay officials to begin mapping out preparations. But evacuees will have to wait for the go signal as to when they can safely begin returning back to Marawi. Consultations, plans and proposals for the reconstruction of the city are underway.
But the fight against terrorists and bandits is not over. Peace still remains elusive. International terrorist experts say that, with ISIS losing ground in the Middle East, the focus of the Islamic state is shifting towards establishing a stronghold in South East Asia. This complicates the historic, decades-long More conflict in Mindanao. The government and all stakeholders need to join forces and work harder to address the roots of the problem and ensure that Mindanao does not become a breeding ground for extremist recruitment.