On May 23rd, 4th Light Reaction Company operators alongside a company of Scout-Rangers quietly approached the hideout of terrorist leader Isnilon Hapilon. The Philippine armed services had been conducting a long-term surveillance operation on the terrorist safe house, located among a small cluster of homes along a road on the outskirts of Marawi. The U.S. Special Forces-trained Philippine troops closed the distance, their breacher attaching what is known as a “water impulse charge” to the six-foot high front gate in order to explosively enter the structure and initiate the raid. The concrete three-story building had been specifically chosen by the Abu Sayyaf sub-commander for its defensive features. It was located on a road so narrow that one car could hardly pass at a time, which formed a choke point.
The 4th LRC operators initiated the explosive breach, gained entry to the safe house, and a firefight broke out on the ground floor. While the firefight raged, Hapilon managed to escape. What the operators did not know at the time was that they had just disrupted the planning of the most large-scale and deadly terrorist attack in their country’s history. For months, Hapilon had been working with the Maute Group to establish themselves as an ISIS affiliate in the Philippines, a so-called “wilayat,” or a province in the ISIS caliphate. The city of Marawi is almost entirely Muslim and combined with other social factors; the Maute Group was unopposed as they planned a massive terrorist operation which included establishing weapons caches around the city.
While the media has largely reported that the May 23rd raid triggered the Marawi siege, the military uncovered a much larger plot by the Maute Group to raid not just Marawi, but also the 103rd Brigade Headquarters, the towns of Iligan, Cagayan de Oro and other outlying areas. The 4th LRC direct action raid forced Hapilon to move up his time-table, allowing him to only execute a portion of what he was planning.
“The assault on May 23 prevented the grand plan of Maute-ISIS to establish a wilayat and initiate attacks in different cities as they normally do in Iraq and Syria,” said Major General Danilo Pamonag, the commander of Philippine Special Operations Command who later took control of the overall operation to restore order in Marawi in an exclusive interview with SOFREP.
The Siege of Marawi
Jihadist groups in the Philippines once enjoyed financing from trans-national terrorist networks in the Middle East. In the 1990s there was a confluence of events and circumstances which led to groups like Abu Sayyaf receiving funding from Saudi Arabians through shady NGO cutouts. Due to the hard work of Philippine security forces, these terrorists were separated from their sources of funding. This inadvertently led to the creation of a kidnapping-for-ransom culture among various terrorist organizations in the Philippines as they sought new sources of financing their lifestyle. With the outbreak of a full-blown terrorist caliphate in the Middle East, a so-called Islamic State, terror group leaders like Hapilon likely had dollar signs in their eyes and made moves to attract ISIS financing as so many others have in the Middle East and Africa.
Regarding this phenomena, a Philippine Scout-Ranger officer commented to SOFREP that, “We observe that these insurgents are no longer motivated by their ideology but that this is something they do as their livelihood.”
Maj. Gen. Pamonag elaborated on this saying,
A few years back in 2015, Isnilon Hapilon, who was a sub-leader of Abu Sayaff Group (ASG) in Basilan Province, pledged allegiance to ISIS … he went to Central Mindanao then later to Lanao Province to harmonize the different threat groups into one solid ISIS-PHI group. Isnilon Hapilon, who was named as “Emir” of the South East Asia, received huge amounts of money from IS to recruit groups, procure equipment, and sustain their struggle until they established wilayat.”
On one hand, Hapilon was trying to attract overseas financing, and the last stage he needed to become fully recognized as an ISIS affiliate was to actually take and hold ground that would constitute his wilayat. On the other hand, the Philippines has a long running indigenous insurgency, one that has previously included the siege of the entire city of Zamboanga back in 2013 before ISIS was on anyone’s radar. One interpretation of events is that this was again a confluence of events, which the push (local) and pull (international) dynamics aligning for a bad actor like Hapilon.
Several days after the raid on the safe house, the Maute Group took to the streets of Marawi, sieging the city with the intent of raising the black ISIS flag above governmental buildings. Additional soldiers from the Light Reaction Regiment, NAVSOG (SEALs), as well as Philippine Marines, were air lifted in to repel the Maute Group. The soldiers were no stranger to the Maute Group and their antics as they had previously tried to raise the ISIS flag over small towns and cities before being slapped down by security forces. However, there were a number of false starts and hiccups. Philippine troops were sadly killed by friendly fire during airstrikes. An armored vehicle belonging to the Police Special Action Force (SAF) was captured in the early days of the fighting.
In the first weeks, troops on the ground reported to SOFREP that the situation was under control that the armed forces had cordoned off the area that the Maute Group had captured and order would soon be restored. This turned out to be optimistic. However, Maj. Gen. Pamonag defended claims that ending the siege took a long time, even compared to what happened in Zamboanga.
Maj. Gen. Pamonag told SOFREP:
Consider this: there are around 2,000 civilian hostages, fighting was done in the Commercial Business District (CBD) of Marawi City where all the commercial structures and institutions [are] like big universities, schools, several big hospitals, Mosques, commercial buildings, such as big banks, theaters, and tall commercial buildings all comprising of some 4,000 big, tall, and concrete structures. How would you clear those structures? We did it in just a 5 month-long siege, with all their [enemy] leaders killed and hostages recovered. This is not long.”
Maj. Gen. Pamonag points out that the performance of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) was strong, especially when compared to how other recent large-scale urban assaults turned out in cities like Mosul and Aleppo, each happening with robust military support from the United States or Russia.
One Light Reaction Regiment member stated that the siege appeared to take so long because of “the system of clearing they did. They did a systematic clearing instead of a selective one most of the time. Other factors I also noticed was the presence of IEDs that slowed the government troops’ advance. And the land area of the area of operations is vast for the initial numbers of troops deployed.”
Marawi was different
Making a cross comparison between the 2013 Zamboanga siege and the 2017 Marawi siege also results in some interesting conversation. In Marawi, the Maute Group wanted to receive recognition from ISIS and establish a province for themselves. In Zamboanga, a rogue MNLF faction sought to oppose the ratifying of a new agreement with the mainstream MNLF members, which would make the extremist faction less relevant. The tactics had some things in common, but the motives were different. In both instances these groups achieved some measure of international attention which was perhaps a big part of their end game.
“[The] siege in Marawi is bigger in magnitude and scale,” Maj. Gen. Pamonag described. “The fighting in Zambo was confined in 8 barangays (small political area) of Zambo City, hence the city government and other government offices were still functioning and able to support the government troops while in the Marawi siege the fighting was brought down there [on] the whole city … Everybody was affected and nobody could provide necessary support (through social welfare, Red Cross, evacuation of Internally Displaced Persons, etc.) to the troops.”
In Zamboanga, most of the structures were thin-walled, like shanty towns which bullets and explosives would zip right through. In Marawi, almost all of the buildings were made of concrete which provided the enemy with solid cover and concealment. Another big difference between 2013 and 2017 was the extensive use of IEDs. “They belted the city with IEDs and they were everywhere — in the street, alley, all corners, inside the structures…” Maj. Gen. Pamonag said. The enemy also employed snipers and commercial drones, in some cases with the assistance of the approximately thirty foreign fighters who participated in the siege. Maj. Gen. Pamonag also stated that the enemy appears to have become more barbaric, executing Christian civilians, sometimes on camera. Dead Philippine soldiers were also decapitated and burned. “Worse, they raped the women,” Pamonag stated.
It should be noted that several LRR operators who participated in ending the Zamboanga siege relayed stories to SOFREP about how hostages were raped there as well. Two operators independently told SOFREP about how when they cleared the bodies of dead terrorists they discovered that they were wearing women’s underwear, stolen from victims or out of abandoned homes. While it may sound far-fetched, both men seemed disturbed when re-telling the story, as if what they witnessed disgusted and confused them.
In Marawi, the terrorists also burned down churches and a university.
Ending the Siege
As the siege stretched on, some expressed frustration. The newly elected President Duterte had promised to get tough on crime and terrorism. He had his minister of defense order the military to conduct nearly constant patrols on the island of Sulu in order to stomp out the insurgency there. Informed observers, including the commander of the Sulu operations, expressed some skepticism with what was realistically possible.
Some unproven claims were even made to SOFREP that the Armed Forces of the Philippines were dragging out the siege of Marawi intentionally as the military was being allocated increased resources and weapons deals that had been previously held up due to political considerations and were now being pushed through because of the emergency. Soon, a sort of tug of war for influence developed between the United States and China. Duterte has publicly criticized the U.S. military while aligning himself with China. The Chinese quickly provided small arms to the Philippine forces and, according to some sources, pressured the Philippine government to show them in action in Marawi. Several sources in the Philippine armed services told SOFREP that the military regards Chinese weapons to be second-rate at best and kicked those weapons down to the police force. Meanwhile, the United States provided Special Forces advisers called the Liaison Control Element (LCE), drone coverage, and aerial surveillance.
At this point, Maj. Gen. Pamonag was brought into the fold.
I learned lessons during Zambo Siege, and I was given the opportunity by our AFP leadership to come in into the picture after 2 months due to mounting casualties and slow-paced operations. I was initially called to act as adviser in the first week (at the outset of siege), then later after 45 days they designated me as Ground Commander of the Main Battle Area.”
Pamonag established his own Tactical Operations Center and began assigning a task and purpose to each formation in his battle group.
Later, Maj. Gen. Pamonag found himself dual hatted as the ground force commander as well as the commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force Trident (JSOTF) in charge of ending the entire siege. The operations became “quick and decisive when I assumed command of Trident and Marawi,” although Pamonag attributes this to “the ability to harmonize the troops, embracing the spirit of jointness, the trust I gave to my subordinate commanders who are at the front of the battle, and my determination to prevail and will to win no matter what odds.”
The net was closing on the Maute Group. Omar Maute and Isnilon Hapilon were killed toward the tail end of the operation. There have been many parties trying to claim credit for the kills, but SOFREP has learned that it was LRR snipers who killed both terrorist leaders with SR-25 sniper rifles. On October 23rd, Secretary of Defense Lorenzana declared an end to hostilities in Marawi.
Much of Marawi was damaged or destroyed in the course of the fighting which resulted in the deaths of 165 soldiers and nearly a thousand militants. Amnesty International has accused both sides of human rights violations — the Maute Group for murdering civilians and the Armed Forces of the Philippines for mistreating prisoners. A recent Washington Post article interviewed several citizens of Marawi who seemed to criticize their government more than the terrorists for the killings and destruction in their city. What alternative the government had is not given, as if the democratically elected government of the Philippines was simply supposed to allow ISIS to set up a part of their country as a province for terrorists.
In the same article, Omar Maute’s widow laments the death of her husband who she says was a good man. The article continues, with some placing the blame for the destruction in Marawi at the feet of none other than U.S. Special Forces.
In messages this summer on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, Maute fighters were already crafting their pitch. ‘We did not destroy Marawi, we did not bomb it to ashes,’ read a message posted July 15, according to an IPAC report. ‘We never intended harm to the city and its people.’ (Washington Post)
This plays well into the conspiracy theories that some people in the Philippines believe about secret CIA plots against their country, but it also demonstrates the same skepticism about the United States that President Duterte has shown on many occasions. It also shows that some people in Marawi are not prepared to take responsibility for what happened to their city. During the fighting, many locals fought alongside the Maute group, either voluntarily or after being pressured into service.
Maj. Gen. Pamonag explained that,
Isnilon Hapilon and Maute brothers had long before been in the city of Marawi, preparing to establish wilayat, however, the people of Marawi were not informing the authorities. As you know, Marawi is the Islamic Capital of our country with 99.66% [of citizens practicing] Islam. Hence, Maute-ISIS were able to gain ground, established networks, and cache firearms.”
The Philippine armed forces has once again defeated another challenge to the democratically elected government of the Philippines. The Maute Group has been rendered combat ineffective if not defunct the same way the rogue MNLF faction was in Zamboanga was in 2013. With that said, the Philippines has been facing an insurgency that, in one form or another, can be traced back nearly 70 years to the Hukbalahap Rebellion. The enemy has proven tenacious and regards a defeat as simply another lead in to the next strategic gambit. In conversations with Philippine military officers, it has been expressed to SOFREP that they are fully aware that the military cannot solve the underlying social issues which lead to insurgency alone.
The endeavor of fighting for peace will no doubt require the full participation of the Philippine government and people working together.