The Philippine military has failed to significantly move forward in the battle to liberate Marawi, the nation’s only official “Islamic city,” from the Islamic State, as President Rodrigo Duterte marks his first year in office.
The Philippine Star cites eyewitness accounts from civilians and soldiers alike that Marawi appears nowhere near close to liberation.
Terrorists belonging to the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf, two Islamic State affiliates in the Philippines, attacked the city in early May, triggering a 60-day martial law order and an extensive military assault including both ground operations and airstrikes. “Scores of bodies are rotting in the area, and the stench mixes with the smell of gunpowder,” the Star notes.
Thousands of soldiers reportedly continue to fight in the dense, booby-trapped urban streets, killing as many Maute terrorists as possible. The military estimates about one hundred jihadists remain in the city, holding another hundred civilians hostage.
Among those believed to remain in Marawi is Isnilon Hapilon, the head of the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters Monday that Hapilon as hiding in a mosque in the city to avoid bombings. The Marawi siege began in May when Philippine soldiers surrounded Hapilon’s suspected hideout and, in turn, were attacked by Maute terrorists. While Maute and Abu Sayyaf are independent groups, they have engaged in close cooperation in Marawi.
Maute’s terrorists are largely teens and young men, many reportedly recruited as boys with the promise of a free Islamic education. Allowed to join the group by impoverished parents, older terrorists then brainwash the children into a life of jihad, suggesting that proper Islamic worship requires terrorist violence. The Maute terrorists are largely behind the mass abductions occurring in the city.
Military intelligence suggests that the situation for civilians taken hostage by the ISIS terrorists is harrowing. In public remarks last week, military officials told reporters that they had evidence suggesting that the civilians were being held as slaves – some cooking, others performing first aid on wounded soldiers, and many of the girls and women forced into sex slavery, a common Islamic State practice.
Some civilians are being forced out into the streets to loot homes, seeking food and other goods, with terrorists hoping the military will not shoot and kill them if they are found. Some other civilians have been forced to carry injured terrorists into mosques, which the Philippine government has promised not to bomb.
The most prominent among Marawi’s hostages is Catholic priest Father Teresito “Chito” Suganob, whom the Islamic State used in a hostage video in May to demand that Duterte give the city up to ISIS. The military confirmed that Suganob, as of Monday, was still alive and likely being forced to work for the terrorists. Escaped hostages say they saw Suganob being forced to cook for the terrorists, according to military spokesman Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera.
As the military struggles to liberate the city, President Duterte has announced the creation of a task force to rebuild what the terrorists have destroyed. The Task Force Bangon Marawi “will focus on the recovery, reconstruction, and rehabilitation of Marawi City and other affected areas,” according to Philippine outlet ABS-CBN.
This task force will not focus on military operations but the reconstruction of destroyed urban areas and the rebuilding of utilities and necessary services, like clinics, housing, and law enforcement. “With this document, we can now start stockpiling construction materials for the rehabilitation of Marawi,” defense secretary Lorenzana, who will lead the task force, explained Monday. “One of the things that we would like to restore immediately are the stores so that when the residents go back then they have places to buy their provisions.”
The task force follows a promise from Duterte that he would rebuild the city, but not before “carpet-bombing” it if necessary to eradicate the Islamic State. “I will not put the soldiers at high risk. If I have to bomb the… if I have to flatten the place, I will do it. And I will take full responsibility for it,” he said in a speech on June 22.
Lorenzana announced Monday that the government will seek to end the Marawi operation before the end of the month when Duterte is scheduled to deliver his second State of the Nation address.