Conflict between Philippine government forces and ISIS in the Philippines continued to worsen this week, after what has already been a month of fighting centered in the southern town town of Marawi. As late as last week there had been hope that the ISIS siege would soon be broken by government forces, but these hopes were dashed after three weeks of fighting.
Reuters reported that military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla had said that the urban terrain was hampering the army’s progress because the rebels had hunkered down in built-up neighborhoods, many of them with civilians taken as human shields.
CNN reported that militants had entered the predominantly Muslim city of some 200,000 suddenly, on the afternoon of May 24, wearing masks and carrying assault rifles. CNN wrote that the siege of Marawi had followed a May 23 army raid that failed to capture a top terror suspect, Isnilon Hapilon, who has been designated by the Islamic State group as its leader in Southeast Asia.
Fox News reported that U.S. Special Forces were assisting the government of the Philippines in breaking the ISIS siege, with U.S. forces providing technical assistance and performing only non-combat roles at this time. Time reported the U.S. Navy had provided surveillance for local troops. Over 100 people are reported to have died in Marawi during the ongoing violence.
Newsweek reported that General Gatot Nurmantyo’s described the Islamic State militant group (ISIS)’s current presence as having taken hold in “almost every province of Indonesia.” He said that militants can be found in sleeper cells across the country, adding that if the Philippines wins, Indonesia would get a spillover effect from the retreating militants, but if the Philippines loses, Mindanao would be a strong regional ISIS base that threatens Indonesia among others.
The conflict has been described as transforming from a rebellion into an invasion by foreign terrorists. Philippine Solicitor General Jose Calida, speaking during a press briefing last week state that “They want to create Mindanao as part of the caliphate.” Newsweek noted that border areas between the Philippines and Indonesia are traditional trading routes. General Ganip was reportedly concerened that ISIS militants would enter Indonesia along such routes, possibly being smuggled by merchants.
Such concerns appear to have been specifically in reference to the Muate brothers, who Reuters has called “Southeast Asia’s Islamist ‘time bomb.'” Malaysian news source The Star has noted assertions by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte that the pair, Abdullah and Omar Maute, were former police officers involved in the illegal sale of drugs. The Muate Group were reported to have provided ISIS a foothold in the region in part through the illegal drug industry.
Concerns relating to ISIS affiliation with drug smugglers like the Muate brothers were heightened after CNN in the Philippines reported that authorities had recovered firearms, explosives, and illegal drugs during a raid at the house of former Marawi City Mayor Fajad Salic. CNN explained that in addition to the drugs recovered from the location, authorities seized “live ammunition, four M203 grenade launchers, and an M16.” Filipino news source ABC CBN also noted that two evacuees from Marawi had been arrested for possessing illegal drugs.