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The Battle of Marawi, one year on

Posted By and on October 24, 2018 @ 11:54

One year ago, a gruelling five-month house-to-house, room-to-room battle ended a campaign by Islamic State–inspired militants to turn Marawi into the capital of ‘wilayat sharq Asiyya’, a Southeast Asian province of their imagined empire.

The brutal seizure of the city, brazenly announced on social media with raised index fingers, black flags and the smashing of Christian ‘idols’, was over. The self-proclaimed leaders of IS in Southeast Asia, Ipsilon Hapilon and the Maute brothers, were dead and most of their fighters reportedly killed or in custody. The city was liberated on 23 October 2017.

Yet, victory is marked by destruction: pockmarked buildings and tangled piles of twisted concrete. Walking the deserted streets of Marawi’s main battle area last week, we heard Philippine soldiers’ first-hand accounts of the battle. Fighting an enemy fuelled by ideological hatred and longstanding grievances was gruelling, let alone the plight of civilians caught in the fight.

It’s time to re-evaluate the broader significance of the Philippine government response to the seizure. Reframing the portrayal of the military operation, drawing from on-the-ground insights, enhances our understanding of events and their implications and lessons.

On the tactical level, what was described in the press as a protracted ‘siege’ can be divided into three stages: a day of fortuitous disruption; weeks of evacuation, rescue and regrouping; and months of deliberate clearing. As for the longer-term fight against extremism, what stands out are the military and moral dilemmas—keeping in mind the political consequences of any action is crucial.

Mindanao has a long history of violent resistance to those regarded as oppressors—be they Spanish, American or the government in Manila. Furthermore, Marawi is a city of trading clans that are engaged in perpetual lethal feuds or rido and hold firearms and construct buhos—underground poured-concrete bunkers stocked with food and water. Before the crisis, many Maranaos were antagonistic to the government. Nobody reported the infiltration of several hundred armed militants, including foreigners.

Videos recovered show that the militants had a coherent plan to seize the city on the first day of Ramadan, 26 May. The plan exploited the defensive opportunities offered by Marawi’s geography: the city is protected from approaches on the east and south by Lake Lanao, while a river obstructs approaches from the west. A small force could both defend ground and trap the population—as IS did in Syria and Iraq. The group’s leaders knew that most of the army forces assigned to the Marawi area were operating elsewhere against communist insurgents, and they decided to concentrate forces to attack soldiers in the nearby camp and ambush the three constricted roads through which any relief would come.

The crisis erupted on 23 May, when the Armed Forces of the Philippines learned of the whereabouts of three prominent militant leaders and immediately mounted a raid to arrest them. When the escorting armoured vehicles halted and the arresting troops dismounted to surround the target building, gunfire erupted. Around 100 militants unexpectedly emerged from buildings, killing several of the troops. The ensuing firefight lasted for a day. The raiding force remained pinned down in the area.

The militant leaders escaped in the melee. The fighting triggered a rampage across the city, initiating the planned seizure three days early and without all elements in place. Groups of militants roamed the streets of Marawi, hoisting the black IS flag, killing those who could not recite the shahada, desecrating the only church, releasing prisoners from jail and robbing the bank. Initially, citizens hid. Hastily assembled Philippine relief forces were ambushed on their way to assist the beleaguered  raiding force. When the magnitude of the violence was reported to President Rodrigo Duterte, in Moscow at the time, he declared martial law.

Several factors may have motivated the population to flee rather than bunker down: shock and horror at IS-inspired brutality, memories of army repression in other Mindanao cities during martial law in 1972, expectations of a quickly negotiated settlement—as had occurred during other clashes—or simply the instructions of religious and community leaders. Whatever the reasons, the militants were denied a potentially massive hostage population. Simply labelling the arrest operation a ‘raid gone wrong’ discounts the fortuitous disruption of the militants’ original plan to seize an entire city.

The initial weeks were chaotic. While Philippine authorities rushed forces in to extract pinned-down elements, create a perimeter and manage over 100,000 displaced citizens, the militants consolidated in several strongholds. From these locations they flew drones to observe the military, collected hostages, and raped and tortured them. At a sophisticated insurgent media centre, recordings of outrages were retransmitted, or uploaded via satellite for processing and dissemination overseas. A massive output of IS messages was intended to inspire aggrieved Muslims to action across the world, with a focus on recruiting members from various Muslim insurgent groups on Mindanao.

While Duterte is internationally known for his ‘robust’ approach, at home he also has a reputation as a peace broker from dealing with Marxist and separatist rebellions when mayor of Davao City in Mindanao. His declaration of martial law signalled resolve. Exploiting his reputation as a negotiator, he sought to generate ambiguity for the militants by making statements such as, ‘We can still solve this through dialogue.’

Significantly, he also reached out to the two largest Muslim insurgent groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which at the time were involved in an autonomy negotiation process. Despite not being given a clear mandate to fight IS, many members decided to stand with the government and organised ‘peace corridors’ for evacuation.

From the start, the army messaging emphasised the importance of human rights, political legitimacy and soft power, which took many by surprise. The Philippine military has spent most of its existence confronting insurgencies and was particularly brutal in repressing uprisings on Mindanao in 1972. The chief of army, Lieutenant General Bautista, acknowledging Muslim majority distrust, even hatred, of the military, spoke publicly of avoiding what he called ‘cultural friction’. This was manifest in symbolic actions.

During the evacuation of citizens, he ordered the priority deployment of female soldiers wearing modest Muslim garb to staff security check points in Mindanao—even while soldiers were still trapped in the city and there was a pressing need for combat-focused resources. Similarly, the military ensured it was visibly at the forefront of a whole-of-government effort to provide food, water and shelter, even as it assembled a joint task force (JTF) for the fight, including special forces, tactical police, the coast guard and the air force.

Military statements emphasising soft and hard power were reflected in the JTF’s creation of an ‘information operations’ organisation which deployed new capabilities to shape public opinion, demoralise militants and undermine their narratives. Separately, a team of soldiers, contractors and civilians created a 24-hour media centre to support a public information campaign, while the JTF media teams produced videos and documentaries. Emotive combat footage and human interest stories were used in a sustained ‘battle of narratives and perceptions’ to disrupt and counter IS messaging electronically.

This effort supplemented more traditional methods such as loudspeaker operations, radio transmission and leaflet drops. People trapped in the city made desperate mobile calls for help or showed handmade signs to aircraft overhead. Subsequent accounts of rescues involving the JTF and local Muslims sheltering Christians projected positive messages, powering national support of the JTF. Senior community leaders report that the Maranaos began to slowly re-envisage their erstwhile ‘oppressors’ as rescuers.

While the media battle raged, the JTF isolated Marawi on land and water and began planning and preparing for the recapture. They initiated a process of regrouping, retraining and improvising for urban combat that continued throughout. These first weeks can now be understood as the decisive, narrative-shaping soft phase of the battle, which, relatively speaking, mitigated the domestic political reaction to the inevitable costs of retaking the city.

The built environment of a city is every army’s nightmare. Office buildings and houses form a multitude of stacked, tough concrete cells that hide and protect lurking enemies. A soldier entering is easily shot through tiny loopholes in interior walls or killed by unseen explosive booby-traps. In past urban battles such as Grozny or Fallujah, to avoid these hazards, attacking forces resorted to massive explosive firepower to kill anyone inside buildings or collapse them. This method permits much faster and safer progress; typically one or more blocks may be cleared in the day, yet at a greater cost in civilian casualties and public support.

The systematic recapture of Marawi took four months and left the city a pile of rubble. Some commentators condemned the destructive use of artillery and air power, drawing parallels with reckless urban use of firepower in the Middle East, and many criticised the time taken. Lack of experience and preparedness is acknowledged as a factor by the military itself. Another interpretation is that the slow pace also resulted from a deliberate strategy to minimise risk to hostages, soldiers and mosques. The president reportedly acknowledged the symbolic importance of the latter by giving a direct order that mosques were not to be bombed even if militants were fighting from within.

JTF accounts describe an unexpected threat from IS drones and the difficulty of locating hostages and militants. Technical support from allies (including Australia) enabled further rescues and allowed militants to be targeted. Sectors of the city were allocated to different forces to clear, supported by armoured vehicles and bulldozers equipped with improvised add-on wooden armour, as well as engineers using explosives to breach pathways through buildings.

It seems the JTF’s marines, army and police tactical units fought their sectors differently, reflecting different organisational cultures, experience and equipment. Yet all appear to have conducted a slow advance using mortar, rifle grenade and extensive small-arms fire to try to ‘sweep’ militants from buildings ahead, using air strikes or direct-fire artillery against buildings where militants were located. Certainly by the later stages of the battle, the advance seems to have become a series of individual deliberate attacks on each building in turn, planned in detail and prepared for defence before progressing—as evident in the remaining debris.

This slow clearing of Marawi did not avoid civilian casualties and the centre of the city is a ruin comparable to the likes of Mosul or Idlib. However, compared to battles like Fallujah in 2004, where the overriding narrative was one of disregard for civilian casualties, triggering insurgency, it appears that the JTF messaging of the intention to reduce loss of life prevailed: civilian hostility was muted. Restored trust in the government, crucial to combatting extremism, will now depend on the success of the political process through the implementation of the settlement known as the ‘Bangsamoro Organic Law’, as well as timely, well-managed reconstruction and how the plight of internally displaced persons is addressed.

Several wider lessons can be drawn from the Battle of Marawi. Governments should not allow the urgency of an urban fight to distract from soft-power options and long-term political outcomes, especially when it comes to having credibility in the fight against extremism. Urban terrain enables weaker forces to resist effectively and confronts governments with a political approval dilemma: appear impotent or pay a ransom in citizens’ blood and destruction. The trade-off between time and casualties is part of the calculus of negating the political consequences that militants in asymmetric conflicts seek.

The case of Marawi also shows that urban seizure doesn’t require a supportive population to be effective. Unfortunately, that makes it an attractive option for all kinds of enemies, not just rag-tag insurgent groups. We shouldn’t complacently assume that the Australian Army’s capability relative to that of the Philippine Armed Forces would translate into any great advantage in a similar urban fight.

There is an urgent need to develop and field technologies that allow urban clearing operations with less risk to civilians and soldiers. Promising risk-reduction technologies exist, but they haven’t been acquired. Raising awareness of the tactical challenges and moral dilemmas of urban warfare is necessary to insulate against political impatience and short-sightedness, particularly in response to media pressure.

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