MANILA – A Muslim militant group that is tactically smart, savvy with social media and eager to align with the Islamic State has emerged from the glut of bandit and separatist groups in the southern Philippines, and so far has proved to be more than a match for the military.
Maute guerrillas seized large parts of Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city in the Mindanao region, on Tuesday after security forces, seeking to arrest one of Asia’s top Islamic militant leaders, Isnilon Hapilon, botched a raid on a hideout of his group.
Fighting abated on Wednesday and Thursday, fighters were still in control of parts the city, 1,400 km (870 miles) south of Manila. They allowed many civilians to leave, although they had taken a Catholic priest hostage.
President Rodrigo Duterte has imposed martial law across Mindanao, saying he would use tough measures to prevent a “contamination” by Islamist extremists in the region, which comprises one-third of the sprawling, Catholic-majority Philippines.
“The Philippines is facing a dangerous group with more solid international connections,” security expert Rommel Banlaoi said of the Maute.
“This will be a game-changer in the fight against Islamist extremism, we haven’t seen anything like this before.”
The Philippines has long fought a simmering Islamic insurgency in Mindanao, but it has signed peace deals with some of the main militant groups and contained others. The region is also home to Marxist guerrillas as well as bandit gangs.
Based in Lanao del Sur, the Mindanao province which includes Marawi, the Maute surfaced around 2013 with a bombing of a nightclub in Cagayan de Oro, a mainly Christian city in a neighboring province, which killed six people.
The little-known group has raised its profile since Duterte took office 11 months ago, most notably with a September 2016 bombing of a street market in the president’s hometown of Davao City. Fourteen people were killed and dozens wounded.
It was blamed for a foiled bomb attempt near the United States Embassy in Manila in November.
The group is named after its leaders, the Maute brothers, both Filipinos with extensive ties to the Middle East, according to the military.
Egypt-educated Omarkhayan Romato Maute married an Indonesian, the daughter of a conservative Islamic cleric, while his brother Abdullah studied in Jordan and has links to Arab extremists. A third brother, Hashim, was arrested but escaped from a Marawi jail last year.
Last year, the group sought recognition from the Islamic State, pledging allegiance and calling itself as the IS-Ranao.
The Maute brothers are cousins of the second wife of Alim Abdulaziz Mimbantas, a leader of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) who is now dead. The government signed a peace deal with the MILF in 2014.
Military intelligence said the Maute brothers also had links to two of the region’s most dangerous militants — Indonesian Ustadz Sanusi and Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan. Both were killed by Philippine security forces, Sanusi in 2012 and bin Hir in 2015.
In an October 2016 report, regional security expert Sidney Jones said the Maute “has the smartest, best-educated and most sophisticated members of all of the pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines.”
Jones said the Maute group was sophisticated in its use of social media and was able to attract students and teachers from the Mindanao State University in Marawi.
The Philippines had until this year denied it was home to groups with Islamic State ties. In February, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said there was credible intelligence showing Islamic State was providing funds and sounding out the Philippines as a base.
The military has not had much success in battles with Maute fighters, despite far greater numbers and use of planes, attack helicopters and artillery.
“The Mautes have shown an ability to absorb what would seem to be major losses in clashes with the police and military, suggesting that their organization is larger and better organized that perhaps they have been given credit for,” Jones said in the report.
Military officials say it is not possible to estimate the number of Maute fighters — some reports have put the number of at over 100, but others say there could be about 1,000.
What is troubling the security apparatus is that radical elements of another Islamic State-linked group, Abu Sayyaf, appear to be collaborating with Maute, far from its island strongholds of Basilan, Jolo and Tawi Tawi, all off Mindanao.
The military says Hapilon, a leader of Abu Sayyaf, which is notorious for kidnappings and piracy, sought an alliance with the Maute brothers and was wounded in airstrikes in January in Lanao del Sur.
Hapilon, who is also wanted by the United States, was the target of Tuesday’s attempted raid in Marawi, but was not captured.
Hapilon was purportedly designated leader of the Islamic State group’s Southeast Asia branch last year but has long ties to local extremist movements.
Born in 1966, the Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher with an engineering degree from the University of the Philippines was once commander of the Moro National Liberation Front, an Islamic separatist group. He later ascended the ranks of Abu Sayyaf to become its second in command.
Hapilon gained notoriety beyond the Philippines when he allegedly helped Abu Sayyaf kidnap 20 hostages from a Filipino resort in 2001. The victims included three U.S. citizens, one of whom eventually was beheaded.
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Hapilon over the attack. He is included on the department’s “Most Wanted Terrorist” list, with a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.
In 2014, Hapilon appeared in a video beside two masked men pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group, which was then gaining ground in Iraq and Syria. He went on to organize an alliance in the Philippines called Dawlatul Islam Wilayatul Mashriq, which is now believed to include at least 10 small militant groups, including some Abu Sayyaf factions. Last year, he was reportedly chosen to lead the Islamic State group branch in Southeast Asia.
The Philippine military has targeted Hapilon repeatedly with large-scale military operations, and has come close to killing him. But the militant leader remains elusive.
In 2008, troops bombarded an Abu Sayyaf camp near Jolo Island with artillery and mortar fire, reportedly wounding Hapilon in the hand. He was also reportedly wounded in another operation in 2013.
The latest close call came in January, when the military attacked militants with ground troops and airstrikes, dropping 500-pound (225-kilogram) bombs from military jets. The operation left 15 militants dead, and the army said Hapilon was seriously wounded in the arm. Losing blood, he was placed on a makeshift stretcher, escaping into a mountainous region of Butig in southern Lanao del Sur province.