The battle to prevent Islamic State-affiliated jihadists from establishing a Caliphate in the southern Philippines has begun, as President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the Philippine military to overtake the city of Marawi Thursday and wipe out all elements of the Maute group.
The Maute are a jihadist group indigenous to the Philippines who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Maute terrorists took over Marawi, a city on southern Mindanao island, on Tuesday following a failed police raid on a home believed to house Isnilon Hapilon, the head of Abu Sayyaf, another ISIS-affiliated Philippine jihadist group.
The Associated Press describes Marawi as a “no-go zone” following Duterte’s order to establish martial law over his native Mindanao and the surrounding region, noting that at least 21 people have died since the Maute terrorists overran the city on Tuesday. Maute terrorists have abducted a priest and Catholic believers, beheaded the city’s police chief, and begun flying the Islamic State flag over the city, according to eyewitnesses. Maute terrorists also broke into two prisons and freed more than 100 jihadists, now helping kill police, soldiers, and civilians in the city.
Duterte clarified on Wednesday that the martial law declaration allows for warrantless arrests, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and extrajudicial killing. He added that he was willing to expand the state of martial law nationwide should the jihadists expand their reach.
“Anyone caught possessing a gun and confronting us with violence, my orders are shoot to kill. I will not hesitate to do it,” he said. “If I think that you should die, you will die. If you fight us, you will die. If there is an open defiance, you will die.”
Duterte appeared to be keeping his promise on Thursday. The Philippine outlet ABS-CBN reports that the military has begun conducting “surgical airstrikes” on Maute/Abu Sayyaf positions in Marawi. “We are conducting clearing operations in three barangays [districts]. … We have sightings of the remnants of the local terrorist group,” armed forces spokesman Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera told reporters. “They are still here but we are flushing them out. We are flushing them out.”
Herrera asserted that police intelligence suggested Hapilon remained within Marawi’s city limits, and army operations had not killed any civilians. “We’re very thankful that we have, on the record, no collateral damage,” he told reporters.
Duterte himself has arrived in Mindanao, where he continues to live despite having access to Manila’s Malacanang palace, and is scheduled to meet with Philippine National Police (PNP) chief, Director General Ronald dela Rosa, in Davao Thursday. Duterte has repeatedly warned that the Islamic State would eventually attempt to establish itself as a force in the Philippines, particularly as its influence in Syria and Iraq waned. He has also claimed to have “cousins” who support the Islamic State and reached out to other Muslim groups, like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in the hope of keeping them from building alliances with Abu Sayyaf and Maute. The ISIS-affiliated terrorists currently attacking Mindanao are not believed to be Middle Easterners fleeing the Raqqa and Mosul battlegrounds, but native Philippine radicals.
While small, the Maute group has long concerned Philippine authorities and national security observers. The Singapore Straits Times highlights a 2016 report calling Maute terrorists “the smartest, best-educated and most sophisticated members of all of the pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines.” Abu Sayyaf, meanwhile, has elevated its profile by taking foreigners as hostages, beheading two last year after Manila refused to pay for their release.
An estimated 86 percent of the Philippines is Roman Catholic, while another six percent identify as Christians of another denomination. Only four percent of the country identifies as Muslim, most from the southern islands. Should the Islamic State establish a Caliphate in the country, it would represent an unprecedented victory for the cause of global jihad.