Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly expressed frustration with the ongoing battle against Islamic State supporters in the southern city of Marawi, threatening to “carpet” bomb the country’s only officially Islamic city if necessary to keep soldiers safe.
“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 Tuesday. Noting the urban landscape in Marawi, which has been largely evacuated, he suggested, “you don’t invade it with men, you really crush it with bombs,” according to the Philippine Inquirer.
“I will order the bombing… carpet already, carpet ah… I will really destroy everything,” he threatened. Duterte went on to suggest that the nation’s Islamists should not trigger a “civil war” because the Christians – an estimated 96 percent of the population – have better guns. They are buying. The rich ones, they are stockpiling guns.”
The Manila Times, which does not report the carpet-bombing remark, adds some context to the remarks on Tuesday: Duterte was speaking while visiting soldiers that had been wounded in the fight against Islamic State affiliates in Marawi. He also made clear that he had two major concerns with the ongoing Marawi situation: “How to hold the Christians with arms, and this IS-linked Maute.”
The Maute group is the Islamic State affiliate currently holding Marawi hostage, along with members of another Islamic State affiliate, Abu Sayyaf.
The Times adds that the Philippine Armed Forces (AFP) have expressed growing confidence that the struggle to reclaim Marawi will end soon. “We are getting near and as each day goes, we are getting closer to totally liberating Marawi because we are continually working to degrade the capacity of the enemy to hold on to their spaces and at the same time sustain their fight,” AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr. said Tuesday.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella, meanwhile, asserted that “the Philippine military has already pre-empted the Maute group from establishing a wilayah or province in Marawi.”
Duterte issued remarks in another location on Tuesday – an evacuation center for residents of Marawi – that appeared to back his administration’s claims of confidence in the battle. He took the opportunity to apologize to the civilians displaced by the battle.
“I had no choice. They are destroying Marawi. I have to drive them out. But I am very sorry,” he told those staying at the center. “I will rebuild Marawi.”
CNN noted in their report on Duterte’s visit to the center that he is leaning on an unlikely ally in the war against radical Islam: the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a militant Islamist separatist group that has supporting Duterte since his election, noting that, as a resident of Mindanao island, Duterte is in tune with the concerns of the local community more than previous Philippine presidents hailing from the nation’s northern elite families.
“They will come to you with beautiful language, they will even read the Koran to you… but don’t touch them because they are the dogs of hell,” an MNLF leader, Datu Abul Khayr Alonto, warned Muslim members in a speech this week, referring to Islamic State supporters. “Your government, the president of Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte did not declare war against the good people of Marawi. He didn’t burn your own homes.”
There are reports that the MNLF and its sister organization, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), have taken up arms against Maute and Abu Sayyaf in Marawi on the side of the Duterte government. Duterte has requested that both Islamist and Communist armed groups support the government, as the Islamic State presents a threat to them, as well.
Philippine Muslims, according to a poll released Monday, highly trust the MILF and MNLF, giving the MILF a 74 percent trust rating and the MNLF a 50 percent trust rating. The poll was taken in March before the Islamic State attempted to establish a caliphate in the south, which may have heightened trust in these groups even more.
Part of their trust of the Moro groups, as opposed to Islamic State elements, comes from their status as indigenous groups (“Moro” is a Spanish term for Muslims still used in the Philippines).
“What is happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens. It has transmogrified into an invasion by foreign terrorists who heeded the clarion call of [the Islamic State],” Philippine Solicitor General Jose Calida explained in May, shortly after the Marawi invasion.
Among the Islamic State fighters there, Philippine authorities have identified Indonesian, Malaysian, and Saudi citizens, among others. Duterte has also alleged that these foreign fighters profit from the illicit trade of methamphetamine (shabu), which has fueled a rampant drug problem among the nation’s poor. Duterte won the presidency last year on a campaign vow to eradicate the nation’s illegal drug trade.