Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte made his second visit to the Islamic State-controlled city of Marawi on Friday, greeting soldiers and vowing to establish a trust fund for the education of children whose parents serve in the military.
Marawi is the only officially “Islamic city” in the Philippines, whose population is more than 90 percent Christian. Islamic State-linked terrorist groups Maute and Abu Sayyaf attacked the city in May, attempting to build a “caliphate” within the Philippines. The Philippine military has yet to successfully eradicate the Maute elements from the city, hampered by the dense urban landscape. Most civilian residents have fled Marawi, though the terrorists have trapped some hostages in the heart of the city.
Friday’s visit was the second trip to Marawi Duterte has made since the Maute group attacked the city in May. A Duterte aide told reporters that the visit was meant to “boost morale” and that it included an extended meet and greet with soldiers as well as an inspection of a medical post for soldiers injured fighting in the city. Rappler, a Philippine outlet, said Duterte spent an hour “talking to soldiers, visiting those wounded in battle, and entertaining requests for selfies.”
“I have to be here because I want all of you to know that … I love you all,” he said in an address to the active troops fighting there, according to the official Philippine government’s announcement of his visit. “I hope you will be able to clean up Marawi City and get rid of the terrorists.”
Duterte vowed he would establish “a trust fund of 50 billion when [he goes] out of the presidency.” He added, “That 50 billion will be dedicated solely to the education of your children.” He cited “the disparity between the rich and the poor” as one of the nation’s greatest challenges and promised to protect the futures of children whose fathers may die fighting against terrorists.
Duterte declared a state of emergency in May following the initial attack on the city. Since then, an estimated 500 jihadists have been killed, while reports suggest only 50 to 70 Maute terrorists remain in the city. Eyewitness and soldier reports indicate that many of these fighters are teens and young adults, as the Maute group relies in part on recruiting and indoctrinating children to fight in their jihad.
Despite the relatively small number of terrorists remaining in the city, Duterte has refused to use airstrikes or target areas such as mosques that are cornerstones of the civilian community there, complicating the fight against the terrorist group. Another issue making the complete liberation of the city more difficult is the extensive use of explosives by the terrorists on the ground there. “Scattered all over the city are IEDs [improvised explosive devices] that have been set up by the terrorists,” Armed Forces spokesperson Restituto Padilla Jr. told reporters this week.
On Wednesday, Philippine senators confirmed that Duterte has demanded the legislature fund the recruitment of 20,000 more soldiers, both to handle the Marawi situation and remain prepared for any future Islamic State attacks.
“He wanted to relay to us that he needs 20,000 more soldiers for the entire Armed Forces of the Philippines,” Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto confirmed to ABS-CBN, a national outlet.
During his annual state of the nation address in July, Duterte lamented how long the siege of Marawi has continued, with tens of thousands of residents still displaced, unable to return home. He called the attack a “terrible blow to our quest for peace” by “an alien ideology.”
A week before that speech, Duterte predicted that “in 10 to 15 days it’ll already be OK” in Marawi, a prediction that did not materialize.