When local and foreign jihadists from the Maute Group and the Islamic State (IS) occupied Marawi City, they came very much prepared for a colossal bloody fight with government forces, a challenge that the military may be hard-pressed to deal with until now.
According to Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana, soldiers involved in the operations have also been using nontraditional combat weapons, notably sledgehammers, just to be able to break through into the terrorists’ positions and clear them.
The dangerous and difficult building-to-building and house-to-house “sledgehammer” operation in the crosshairs of snipers’ guns from the other side, was one of the reasons the war has dragged on since it broke out on May 23. The episode had already snuffed out the lives of more than 100 soldiers.
“They already have with them sledgehammers…they cannot also get inside the doors of the houses because these are rigged with bombs; the windows, as well. So through the walls, [they] get inside, [and] clear room by room. Every day that’s what they are doing,” Lorenzana said of the operating troops.
“So, the average clearing that they can do is only about maybe 40 to 50 houses a day, and there are still 600 more houses to do,” he added.
The elaborate preparations made by the terrorists leading to their showdown with government forces, and even in the middle of the battle, helped carved out the new and difficult modern-day war for government forces.
The battle is being fought in the middle of a city, transforming the once progressive urban center into a battlefield. Such battle conditions could probably be a first for the soldiers to deal with.
The terrorists stockpiled powerful weapons and seemingly endless supply of food and ammunitions, built underground bunkers, rigged houses and buildings with improvised explosive devices and positioned snipers in key strategic points.
They have also taken civilians as captives, while a high number of residents are still trapped inside the battle zones.
At the start of the battle, the terrorists even flew surveillance drones to scout and evade the soldiers.
The terrorists are not novice fighters, as shown by their occupation of sturdy houses in defending their positions, as they try to fend off the agonizing inch-by-inch advance of the military.
“For some reason, the Maranaos in Marawi City built their homes very sturdy, they are all concrete…they have basements and they cannot be breached…. Even launchers, the M-203 cannot breach those [walls]. [It had] to [be done] by hand,” Lorenzana said.
With the pace of the operation and at least 600 more houses to be cleared, the defense chief said it may take a little more time before the government can finally clear the city of joint Maute and IS fighters.
“It will take some time. I think 18 months will not be enough to recover or rehabilitate Marawi…so we are looking at the resolution of Marawi in a month or so. Then, after that, we can again deal with some of the problems that’s happening in some other parts of Mindanao,” Lorenzana said.
The battle of Marawi and its dragging resolution were a product of intelligence failure, Lorenzana candidly admits.
“There are a lot of talks coming around that there was failure of intelligence, yeah, in a way it was,” he said. “I said when we were in Moscow, when this thing blew up and I was asked by one of the media people there, was it a failure of intelligence? I said no, it was a failure to appreciate intelligence.”
In admitting there was a failure of intelligence, the defense secretary said that, for the longest time, the defense and military establishment have been reading about the notice put up by the IS on its web site, where it was encouraging its fighters to go to Mindanao if they want to continue fighting.
The IS put up the notice following its decline in Iraq and Syria.
“The President has warned us that the ISIS is coming. Our neighboring countries Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore had also warned us that fighters are infiltrating through the southern boarders going into the southern Philippines,” Lorenzana said.
“But, for some reasons, for the longest time, I think the Armed Forces were in denial of this fact,” he added.
The defense chief hinted he may have been misinformed by the military leadership about the presence of the foreign terrorist group in the country, and he only learned this when they began attacking the Maute in Butig, Lanao del Sur.
“When I assumed the position of secretary of defense, I was told there was no ISIS in the Philippines, so we were keeping that stand until in November, when we had this operation in Butig against the Maute Group. So then we would change our stance and said they are there, they are here,” Lorenzana said.
He added what happened in Marawi was a lesson.
“We failed to appreciate the looming problem because they were trying to infiltrate from the outside toward Marawi City. A lot of firearms, a lot of fighters—foreign and local. When this Marawi incident blew up on May 23, there were only about 200 to 250 fighters. It turned out there were more than 700 at the start of the conflict. That is why up to today, fighting goes on,” Lorenzana said.
Image credits: AFP/Ted Aljibe