The rise of Maute Group

PRESIDENT Duterte was correct, after all, in his prognosis on the state of peace and order in Mindanao, which partly became his basis in framing the anticriminality campaign as his administration’s major thrust.

In Photo: President Duterte visits the site of an explosion that killed more than a dozen people and wounded several others at a night market in Davao City, his hometown, on September 3, 2016.
In Photo: President Duterte visits the site of an explosion that killed more than a dozen people and wounded several others at a night market in Davao City, his hometown, on September 3, 2016.

However, the Commander in Chief may not meet his forecast of ending the problem of terrorism in the region by this month, given the results of the operations against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which he had fully entrusted to Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Ricardo R. Visaya with an accompanying explicit order of finishing the group “to the last man”.

Visaya is retiring on December 8 and yet, not only the campaign against the ASG in the provinces of Sulu and Basilan, which is being undertaken by 18 battalions of soldiers and six companies of militiamen, is still to reach its full operational tempo. The terrorism problem has even widened.

Ironic or not, the assumption into power of the Duterte administration has also opened a new front in the campaign against terrorism, courtesy of the Lanao del Sur-based Maute Group, which corresponds to the President’s war against criminality.

In the league of ASG

When Duterte declared criminality as his administration’s focus, the previously unheralded Maute Group raced to meet this declaration by mutating into a full-blown terrorist group-cum-Moro jihadist that is in the league of the ASG in less than five months—more potent and bolder, in fact.

From July this year, when Duterte mobilized the whole apparatus of the government in the campaign against crime, the terrorist group, which the military initially considered as being aligned with the regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah but confined in Lanao del Sur, has steadily built its reputation as a terror group that the government will contend with even in the years to come.

The group has built its memberships from the rosters of young radicalized Moros and even hardened fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, whose stronghold area in Lanao del Sur was the same area that it has also initially operated on.

Again, the Commander in Chief was correct in his reading when he prioritized the problem of terrorism in Mindanao, something that he coyly dismissed just so he can send home American Special Forces still present in Western Mindanao for counter-terrorism operations. He may even be considered a soothsayer in the case of the Maute Group.

While the Lanao-based terror group, led by seven Maute siblings, two of whom have already been killed in previous operations by the military, is still to duplicate the kidnapping activities of the ASG that put it on the map, it has already been on a par with the original terror group in terms of bombing credentials and record of violent confrontations with the government.

While the ASG, which has been in operation since the early-1990s, has mostly committed its bombings in Mindanao, the Maute Group ushered its first publicly known bombing right in the hometown of Duterte in Davao City in September, killing 14 people and wounding at least 70 others.

Before the bombing, Duterte was even advocating for stronger and tougher measures in dealing with crime, especially in the region, even mobilizing the military for the job in support of the Philippine National Police, which again showed his analytical gift in the area of law and order.

The Davao City bombing gave the President the reason to push for one of his extreme measures by putting the entire country under state of emergency “on account of lawless violence,” a condition that Filipinos never before experienced in relation to the fight against crime.

On Monday a bomb was recovered near the US Embassy in Manila, which the National Police chief, Director General Ronald M. dela Rosa, attributed to the Maute Group, judging from the similarity of the bomb with the one used by the group in Davao City.

It is also the terror posed by the Maute Group, lumped together with the notoriety of the ASG, why Duterte wanted to up his anti-criminality measures by toying with the idea of suspending the writ of habeas corpus.

However, Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana, a former soldier himself and who has “soothingly” contradicted some of the President’s security pronouncements in the past, does not buy yet the timing of his Commander in Chief’s wishes, dismissing the ongoing campaign against the Maute Group as normal military operations.

“As I see it, the operations against Maute is just normal military operations against lawless elements, and the bomb that was seen there [US Embassy] is not enough to suspend the writ of habeas corpus,” Lorenzana said during the anniversary of the Department of National Defense on Tuesday.

“I would advise not to do that yet, because it is still under control. All that is happening is still controllable,” he added.

Lorenzana, however, agreed with the pronouncements of Duterte that the Maute Group already has direct links with  Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“The direct link maybe is already there, but formally, for them to be considered as their men here, part of their caliphate here, we could not still confirm it,” he said.

The Maute was just among the three groups after the ASG and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters that have pledged their allegiance to the ISIS, which is already on the retreat in Syria and Iraq where it established its operations.

Attempt to bomb the capital

Bold and brazen as it is, the Maute Group has been attempting to penetrate Metro Manila with its signature of bombings, and this was confirmed in October by no less than the Army commander, Lt. Gen. Eduardo M. Año.

It was the Army, in coordination with the National Police, which bagged in Cotabato City the suspects behind the Davao City bombing, confirming that the powerful blast was indeed a handiwork of the Lanao-based group.

According to Año, the Maute Group has planned to carry out bombings in Metro Manila as early as May, targeting areas where a lot of people regularly converge.

Año said among target of bombings were the branches of a popular department store, but this was prevented “by the intelligence community along with the other hatched bombings.”

A part of the government’s effort was the arrest of the group of Michael Abrera in May.

“Had those group not been arrested in May, they were supposed to have carried out big bombings of malls in Metro Manila…,” Año said.

The bombings were still part of the grand plan of the Maute Group to get the recognition of the Daesh.

Año added that based on their debriefing of the arrested Davao City bombing suspects, the Maute Group had also planned to conduct bombings in other parts of Mindanao through its cells, but all of these plans were averted by government actions.

The beginning

THE Maute Group was unknown until the early part of this year when it started to commit criminal activities in Butig town, where it established its camp.

The MILF, particularly its 102nd Base Command, operates in that area of Lanao del Sur.

Back then, the terror group was simply called by the military as a Maute Group—named after its leaders—although it has categorized it later as “foreign-aligned local terrorist group” that is confined in a barangay of Butig.

While it is aligned with the Jemaah Islamiyah, military officials, however, initially dismissed its links with the Daesh.

Before that, however, some groups were already monitored meeting in other parts of Mindanao, where the black flag of the Daesh was being displayed.

As it turned out, they were already cells of the Maute Group, as also confirmed by Año. At that time, Año was not yet the Army commander.

Later, the Maute Group called itself as Dawla Islamiya or the Islamic State of Lanao.

In February government forces attacked the group’s camp in Barangay Bayabao in Butig after it attacked a military detachment, also in the same barangay, that left three soldiers dead and six others wounded

At that time, Armed Forces Spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the group has only about 40 members and he could not even name the group, although he said that its members were members of the MILF’s 102nd Base Command.

Reports from the Armed Forces Western Command, however, pegged the group’s membership at 100.

The operation lasted for a week, after which the military claimed to have decimated the group and even killed Omar and Matti, two of the seven Maute brothers. Another brother was killed in another encounter.

However, in May the Armed Forces was again forced to initiate an offensive against the group after it regrouped and established a temporary camp in Barangay Ragayan, also in Butig.

The operation, the military claimed, resulted in the death of at least 54 terrorists, including an Indonesian jihadist identified as Mohammad Muktar.

But in April the Maute Group raided Purok 4, Barangay Sandab in Butig and kidnapped six sawmill operators, four of whom they released a week later. The two others were beheaded on suspicions they were military spies.

In August the group raided the Lanao provincial jail in Marawi City and freed eight of their detained colleagues, including three women, in a daring rescue operation.

Twenty other prisoners also bolted out from the facility during the attack that was carried out by at least 50 members of the group and led by Abdullah, the eldest of the Maute brothers.

Raid of Butig

ON Thursday last week, the Maute Group, which was supposed to have been weakened by the successive military operations, put up its “greatest show” yet by raiding Butig, wherein it even occupied its old municipal hall building and raised the Daesh flag.

The group also displayed the same flag in some of the houses that were abandoned by families who were fearful of the attackers.

The occupation of Butig created a humanitarian crisis, as the military struggled to regain the town from the control of the terrorists.

After almost a week or by Wednesday, the Armed Forces Western Command spokesman, Maj. Filemon Tan Jr., said more than 80 percent of the town has been cleared of Maute fighters

The town hall was also retaken around 9:20 a.m. on the same day, according to Armed Forces Public Affairs Office chief Col. Edgard Arevalo.

Arevalo said the operation in the town may take a little more time, as the military has to conduct clearing operations even for homemade bombs that were planted by the terrorists.

Image Credits: Zabelin | Dreamstime.com, Robinson Ninal/Malacañang Palace Presidential Communications Operations Office Presidential Photographers Division via AP

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Rene P. Acosta covers defense, law enforcement and national security for the paper. He had written for a number of publications, including abroad before he joined BusinessMirror. His works had appeared in the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Asia Pacific Defense Forum, both in the US. He took up regional security with the International Visitor Leadership Program, US. He is currently the chairman of the board of the Defense Press Corps of the Philippines which he had headed in 2009.

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