MARAWI, Philippines — More than six months after Filipino and foreign fighters claiming allegiance to the Islamic State stormed this lakeside city, setting off a months-long war with U.S.-backed Philippine troops, liberated Marawi lies in ruins and its people seethe.
The heart of the city has been bombed and burned beyond recognition, its domed mosques pierced by mortar fire. Homes stand roofless, blackened. There are armored vehicles on the streets.
Some 200,000 residents are still scattered across the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, living with weary relatives or in displacement camps thick with mud and worry.
Filipinos who have been allowed to return have found their homes sacked and looted — safes open, jewelry snatched, appliances gone.
Many people are angry at the men who seized their city in a failed bid to establish a caliphate, taking hostages and targeting civilians. They are angry, too, at the forces that fought those men, namely the Philippine army and its backer, the United States.
Beyond earshot of officials and soldiers, people wonder why the army was so quick to pummel their predominantly Muslim city. They are also suspicious of the role played by U.S. Special Forces.
With Islamic State fighters losing ground in Iraq and Syria, men and money may shift to Southeast Asia, experts have said. They will find in the southern Philippines an angry and vulnerable population, institutions racked by war, and a government, led by President Rodrigo Duterte, that sees shooting as a way to solve social problems.
In other words: prime recruiting grounds.
In that sense, what happened in Marawi is not the success that Duterte claims but a lesson in the limits of fighting extremism with force alone.
“Armed operations will never erase or exterminate the causes and roots of terror,” said Samira Ali Gutoc-Tomawis, a local official who quit her job over Duterte’s handling of the conflict.
“You can’t kill an idea.”
Married to radicalism
The roots of the Marawi conflict run far and deep, stretching from the southern Philippines across Southeast Asia to the Middle East. It’s a local conflict swept up in the globalization of extremism.
For Minhati Madrais, of Bekasi, Indonesia, Marawi started as a love story and ended in a war.
Madrais left Indonesia as a young woman to study at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. There, she met Omarkhayam Maute, who is Maranao, a predominantly Muslim group from the area around Marawi. “He was the first man who ever liked me,” she said.
They married in Egypt, lived and worked in Indonesia, then moved to Mindanao in 2011.
Maute and his brother, Abdullah, came from a prosperous clan with ties to the leadership of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an insurgent group that has fought for decades for autonomy for Muslim groups on Mindanao.
In recent years, the Moro Front has been engaged in fitful peace negotiations with the government. Some fighters have split off, fed up with the process, or attracted to the ideology, ferocity and self-styled purity of foreign terrorist groups — among them the Islamic State.
It is not clear when or where the Mautes radicalized. But the fact that they could not wage war for the Moro Front may have heightened the appeal of the Islamic State, said Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, or IPAC, and an expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia.
In 2013, Omarkhayam decamped to a family property outside Marawi, Madrais said. She stayed in the city, bringing the children to visit when he called. He never came to them. “Checkpoints were too dangerous,” she said.
At some point, the brothers started working with other groups, including a band of men loyal to one of the world’s most-wanted militants, Isnilon Hapilon, who pledged loyalty to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014.
Experts are still trying to understand the force they assembled, particularly the precise nature of their links to the Islamic State, said Shashi Jayakumar, who heads the Center for Excellence in National Security at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Philippine groups have a long history of claiming allegiance to foreign forces in a bid to gain credibility through what Jayakumar called the “veneer of jihadism.” Whatever its ties, the Hapilon and Maute group was formidable. “This was a significant force, with significant preparation. It hit everyone by surprise,” Jayakumar said.
In late May, Philippine troops stormed a compound in Marawi, expecting to make arrests. Instead, they set off fighting that lasted more than 150 days.
After a prolonged gun battle, the Philippine army slowly pushed the militants toward the city’s center, where they dug in. “It was heavy urban fighting,” said Col. Romeo Brawner, a U.S.-trained soldier who is now the deputy commander of a Marawi task force.
The Maute brothers were well armed and networked.
Omarkhayam, a speaker of Indonesian, Arabic and English, as well as local languages, was able to communicate with foreign fighters and supporters who followed via social media.
While the battle dragged on, his wife and their six children — ages 12, 10, 7, 6, 2 and 10 months — were in a safe house in nearby Iligan City. It was there, in late September, that Madrais read on Facebook that he was dead. “I prayed, then cry, cry, cry, cry, and then I vomited,” she said.
When police arrested her and searched the house, they found syringes, five phones, SIM cards, detonating cords and two blasting caps typically used to make improvised explosive devices, according to the local police chief and an affidavit reviewed by The Washington Post.
Madrais, who was being held in a conference room at a police station with her children, professed no knowledge of what was in the house. Nor did she express remorse. “He was good and I miss him very much.” she said.
As her children watch cartoons, she prays. “This is a test that will bring me closer to God,” she said.
It is also a test for civilians. More than six months after the fighting started and more than two months after Duterte declared Marawi liberated, it still looks and feels like a war zone, with the destruction centered in the city’s heart, along the shore of Lake Lanao, and radiating outward.
The center is a no-go zone controlled by soldiers. Militants turned the houses that are still standing into snipers’ nests, with furniture trashed and pro-Islamic State graffiti on the walls.
It may be years before the main battleground is habitable. At the periphery, where people have been allowed to move back and schools are reopening, families are returning to wrecked and emptied homes.
There is certainly anger at the Maute brothers and their fighters. Their violence against civilians, including the targeting of Christians, earned them little goodwill.
“They are not Muslims, because Muslims don’t kill,” said Maymona Akman Macabago, a Marawi resident now living in a displacement camp.
But the fact that the Mautes were educated abroad and worked with foreign fighters, far from lending them credibility, has made it easy for locals to dismiss them as interlopers. “This ideology was imported from different countries,” said Majul Usman Gandamra, the mayor of Marawi.
Among the displaced, a more proximate source of pain is how Manila responded — the declaration of martial law, protracted bombing and a heavy military presence.
Gutoc-Tomawis, the former official, quit her job in the early days of the conflict after Duterte appeared to encourage soldiers fighting in Marawi to commit rape. She, like many here, believes Duterte’s immediate declaration of martial law gave the military license to act with impunity.
As aerial strikes began, she said, nobody was listening to calls for the provision of safe passage out of the city for civilians who had been trapped — a concern also raised by rights groups.
The government reported 920 militants, 165 soldiers and 47 civilians were killed. A report by Amnesty International suggests the civilian death toll is probably higher.
“Casualty figures released by the government are unlikely to be comprehensive given the difficulties of searching for bodies amongst the rubble,” the report read.
Amnesty is calling for an investigation “to determine the proportionality of the force used and the resulting destruction of civilian infrastructure and loss of civilian life.”
The bombing is a source of tremendous anger here. “Why didn’t they warn us, ‘Hey, be prepared because we are going to deploy an airstrike?’ ” asked Drieza Lininding, a displaced resident who runs the Moro Consensus Group, a nonprofit that seeks to counter radicalization.
The strikes sent people fleeing without money, documents, weapons and other valuables — much of which has since been taken from damaged homes. The military denies assertions that it was behind systematic looting, but civilians, including Lininding, are not sold.
“Who are we going to blame for that looting? Nobody could do this without using a truck,” he said.
“The Maute group was busy fighting in the main battle area,” he continued. “At midnight did they sneak across the river and take our TV sets and go back?”
The conflict has stoked longer-simmering resentment against the United States — something that could make it easier for extremists to recruit new followers.
Muslims in the southern Philippines suffered mightily during U.S. colonial rule, and many people, including Duterte, have expressed skepticism about the presence of U.S. troops in the southern Philippines.
The Philippine constitution bars foreign troops from combat roles, but the United States supports counterterrorism activities through technical assistance, including intelligence and logistics, as well as joint training exercises, according to Maj. Kevin Boyd, spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command.
Boyd declined to comment further on the U.S. role in Marawi. “For security reasons, we are not able to discuss specific technical details of U.S. support for ongoing Philippine operations,” he said.
Brawner, the U.S.-trained Philippine officer, confirmed news reports that U.S. support included intelligence gathering via drones and surveillance planes above the city.
Among the displaced, the presence of U.S. planes has fueled rumors about what role the United States played. That could be used to stoke anger, experts said.
In messages this summer on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, Maute fighters were already crafting their pitch. “We did not destroy Marawi, we did not bomb it to ashes,” read a message posted July 15, according to an IPAC report. “We never intended harm to the city and its people.”
“I don’t know to what extent the decision to take airstrikes was the Philippines’ or the United States’, but it’s going to be a decision that has implications for many years to come,” said Jones, IPAC’s director.
“It has created more anger against the government than the Mautes. It has helped turn the Mautes into local heroes.”
A Marawi shopkeeper who would give only his first name, Ahmed, returned to his store to find it looted, everything gone except soy sauce and his Scrabble board.
He said hundreds of Maute fighters were killed and each has relatives ready for revenge. The Maute brothers may be dead, but they are not gone, he said.
“They may rise again.”