By Roy Ramos
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (AA) – For a month, a previously little-known militant group tied to Daesh has held out against government troops and air power in the southern Philippines.
Fighters from the Maute group, alongside those from the higher profile Abu Sayyaf group, have held parts of Marawi City since May 23 in an apparent attempt to create a Daesh-style “caliphate” on the island of Mindanao.
The apparently unexpected outbreak of fighting led President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law across Mindanao, the second-largest island in the archipelago.
The siege, which has seen hundreds killed and the city — the de facto capital of the region’s Muslims — reduced to rubble, has brought the Maute group to international attention.
Led by brothers Abdullah and Omarkhayyam Maute, the group was formed in 2012 as Dawlah Islamiya and was primarily involved in banditry and other criminality.
According to Philippine Star reporter John Unson, the brothers formed the group after returning from the Middle East, where they studied theology and taught in local schools in Syria and the United Arab Emirates. Other reports have also linked them to Egypt and Jordan.
They are members of Mindanao’s Maranaw clan and are originally from Butig, a town in Lanao del Sur province.
However, their fledgling group was one of dozens of armed groups in Mindanao, where armed conflict between the state and the Moros, as local Muslim clans are known, has raged since the 1960s.
The Mautes’ first major encounter with the army came early last year, when they established three strongholds in Lanao del Sur and displaced nearly 30,000 people.
– Targeted Manila
An attack on a military camp saw them behead a soldier before the military regained control after 10 days.
In April that year, they posted online images of two lumber workers who had been abducted from Butig being beheaded. The victims had been dressed in orange jumpsuits similar to those used in executions carried out and published online by Daesh.
The following August, Maute militants raided the provincial prison in Marawi City and freed inmates, including eight Maute group members.
A month later, a bomb attack in Davao City, Duterte’s hometown, killed 14 people. Three Maute members were later arrested and footage of the attack found on mobile phones they held.
In November, militants raised the group’s black, Daesh-style flag above Butig town hall and held out against government troops for several weeks.
“These are indications that the Maute Group is trying to align itself with Daesh, as seen in the recovered video,” military chief Lt. Gen. Eduardo Ano said following the Davao City arrests, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper.
“We have also established their link with the Abu Sayyaf, as they revealed their intention to disrupt the government’s massive military operations in Sulu.”
Unlike most Mindanao-based militants, the group has also targeted Manila, where it placed an improvised explosive device close to the U.S. embassy last November.
Five alleged Maute members were arrested after police discovered and detonated the bomb.
According to Solicitor General Jose Calida, the Maute group was among four local groups to pledge allegiance to Daesh in November 2014.
The others were Abu Sayyaf, led by Isnilon Hapilon, Ansarul Khilafah Philippines and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
– Ramadan attack
Two years later, Duterte said he had been informed by intelligence officials that Daesh had “vitally connected to the group in the Philippines called the Maute.”
Observers have framed the Marawi City attack as an effort to attract attention from Daesh and a video has emerged of the brothers planning the attack with Hapilon for the start of Ramadan on May 26.
However, an attempt to arrest Hapilon on May 23 in Marawi forced the terrorists to respond and take the city days earlier than planned.
“They wanted to time the attack of Marawi during the first day of Ramadan, just like [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi did in June 2014 when [Daesh] occupied Mosul,” Ano told news broadcaster ABS-CBN.
Earlier this month, Duterte said the attack on Marawi had been planned after Hapilon fled Abu Sayyaf’s southwestern strongholds of Sulu and Basilan for Lanao del Sur to “conduct widespread atrocities and uprisings all across Mindanao” with the Mautes.
This would give the group the approval of the Daesh leadership in the Middle East, the government said.
The Maute brothers are believed to have personal ties to other militant groups in Mindanao, namely the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the BIFF.
The MILF, the largest rebel group in the region until it signed a peace deal with the government, controls the area around Butig.
According to military sources cited by the Rappler news portal, the brothers’ father, Cayamora Maute, was a senior official in the MILF. His sons later criticized the MILF leadership and pledged their loyalty to Daesh.
Cayamora Maute, as well as the brothers’ mother Farhana, were arrested earlier this month and have been charged with fomenting rebellion. Both are alleged to have played crucial roles within the terror organization as financiers and recruiters.
The brothers also had reported links to Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato, the late founder of the BIFF, a MILF splinter group. They are said to have sent representatives to Kato in Maguindanao after he suffered a stroke.
These links have given the group access to materiel and training, notably from foreign Abu Sayyaf bomb-makers such as Malaysian terrorist Marwan, who was killed in January 2015 by police commandos.
The group also has other foreign connections.
The bodies of fighters from as far away as Yemen and Saudi Arabia have been found in Marawi City and recruitment in Indonesia and Malaysia, countries that lie a five-hour boat ride from the southern Philippines, has been recognized as a problem by the region’s security forces.
There are also concerns that southeast Asian terrorists currently fighting with Daesh in Syria and Iraq will flock to join the Mautes and Abu Sayyaf as Daesh is squeezed from its Middle East strongholds.
Meanwhile, the battle in Marawi City is continuing. Earlier this week, government troops renewed their efforts in the hope of taking the southern districts held by the militants by the weekend, when Ramadan ends.
There are fears that with the conclusion of the holy month, fresh reinforcements could join the terrorists and even spread the rebellion further across Mindanao.
The apparent success of the militants in holding out against one of the most modern fighting forces in southeast Asia will also boost their standing among potential recruits.