Fighting continues in southern Philippines

Photo released by the Islamic State showing the militants inside Marawi

Fighting between Islamic State-loyal militants and the Filipino security forces has entered its second day, with the situation further deteriorating. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law in the city of Marawi, the provincial capital of Lanao Del Sur.

Today, the Islamic State’s representatives claimed control over several parts of Marawi city via a statement through the Islamic State’s ‘Amaq News. In addition, the militants have launched a large-scale jailbreak on two nearby prisons freeing at least 107 inmates. A statement released by the Islamic State also echoed this number.

Militants have taken several people hostage, including a Catholic priest and several churchgoers, after burning a church. The BBC has reported that a police chief has also been beheaded. The continuing clashes have forced thousands of people to flee the city as military reinforcements try to wrangle control.

Photos released by the Islamic State today show the jihadists still roaming the streets freely in parts of Marawi. In at least two photos, checkpoints appear to have been set up by the militants. Pictures posted online by residents of Marawi also show the jihadists in control over some areas of the city.

Yesterday, jihadists moved into the city and began to take over buildings and vehicles, including City Hall, a medical center and the city jail. The Filipino Air Force has reportedly “dropped several bombs” in select Marawi neighborhoods to try and wrestle back control of the city.

Fighting was also reported near a government hospital in the city, as well as near Mindanao State University. (See Threat Matrix report, Islamic State-loyal forces battle Filipino troops inside provincial capital.)

According to a Filipino Army spokesman, the jihadists inside Marawi are led by Isnilon Hapilon, who was spotted in the city. While his presence cannot be independently verified by FDD’s Long War Journal, Hapilon is a US-designated global terrorist and the former leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).

In an April 2016 issue of the Islamic State’s weekly newsletter Al Naba, the jihadist group said that Hapilon (called Abu Abdullah al Filipini, one of his noms de guerre, in the newsletter) has been appointed as emir of all Islamic State-loyal forces in the Philippines. (See Threat Matrix report, Islamic State details activity in the Philippines.)

The Islamic State has stopped short of declaring an official wilayah, or province, in the Philippines. However, the militants continue to operate in the name of the Islamic State and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The releasing of photos and videos by the Islamic State’s media apparatus also highlights a deeper connection than simple loyalty. It is possible that this siege is meant to demonstrate the local groups’ capabilities to the parent organization in Iraq and Syria. (See FDD’s Long War Journal reportThe Islamic State grows in the Philippines.)

Late last year, Islamic State-loyal forces also took control over the town of Butig. The jihadist group captured the town on Nov. 24 after raising its flag over the town hall. The Filipino military stated that around 300 fighters occupied the town. In the battles to retake the town, up to 35 members of the jihadist group and several troops were purportedly killed. (See Threat Matrix report, Filipino troops battle Islamic State-loyal forces for town.)

The Butig siege, as well as the current Marawi siege, were perpetrated by the “Maute Group.” The Maute Group is another name for the Islamic State in Lanao, which is just one such group in the Philippines to have defected to the Islamic State. This number includes at least a portion or all of ASG, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Ansar Khilafah in the Philippines, Katibat Ansar al Sharia, Katibat Marakah al Ansar, Jund al Tawhid (a former ASG battalion), Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad (a group formerly loyal to al Qaeda), and parts of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Several of these groups, including Ansar Khilafah, the Islamic State in Lanao, and the Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad (JTJ) have publicized training camps in the region. Ansar Khilafah was the first to do so in Dec. 2015, while the latter two groups did so in May and in March 2016, respectively. A video from JTJ’s training camp, the “Osama bin Laden training camp,” also publicized its loyalty to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The Islamic State in Lanao has also publicized beheadings of alleged spies in the past, as well.

Other photos released by the Islamic State:

Other pictures purporting to show the jihadists in the city:

Caleb Weiss is an intern at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributor to The Long War Journal.

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