Lessons From Marawi
Retired Lt. Gen. Danilo G. Pamonag shares what he learned from the Philippines’ largest military engagement since World War II
By the height of fighting during the siege of Marawi, jihadist militants had taken more than 1,770 civilian hostages to keep control of the southern Philippine city on Mindanao, the country’s second largest island. Some they killed right away; others they used as human shields. They put others to work making explosive devices, digging tunnels and securing supplies.
The initial invasion of the Muslim enclave had occurred several months earlier on May 23, 2017, after a failed attempt by Philippine government forces to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of the Philippine-based radical militant Abu Sayyaf Group. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had anointed him its emir, or military commander, of Southeast Asia or at least emir of a region encompassing the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia that the terrorists dubbed the Islamic State of East Asia.
The Maute Group, composed of Philippine rebels based in Lanao del Sur province, had announced its allegiance to ISIS two years earlier and to Hapilon, seeking to help them establish a caliphate in Southeast Asia. Maute leaders, Omar and Abdullah Maute, members of Abu Sayyaf, and other Philippine and foreign rebels linked to ISIS had been planning a takeover of Marawi, the province’s capital, for some time, video evidence later revealed. Weapons and supplies had been stashed across the city.
The combined rebel forces struck the day of Hapilon’s May evasion from capture and raised the ISIS flag in Marawi. They burned buildings, desecrated churches and would displace the bulk of the city’s population of more than 200,000 people from their homes, according to government figures.
Lt. Gen. Danilo G. Pamonag, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Southern Luzon Command, knew he had to free the Marawi hostages from the militants if he was to retake the city. He had previously freed hostages on Mindanao during the September 2013 siege of Zamboanga City, when he was first called upon to be the AFP ground commander. Under his leadership, AFP Soldiers secured the safety of 195 of 197 hostages from a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front, bringing an end in less than three weeks to the crises, which displaced more than 100,000 people and killed several civilians. “That was a complete victory,” Pamonag said.
The Marawi siege, however, would be different, as would be Pamonag’s second time as ground commander. Although Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had declared martial law across Mindanao on the day of the siege, the battle would persist for months.
“The presence and alliance of foreign terrorist fighters with our homegrown terrorists made our fighting more difficult. Comparing our fight during the Zamboanga crisis in 2013, the enemy techniques and tactics during the Marawi siege were more improved,” Pamonag told FORUM.
He would lead the largest urban engagement for the AFP since the Battle of Manila in World War II. (He had also led the second largest at Zamboanga.)
The militants chose Marawi city for strategic reasons. Lawlessness was the norm in the city, which is in one of the country’s poorest provinces, and had long observed a tradition of Muslim exclusivity and of resisting external influence. Marawi, the only declared Islamic city in the country, was more than 99% Muslim at the time of its capture. The Philippines’ total population is about 11% Muslim and that of Mindanao, 23%. For more than 40 years, Muslim factions throughout Mindanao have sought independence from the Philippines, often through violent means. With implementation stalled of the latest peace agreement, signed in 2014 to create a new self-governing region in Mindanao known as Bangsamoro, the rebels hoped to seize upon the entrenched Muslim grievances there, according to an analysis by International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization.
The jihadists, besides taking hostages in Marawi, employed more sophisticated tactics, techniques and practices than AFP troops had previously encountered. The rebels possessed powerful sniper rifles and scopes to slow down advancing troops. They imbedded massive numbers of improvised explosive devices in buildings and along possible approaches for the government troops. They used multirotor drones to conduct reconnaissance on the disposition of troops. They used force protection and night-vision goggles. They even used floating devices to swim across Lanao Lake, the nation’s second largest freshwater lake, on which the city was built.
The militants demonstrated their schooling in urban warfare, Pamonag said. To change location, the militants breached walls of buildings. They knew to use basements and interconnected underground tunnels to protect themselves from airstrikes by the Philippine Air Force, which would be supported by U.S. and Australian forces. They burned buildings to isolate troops and obscure observation during rebel movement and withdrawal. To sustain their endurance, they used illegal drugs. They employed social media to gain popular support.
The militants, more heavily indoctrinated, were crueler in their practice of jihad than previous rebels the AFP had confronted. “They also became more barbaric and brutal as their actions were beyond the comprehension of humanity and compassion. They burned and decapitated our dead Soldiers, raped women hostages and killed non-Muslim hostages who failed their religious tests,” Pamonag said.
Pamonag, however, would find ways to outsmart and outwit the militants. “We made many innovations. Those are my secret weapons. We never had sophisticated weapons, but we had lots of ingenuity.”
Pamonag’s Soldiers used drones, for example, to locate a key group of hostages. The AFP Soldiers attached a cellphone by a string to the drone along with instructions on how to use the phone and a knife to cut the string. The cellphone had one number programmed into it. The hostages called the number that afternoon. By midnight, the AFP Soldiers had rescued 18 hostages.
“That was a big score on our side. We were able to have a better picture of the battleground, where they were hiding, who were leaders, who they are, where they were hiding, what they were doing during the day,” Pamonag said. Until then, the AFP had operated based on limited information.
Fighting in an urban environment was also a leading challenge for the AFP Soldiers.
“Fighting in a built-up area is complex and more challenging than conventional fighting. The Philippine security forces were primarily trained in jungle operations. Fighting enemies in a new urban and populated environment requires a different mindset, different approach and method,” Pamonag said.
In Marawi, for example, 105 mm howitzers became irrelevant because they are indirect fire weapons. “They became useless because we were fighting less than 100 meters away. We were fighting building to building,” Pamonag said.
AFP Soldiers used plastic Ramen noodle packaging to adapt the weapons into direct-fire weapons. “We had units who had urban experience. But those who didn’t have urban training were trained first for a week at the main battle area. They could not be deployed directly because they had no knowledge at the start. So that’s how we did that,” he said. “We had to adopt very quickly the new techniques and procedures in fighting in the built-up area. And, changing ways and means of fighting when enemies are already in the battleground was not easy for us.”
Armored vehicles also became useless because of the condition of the streets. AFP Soldiers built ramps to station the armors on the second stories of buildings and fired them from the higher vantage points.
“Victories are not often achieved by sophistication of weapons. The most powerful weapons I had at that time were the innovations, ingenuity, initiative and adaptability of my Soldiers to get the job done. We had to innovate ways, become more wise and agile, and be unpredictable and adaptable to the evolving conflict,” Pamonag said.
The ISIS-affiliated militants’ barbarism was met with the resolve and heart of the AFP troops. “Another key to the success was the ‘heart’ of the Soldiers who were totally determined and committed to stand up and fight for the sovereignty of the country. Of the 2,000 wounded Soldiers, 70% went back to the main battle area and fought again,” Pamonag said.
The AFP Soldiers’ determination was palpable. “I could feel the commitment. Every time I went to hospital, I would say, ‘How are you feeling?’ I talked to them several times. They would want to go back. Some even went AWOL [absent without leave] and snuck out of hospital to go to the battlefield to fight.”
Duterte’s presence also made a difference. “We had a president who visited inside the main battle area. It was terrible protecting him inside the main battle area. It was not enough to talk to them; he wanted to fire a gun,” Pamonag said. In most countries, “you would never see a president with helmet inside a battle area. So that motivated us.”
The rescue of the first group of hostages proved to be a turning point in the battle, Pamonag said. “I felt that victory was in my hands, when I started rescuing hostages, because in the first two months we had no knowledge what was happening within the main battle area.”
Pamonag said the experience was similar to that in Zamboanga. Once the hostages were freed, he knew they would prevail. “It’s the same story during the Marawi siege. After two months I knew at that time that victory would be coming.”
Rescuing the hostages was rarely straightforward, however. “We did a peace corridor to allow the hostages to get out of the battle area. Three times we did that, only to find out that most of the hostages who were released by them were Muslims.” The rebels kept the Christian hostages and released the Muslim ones during these short-term truces. This reinforced their religious authority over the civilian population. They often immediately killed hostages who failed their religious challenges such as being asked to recite Islamic scripture or prayers, he explained.
The military operation was prolonged because the AFP leaders strove to minimize deaths and injuries of Soldiers and civilians trapped in the main battle zone and damage to property. “There were 35 mosques inside Marawi, but none of these mosques was bombed by us,” Pamonag said.
Before the end of the conflict, the AFP Soldiers had rescued 1,777 civilians from the battle zone, Pamonag said. On October 17, 2017, after nearly five months of fighting, President Duterte declared Marawi city free of terrorist influence. The day before, AFP troops had killed the key commanders, Hapilon and Omar Maute. Although the ISIS and Maute leaders had been neutralized, some isolated skirmishes would continue for almost another week.
Marawi was officially recaptured October 23, 2017, exactly five months after the initial invasion, when AFP Soldiers tore down the black ISIS flag and Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced an end to the battle. All the rebel leaders were killed except for a couple who escaped during the first phase of the conflict.
“They were able to slip out because we didn’t have enough men initially,” Pamonag said. Among those who got away was Abu Dar, a leader of another pro-ISIS group who would succeed Hapilon as emir of ISIS in Southeast Asia but was later killed in March 2019, according to The Associated Press.
In addition to evacuating most of the hostages, the AFP successfully contained the conflict in Marawi and prevented it from spilling over into other areas. The AFP also stopped other rebel splinter groups from participating or reinforcing the militants. All were elements of the AFP’s strategy. In total, AFP Soldiers killed 920 terrorists, including 32 foreign fighters from countries including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. They also confiscated more than 850 high-powered firearms and 100 other weapons.
“There are so many factors that contributed to our success,” Pamonag said. “Our multilateral and interagency approach enabled us to harness the cooperation of each and every one. National and local government agencies, national and international nongovernmental organizations, and all of our government instrumentalities thereby allowing us to win the support of the people. Each has an important role to play,” Pamonag said. “By making them feel that they were a part of our campaign, we were able to establish and legitimize our operations.”
The people of Marawi paid a heavy price, however, that will be felt for some time. At least 165 AFP Soldiers and Philippine police officers and 87 civilians perished in the battle. More than 400,000 people fled their homes in the city and surrounding areas, half of whom are counted as internally displaced people (IDPs). Parts of the city were flattened, others rendered uninhabitable by unexploded ordnance.
Today, more than two years after the recapture of Marawi, reconstruction, rehabilitation and rebuilding are ongoing. Significant numbers of the 200,000 IDPs have still not returned home and challenges remain. Many displaced people worry they may never be able to go home, especially if a Chinese consortium, attracted to Mindanao’s rich natural resources, including substantial natural gas reserves, is allowed to lead the reconstruction as proposed, according to media accounts.
In the aftermath of the battle, AFP Soldiers are playing key roles, Pamonag said. “The military can ably provide security, mitigating the effects of harsh conditions of IDPs, and clearing the main battle area, keeping the community safe while reconstruction and rehabilitation is taking place. The military will stand guard to make sure that this kind of conflict will never happen again in the future,” he said.
Special forces, in particular, can play a role in the reconstruction as community defense builders, Pamonag added. “During peacetime, they can safeguard the community and undertake reconstruction and rebuilding works aimed at winning the heart and minds of the people. They are most effective in a post-conflict situation where civil-military works are initiated to mitigate the effect of the conflict.”
The Philippines must be vigilant when it comes to ISIS and its affiliated internal militant groups because they still possess the same ideology, Pamonag said. “They are in a hibernation period. On the surface everything is going fine, but covertly they are planning and continuing their indoctrinations,” he said. “A whole-of-government approach that involves all levels of government and all stakeholders is required.”
The Philippines still needs the support and assistance of other countries in fighting terrorism, he said. The Philippine government has extended martial law in Mindanao through the end of 2019.
Pamonag retired from the military in January 2019. He will always remember the two sieges he presided over. Zambioga and Marawi were the “two incidents that changed my life,” he said.
He joined the military because he thought it was the noblest of professions. “I joined because my father was in the military. I am the youngest of seven children. My oldest brother was also in the military. Serving the military for all your life is something very noble. I cannot find many professions where you are willing to offer your life.”
“For me joining the military is the best thing, the best decision I made. I served the military for 37 years, eight months. There was not a single day that I regret joining the military. It made me a complete man.”
The same day of his retirement, the Philippines’ secretary of social warfare recruited him for a new role for which he believes his military experience will prove invaluable. “You need to know how people are feeling. Because we had to see how the indigent people live. I have the experience of going in the poor places,” Pamonag said. “From a combat officer, I now become a social worker tasked with improving the condition, welfare and development of well-being. I love this job very much already because this is totally new to me. I intend to help my Filipino brothers/sisters by extending the department’s helping hand especially to those who are in need.”