By Kelly Beach and Glorianne Besana
A black flag rose above Ami Pakpak Hospital at approximately 4:00 pm in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, Mindanao, Philippines on May 23, 2017. Witnesses believe the black flag to be the flag of ISIS and this flag raising to be a symbolic act to claim control of the city.
Just hours earlier a firefight erupted in Barangay Basak Malutlut between the Muslim extremist group Maute and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The Maute formed in 2012 and swore allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) in April of 2015. Witnesses claim that fifteen heavily armed men engaged the united forces of the AFP and National Police authorities (PNP), killing two AFP soldiers and a police officer and leaving many more injured. Fires arose from multiple buildings in Marawi, including the Marawi City Jail and the Dansalan Junior College.
Based on early reports, Ami Pakpak Hospital was among the first buildings Maute targeted and where the black flags arose from points across the city center. Eyewitness reports state men wearing what resembled to be clothing similar to that of “ISIS militants” (all black) roamed the streets and fired at buildings randomly. At the time of this article, citizens in Marawi claim all they hear now is a vague silence. One resident claimed, “There [were] no indications that an attack like this will happen. There are no checkpoints in the city,” one resident said. “Everything is in silence. No news about the city government. Everything is vague.”
Although part of a predominantly Catholic country, the island of Mindanao is an outlier. As the southernmost island, closest to the islands of Malaysia and Indonesia, and also the second largest (after the island of Luzon), Mindanao is home to the largest Muslim population in the Philippines. As ISIS achieved global recognition in 2014, separatist Muslim bombings and ISIS recruitment increased in this area. Despite frequent bombings and localized attacks by Islamic separatists, Marawi is the first city in the Philippines that an ISIS-affiliate has tried to take over.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has made an official statement on the attack and declared martial law for the entire region of Mindanao for sixty days. This declaration occurred while Duterte was on a foreign relations trip in Moscow, from which he decided to return in the wake of the news of the attack. The government reportedly instructed citizens of Marawi to stay indoors and crouch down for cover in the event of gunfire. The mayor of the Lanao del Sur has called for reinforcements, which are expected to arrive tomorrow (Wednesday). The AFP still lays claim to most government and military buildings in Marawi and have established checkpoints surrounding the city. The Maute unfortunately still control much of the residential areas, and the hospital remains besieged. About 200,000 people live in Marawi. President Duterte is well known for his controversial statements, including one made last year, where he pledged to “ignore human rights if the breakup of ISIS in the Middle East worsened the Islamist insurgency in his country.” Coming from a president who is infamous for his death-squad approach to dealing drug dealers, as events unfold in Marawi, there are concerns that the Duterte government’s reactions to an internal insurgency may be extreme.
Throughout the day, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook quickly filled up with first-hand accounts and photos of the situation in Marawi. Through Facebook Haron Ar-Rashid S. Dima posted from Marawi a status entitled, “THEY DIMMED THE LIGHTS TO BURN US DOWN.” In this post Dima reports, “I was messaged the local hospital is taken over by these men in black hoods. Roads were blocked, fire trucks were seized, and everyone is questioned of religion.” On Twitter, user @shidik first tweeted at 2:48 pm PDT “there’s an ongoing firefight between Maute militants and AFP in the heart of Marawi City.” From then on, @shidik posted regular updates including the lack of electricity and the mass exodus of residents. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also echoed this in a press conference in Moscow: “The whole of Marawi city is blacked out, there is no light, and there are Maute snipers all around.” This is not the Maute’s first outburst of violence, in fact, they have a laundry list of recent bombings, killings, and insurgent operations on a smaller scale that date back to their formation. Citizens wait in fear and confusion for the return of Duterte and the resumption of control by the government in Marawi.
“Maute Group / Islamic State of Lanao / Daulat Ul Islamiya / Daulah Islamiyah”. Terrorism Research and Tracking Consortium. https://www.trackingterrorism.org/group/maute-group-islamic-state-lanao-daulat-ul-islamiya-daulah-islamiyah Retrieved 28 April 2017.