Philippines: Why ISIS-Linked Rebels in Marawi Are Proving Hard for the Army to Defeat

Since May 23, a small group of Islamist militants linked to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) have held the city of Marawi, in the south of the Philippines. The Maute Group is small, yet has managed to fend off the army in street battles, as well as maintaining control over parts of the city after government airstrikes. There are believed to be 30 to 40 Maute Group members left in the city, which has a predominantly Muslim population in a Christian majority country.

After the government ramped up its attempts to regain control by firing rockets from helicopters, eight rebels surrendered Wednesday, providing “valuable intelligence” according to the armed forces. How did this small group of rebels manage to keep the army at bay for over a week, and cause the government to fear a spread to nearby towns?

Read more: Could the Philippines become an Isis stronghold?

In terms of weaponry, the Maute Group has fought with stolen ammunition stolen from a prison and a police station that they overran. They have been using weaponry found and a stolen police vehicle, believed to have been manufactured in the United States, to keep the army at bay, according to Reuters, which cited Restituto Padilla, a military spokesperson.

One of the rebel’s first moves when they took over the city of Marawi last Wednesday was to free 100 prisoners from jail, many of whom are Maute group members or supporters. So far 89 Maute Group members have died in the fighting, according to the Philippine army, alongside 21 members of the security forces, and 19 civilians.

The group has also recruited children to its cause, including some as young as 4 years old, according to Al Jazeera. It mainly targets vulnerable children, such as orphans, and is using them in propaganda videos as well as in the fight against the Philippine army.

The group has also taken hostages, including a Christian priest. It’s not known whether the hostages are still alive or not, but it’s likely the rebels were initially using them as human shields.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he was determined that ISIS and linked groups wouldn’t gain influence in the region. He had initially said he would talk to Maute, but changed his mind stating: “I will not talk to terrorists.”

"They are trying to correct the way of living for everybody. They do it by killing people, invoking the name of God and that is a very terrible ideology," he said, Reuters reported. "It does not know anything except to waste human lives." Duterte called martial law on Mindanao island, where Marawi is located, but has had to make a report to the House of Representatives to explain his actions.