Philippine officials were convinced that they would recapture the city within weeks when pro-ISIS militants swept through Marawi City on May 23. But since then, the lakeside Philippine city that once had a population of 250,000 has been reduced to a battle zone. And with roughly 700 people — including 539 terrorists and 122 state troopers — now dead, Marawi has literally become a ghost town.
It all began with a few dozen local Islamists pledging allegiance to ISIS in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. Now, the people who used to live in the once-bustling city of Marawi have moved to evacuation centers and scattered tents.
The ISIS fighters holding Marawi have been bombed for three months by Philippine forces guided by American spy planes, and terrorist snipers were captured on camera firing at state troops from atop a mosque on Thursday, confirming reports that the extremists have been using the place of worship as camp.
ABS-CBN footage showed snipers from the Maute group perched on the mosque and opening fire on soldiers as plumes of dark smoke billowed in the background. The sound of gunshots rip through the air as security forces fired back.
Since June, there has been a small U.S. military presence on the ground supporting the fight against ISIS in the Philippines, called Joint Special Operations Task Force Trident. Now, the crisis has been confined to less than a square kilometer within Marawi, but the fighting is intense.
In Manila on Monday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. was providing the Philippines government with “intelligence capabilities” in the fight against ISIS, including “some recent transfers of a couple of Cessnas and a couple of UAVs (drones) to allow to them to have better information with which to conduct the fight down there.”
Then, on Tuesday, it was reported that the Pentagon was considering U.S.-led airstrikes on ISIS militants.
And on Wednesday night, the fighting intensified as soldiers engaged the rebels in close-quarter battle. Fires broke out, causing the city to be blanketed in thick smoke amid the clatter of gunfire.
Military and local officials on Thursday discussed reports that some wounded Maute fighters have already escaped from Marawi via Lake Lanao.
The officials also reported that terrorist reinforcements have been trying to get inside Marawi or create a diversion by attacking other towns in Lanao del Sur.
The battle over Marawi is already a propaganda victory for ISIS, according to a report by NBC News. The terror group has called on its supporters to travel to the Philippines to reinforce the ranks. Counter-terrorism analysts in the Philippines say that ISIS leaders in Syria helped plan the operation.
“This is a group that had direct communications with Syria, receiving direct instructions from Syria for an operation directly ordered and financed from Syria,” said counter-terrorism expert Rommel Banlaoi.
The fear is that since losing ground in Iraq and Syria, ISIS will use Marawi as a springboard into Southeast Asia.
Next door to the Philippines, Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population. Malaysia, another neighbor, has also battled Islamists in recent years.
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