Nicole Forrest Green speaks with Marawi Ground Commander Lieutenant General Danilo Pamonag, in Manila.
The Marawi siege in Mindanao in the southern Philippines was recently brought to a successful conclusion after 5 months of intense fighting. (May-October, 2017).
You were appointed Chief of the Marawi Joint Task Force (JTF) succeeding Philippine Army Chief Major General Rolando Bautista due to your experience gained in the 2013 Zamboanga Siege, the first big war within an urban terrain that the Philippine military faced.
1). What are the lessons learned from the Marawi siege how does Marawi differ from the three week siege of Zamboanga City attacked by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) on September 9, 2013?
1. The Marawi Siege was bigger in both scope and magnitude; there were more enemies, a larger and highly urbanised battle ground, containing tall, dense, concrete structures, and a much more intensified use of IEDs and SNIPERS; TTPs (tactics & techniques Procedures) became more sophisticated with the use of quadcopter drones (as ISR), more civilians were affected, and consequently many more structures left destroyed; the enemies we faced (MAUTE GROUP/ISIS) became increasingly barbarous and brutal, lacking (as ISIS is known for) any reasonable understanding or comprehension of humanity and compassion…this enemy’s inhuman behaviour was particularly marked...
2). AFP gaps in fighting urban warfare were identified by both the Secretary of National Defence Delfin Lorenzana and President Rodrigo Duterte. Training and reconnaissance assistance provided particularly by Australia, was based on experience gained in Iraq with Iraqi Security Forces and in Afghanistan. To what degree has the capability of the Philippine Military now improved as a result?
2. The capability of Philippine Military has improved a great deal in terms of Hardware- we now have better equipment than when we fought during the Zambo Siege - , more protective shield and armour, better fighting and defence techniques for ground to air combat, as the introduction of Quadcopter drones in a highly Urbanised Battle environment was a particular challenge we needed to face. All of these technical improvements though did not guarantee success and VICTORY as our enemies sought refuge behind hard, concrete buildings and structures....both sides learned from the lessons of the Zambo Siege in 2013- hence, I saw and felt the improved logistics process flowing down to our soldiers who are often required to enter tunnels and foxholes.. But more than the hardware we used in Battle, our men in these elaborate foxholes significantly improved in terms of their leadership skills on the front, and their audacity and determination to prevail at all costs...my Ground commanders were leading from the front... their determination to win and prevail was so pronounced, and more importantly, they shared the burden of fighting with their troops... all of this combined to contribute to the high fighting morale of our troops... there had been some gaps and short comings on the AFP side, but most of these were offset by initiative, innovation and the ingenuity of our soldiers trying to do achieve something beyond comprehension and to basically ‘just get the job done’ .... our enemies were not only devious, thy became more cunning by the day… they dug tunnels, used sewage systems, and permeated the City with IEDs – they were everywhere....they used civilians to steal food for them, ransack stores and find medicine, and then also used them as medical assistants and nurses to help treat their wounded. In addition, they converted captives and hostages to Islam and forced them to fight on the front line…if they refused, they would be killed.
3). ISIS sympathizers and foreign fighters have been appearing in SE Asia in abundance. Former Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon – killed at Marawi – had been declared an ‘emir’ by the Group meaning regional leader. What is the risk of an ISIS caliphate being established in the region including in the Philippines given that those combatants that escaped Marawi are potentially able to regroup and fight another day?
3. The Philippines is strategically located in SE Asia and is potentially a Hub where transit from one country to another, especially in the region is relatively easy and accessible... should ISIS have succeeded in establishing a Caliphate;- neighbouring countries which are predominantly Muslim denominated, would more easily become prey too.. However, it will now take years before these Groups (Maute brothers-ISIS sympathisers) would be able to stand on their feet again, considering the magnitude of those neutralized leaders and ‘adherents’ or members, and the stock and supply of High Powered Firearms that we have recovered... their (MAUTE -ISIS) capability was reduced to a minimum.,. and to is Safe to say- they lost their footing or ground in Marawi and their struggle... they also fought without the same convictions we hold dear as many of them are motivated by money and paid.
4). Would you discuss some of the weaponry and methods used by the Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf at Marawi including various kinds of IED’s, communication methods, the use of drones, an elaborate system of tunnels and the use of human shields or hostages, including a priest, churchgoers and women and children?
4. I mentioned earlier their barbarism and completed disregard of human life – both alive or dead – these ISIS inspired fighters used humans as shields to survive... they operated using a vast network of tunnels, including the sewerage system and also septic tanks, in order to survive... elderly hostages were forced to make IEDs.. Younger hostages were used to run their errands; many women-hostages were physically abused and violated.. Hundreds of hostages were used to dig tunnels...some were ordered to loot for money.... the Maute Group also used illegal drugs as evidenced by the 12 kilos of “shabu” we recovered from the different encounter sites.. Christians were forced to convert to Islam, otherwise, immediate death and they certainly targeted Christians as preferred hostages - Muslim- hostages were later released through a “corridor of Peace” –under an agreed momentary truce used to open up the way for negotiations... it is an understatement to describe the treatment of all/any civilians in the City as ‘inhuman’…..the aim of this psychological component of warfare on a civilian population was done in order to establish a Wilayat gain more money, finance and resources..
5). On that subject, how is funding assured to these Groups and what portion can be attributed to say revenue from ransom payments and benevolent benefactors in the Middle East and South East Asia? How are foreign remittances into the Philippines monitored? It is a country with many nationals living and working abroad transferring money home on a regular basis. What distinction and checks are made here?
5. Monitoring and policing terrorist flows of Money is very difficult, in a country like ours where borders are porous, and where the immigration system is weak- we have a poor record in tracking the possible entry of Terrorists and also their financing... However, our eyes are focusing on the Madrasa(s) (religious schools that teach predominantly and reinforce all aspects of Islam)…which could be possible place of recruitment and radicalization.. also, those Filipino workers working at middle east are very prone for radicalization... we have some 2 million Filipinos working in the Middle East where their working conditions (poorly paid & treated) and environment is conducive to recruitment across to an-ISIS inspired ideology..
6). Has the level of understanding of the threats imposed by terrorism among the Philippine population grown as a result of Marawi or is there still an element of complacency that it is confined only to certain sectors like Mindanao? Haven’t planned attacks been thwarted in areas such as Bohol in Cebu, frequented by Western tourists?
6. Yes, people are becoming more concerned now about the ISIS threat; during 5-months of fighting, the population gained greater knowledge about the destructiveness and viciousness of this so-called ‘ideology’.. the Marawi siege is an eye opener to most – the people found out that we are not fighting against religion but a particular view and estranged ISIS-ideology that just attempts to suppress peoples’ free-will and individual faith.... the highest level of the population’s support to the PH-Military was obtained during the Marawi siege because the Filipino people felt and truly shared our sacrifices, and believed what we were fighting for to be just and right...
On the other hand, there did seem to be some complacency on the part of the people of Marawi as General Eduardo Año (former AFP chief of staff, now Secretary of the Interior and Local Government) advised last year - the population from this region had NOT reported any suspicious activity, movements or presence to the authorities particularly the presence of the Maute-ISIS cabal operating in Marawi City; these terrorists had actually been living amongst them in the City for quite a long time.. the population seemed to co-exist with the Maute brothers and their followers... had it been reported earlier, it would have NOT have grown to that magnitude of fighting as in the case of Bohol where a looming crisis was immediately reported and dealt with and ISIS operatives neutralized because fishermen had reported every activity that Abu Sayyaf did... thanks to the efforts of LRC and our Scout Rangers raiding the hideout of Isnilon Hapilon - had this not been done, ISIS would probably have declared a Wilayat in MARAWI... the siege was therefore done prematurely once they (HAPILON AND the MAUTEs) were raided by our military operatives (LRC and scout Rangers) quite by chance
7). Can Marawi happen again?
7. Marawi can happen again if we refuse to learn from its lessons. Support and cooperation from the local populace is important, information sharing on terrorist/extremist activities is also needed so is the need on a coordinated, national level to track their activities and locations.
Marawi will happen again if we fail to understand the culture of Muslims in our country... we need to know the root cause of why our Muslim citizens easily fall prey to the temptations offered for recruitment and the subsequent radicalization; this unfortunately is a long history of struggle and social treatment and need for recognition and the future hinges on this aspect particularly (Muslim traders first reached the Philippines in the 13th century before Islam established itself in the 14th century at least 200 years before the Spanish introduced Christianity) - the Marawi siege will happen again if we do NOT strengthen our immigration procedures, our maritime border patrols our regional cooperation and fusion; finally, it will happen again if our Political Leaders do not stand firm, committed and strong in the fight against terrorism and to categorically this dangerous, extremist ideology.. Thwarting the ISIS threat is NOT a military one alone.. Everyone has a role to play, and a task to perform- politicians, youth and religious leaders, teachers, students, social workers, family and friends -everybody working together and fighting back as one...
8). At Marawi, there were 165 Government Forces killed in the line of duty including both soldiers and police, and 1400 wounded. Civilian deaths reached 87, while militants killed numbered 974. At the conclusion of siege Ramon Ang President of the San Miguel Foundation signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the AFP to provide an assistance package (including financial assistance) to each Filipino family that paid the ultimate price in losing a brother, husband or father in the defence of their country and the liberation of Marawi. PHP 2 million is offered to each family - almost $A50,000 – which is offered as a combination of cash, provisions and credits set aside at San Miguel’s retail outlets, for food, clothing and other goods, as well as business training and opportunities.
Casualties in combat are relative to a number of strategic and tactical factors and the overall reason and importance of the ultimate objective. Do you feel that at the battle of Marawi casualties (military, civilian and combatant) were high and what is your view of the assistance package offered by Ramon Ang, is this customary and how will be administered?
We greatly value and strive to protect the lives of our soldiers and civilians trapped in a battle zone. That is the primary reason why, the Marawi Siege endured for 5 long months – we were determined to make sure there would be reduced collateral damage in terms of lives lost and property destroyed...Otherwise, we could have drawn it to a conclusion much earlier...the Marawi Siege is the bloodiest battle our Armed Forces have faced in recent history... Civilians were used as human shields, structures were used as cover and protection; militants moved across the City via a sophisticated network of tunnels; IEDs were everywhere. 165 of our soldiers and police made the supreme sacrifice, while 1,767 others were wounded in action (WIA)..But it is worthy to note that more 50% of our WIA volunteered to return back to the frontlines and fight again, despite having the opportunity of abstaining from further risk of combat operations. At the end of the battle, we recovered a total of around 900 high Powered Firearms, we rescued 1,777 civilians and neutralized 920 terrorist which included 32 foreign terrorist fighters that came from Malaysia, Indonesia, Yemen, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and India. The bravery, determination and heroism of Filipino soldiers was witnessed and applauded by the entire nation and where this support that included more than 4 visits by President Duterte, was a significant factor that led to our victory...
During the Malawi Siege, the Security sector (Armed Forces of the Philippines, AFP and the Philippine National Police, PHP) received a very high approval rating from the Filipino people; and significant indication that what we were doing was the most logical and appropriate response. Help, assistance and support from the Filipino people, Government Agencies and different stakeholders were abundant and magnanimous. This too further motivated our troops to push even further forward in their efforts to end the battle and finish the war. In the direct aftermath of the Marawi Siege, there have been many, continuous Assistance Programs extended by Private Individuals, PH Corporations and Government Agencies to the victims and families of the soldiers.
San Miguel Corporation for example had provided a P2Million assistance package to all of the families of the soldiers killed in action in the form of small business enterprise guidance to assist and sustain their living; San Miguel Corp has been providing appropriate business training for small-scale business products particularly food and other goods and which also includes, managing the business. The AFP has provided Free Educational assistance and a housing package to the families of the victims killed in action. Meanwhile, all soldiers who were involved in the battle have been given the appropriate post-trauma assistance and war-related stress debriefings.
9). It was recently reported in the Middle East’s English online publication, ‘the Arab news’ that post-Marawi, ISIS militants are on the lookout again to set up a Caliphate in the same region in South-East Asia. ‘Skirmishes’ with the AFP have allegedly been reported against Maute gunmen that are said to number around 200. What consideration is being done to rid Marawi of IEDs (certainly a long process), rebuild, and invest in infrastructure (a Duterte priority) housing, education, and employment opportunities? The MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) are also said to be recruiting militants and there have been allegations of an unspecified number of Indonesians arriving in the area?
At present, the Maute Group is trying to recover from its losses incurred during the Marawi Siege, with the recruitment of new members mostly relatives and orphans of those (Maute militants) killed in encounters with the AFP. They are now being monitored, recruited and radicalized. Recruitment is done through social media and via family ties and clan-sponsored relationships. The recruitment process targets students of Madrasahs in Mindanao, (Muslim Schools) and mosques, as well as Islamic Centres and areas. They seek temporary safe havens in their respective hideouts, to gain ground. They acquire funds and logistics through relatives and sympathizers, they extort money and provisions from businesses and firms, channel foreign funds through Islamic NGOs, sell IEDs and ammunition, and underpin funds and logistics both from foreign and local supporters. The plan to replicate the siege of Marawi in other cities and areas in Mindanao is unlikely to be viable at this point in time as they have yet to recover their capabilities in terms of manpower and firearms.
By and large, the Philippines may still be viewed as a Centre for Jihad in Southeast Asia, as proclaimed by the ISIS, in the context of their objective of establishing a Wilayat (State). Foreign militants provide the opportunity to obtain funding from foreign terror organizations. This is evident with the influx of foreign fighters arriving from Indonesia, Malaysia, Syria and other countries in the Middle East to join with ISIS-inspired recruits in the Southern Philippines. Thus, the threat of the influx of foreign Terror Fighters to Southern Philippines is likely to persist.
Rebuilding Marawi, is indeed a priority; the Duterte Government’s commitment to infrastructure building across the nation, including in the south, reconstituting a new Bangsamoro Transition Commission to allow for more voices in drafting basic law for more autonomy, and support for community rebuilding efforts to strengthen local capability are all non-defence initiatives designed to combat this kind of militant extremism.
On 14th December 2017, Lieutenant General Pamonag was nominated as the new Commander of SOLCOM (Southern Luzon Command) in Lucena, Quezon province, a Combat Command covering 15 Provinces and 22 cities in the southern Philippine region of Luzon.
Nicole Forrest Green is a Director of the Australia-Philippines Business Council and Defence Committee Chair.