MARAWI, Philippines

The Masjid Abu Bakr wasn’t much of a looker—at least, not compared to the dozens of pretty mosques whose piebald minarets poked out from Mapandi, the historic, tight-hewn center of Marawi City. It was new and drab and sat among weeds and winding streets on the city’s edge.

But the Abu Bakr was accessible and big: ideal to host a johor—an international gathering—of the Tablighi Jamaat, a popular Sunni missionary movement. Thousands attended. So big was the Abu Bakr that a small group of men broke off from the crowd in an upstairs room and sat, almost undetected, talking and drinking tea.

The men were terrorists who planned to conquer Marawi. One of them was Isnilon Hapilon, one of the FBI’s most wanted men. A disaffected soldier of the Moro conflict, which had wracked Marawi’s surrounding island of Mindanao since the 1960s, Hapilon became chief of the region’s feared Abu Sayyaf militant group. In 2014, he pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS.

Soon, Hapilon vowed, he would install a new caliphate in his home country. Marawi would be its headquarters.

But the men hadn’t slipped by entirely unnoticed. Days later, on May 23, somebody called local cops. They followed the group back to a three-story home steps from the mosque. It was grand, painted blue, green and beige with a large sundeck that offered views of Mapandi across rows of palms and open gardens.

The house sat opposite that of Mohammed Khalid El-Mama, a stout, puckish law student I spoke with, over the nearby patter of machine gun fire, in September. When he heard the first shots on May 23, El-Mama thought it was little more than a rido—a clan feud—whose outbursts usually accounted for little more than smashed windows and a body or two.

But when El-Mama peeked into the street, he counted 17 men, dressed in black, firing from the windows of the large building. The police fought back. They killed two of Hapilon’s men. But another group of militants encircled them. Hapilon and his men fled through the building’s back door and ran toward Mapandi, mobilizing sleeper cells led by Omar and Abdullah Maute, local brothers whose names had grown synonymous with rising radicalism across Mindanao.

The militants numbered up to a thousand. They overran local forces within hours. They torched homes, killed Christians and took hostages. They raised the black flag of ISIS all over town. They took Marawi.

Soon after, the government announced it would be launching airstrikes, Mohammed told me. “Everybody fled.”

In October, five months and 1,131 deaths later, the Philippine government declared victory in Marawi. The city, pounded by government bombs and urban guerrilla warfare, now lays in ruin as wholesale as Mosul or Aleppo. Six hundred thousand people left their homes when the fighting began. Most have returned, but 50,000 are still displaced and aid is scarce, further fanning flames of resentment between Mindanao Muslims and the government, 600 miles away in Manila.

As its caliphate crumbles in the Levant, ISIS has called on followers to flood the Philippines. Fighters from across southeast Asia have already joined the cause. Many fear the Battle of Marawi may just be the beginning of a new front line in the global war on terror. To understand why, you need to look a long way back into the past.

Lake Lanao was formed not by a million-year-old volcanic dam, as science claims, but when four mystical winds, directed by the archangel Gabriel, lifted one of its shoreside towns into the sky, cleaving a great bowl whose waters, the legend goes, “cascaded in majestic volume.”

Today the lake remains the spiritual heart of the Maranao, a people whose name literally means “people of the lake.” Its antediluvian edge is sprinkled with ancient mosques and towns. Marawi, once called Dansalan (“destination point”) was the biggest and most beautiful.

Lake Lanao is a rich, fertile paradise. But demons have also staked a claim. Mindanao has been the scene of centuries of bloody conflict, during which its indigenous population have fought Spanish, American and Japanese invaders. Aside from a brief Spanish conquest in 1895, they have beaten them all.

Muslim Mindanaoans were first called Moro by the Spanish, who gave them the same name as Muslims of the Iberian Peninsula. They number almost five million of Mindanao’s 22 million population. Just 6 percent of all Filipinos follow Islam, in the world’s third-most Catholic nation.

The Maranao, famed warriors, have spent the past half-century fighting for an independent Moro nation on Mindanao, which they call the Bangsamoro. In the 1960s, that struggle was distilled in the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a band of rebels and Islamists who fought to wrest control from the “imperialists” of Manila.

The MNLF’s violent insurgency, backed by Libya and Malaysia, continued into the ‘70s. In 1976, the government, led by dictator Ferdinand Marcos, signed an agreement in Tripoli, Libya, to assign the Moro powers of self-rule.

But a subsequent plebiscite fell through. MNLF fighters became despondent. Many split off to form the new Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). They bivouacked deep in the dense, Mindanaoan brush. They were almost invisible. Running guns and hostages from camp to camp was easy.

The MILF soon overtook the MNLF as Mindanao’s most popular rebel group. In 1989, it helped broker the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), comprising Lanao Del Sur, the province of which Marawi is part; its neighbour Maguindanao; and the Sulu Archipelago, whose islands snake from the Zamboanga Peninsula toward Borneo.

But little changed. The region remained poor. Mineral wealth was extracted, but by companies who paid their taxes in the north. Independence seemed even further afar. Rumors MILF leaders were happy to let the peace process linger, pocketing ample government handouts along the way, spread.

The late ‘80s were formative years for global jihad. Inspired by the Afghan Mujahideen that emerged victorious from war with the Soviet Union, Osama bin Laden founded al-Qaida in 1988. His brother-in-law Mohammed Jamal Khalifa was married to a Filipina and began channelling money toward her home country. His targets were young, more radical militants disaffected by the MILF’s increasing propinquity to Manila.

Elsewhere in the region, Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesian group founded in 1993, began a campaign of terror that included the 2002 truck bomb that killed 202 people in Bali. And in Malaysia, the terror group Kumpulan Mujahideen called for a pan-regional caliphate.

The deadliest of this new generation was Abu Sayyaf, founded on the Sulu Archipelago, an area with a long history of Moro piracy. It ran a gruesome campaign of bomb attacks and kidnappings, and often killed those whom it could not sell for ransom. In 2004, it carried out the world’s deadliest terror attack at sea, blowing up SuperFerry 14 as it set sail for Mindanao from Manila. A hundred and sixteen people died.  

Cayamora Maute was a veteran militant who first took arms under the MNLF. But as Abu Sayyaf stepped up its bloody campaign, he returned to his first profession, engineering, and spent time in Saudi Arabia as one of 2.2 million Filipinos who work abroad.

Some time around then he married Ominta, a property and furniture dealer known by her friends as Farhana. They lived in Butig, a spitball town near Lake Lanao, and had eight children: seven sons and a daughter.

The Mautes were faithful and studied the Quran. They soon moved to Marawi. It was the perfect place for pious Muslims. Marawi is the only officially Islamic city in the Philippines, and it upholds some aspects of Sharia. Alcohol and pork are hard to find, and its bars stock coffee and shisha pipes rather than the San Miguel beer ubiquitous across the rest of the country.

Marawi is a quiescent place, hemmed by thick palm forests and markets whose durian, banana and coffee stalls send sickly scents through the trees. It is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody. Even as I drove with my guides into the city, months into its annihilation, locals stopped beside our car for a chat.

Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute were born into that bonhomie. They were friendly and enjoyed study. Omar was a deep thinker and a handy chess player. Neither boy was a zealot, and both played basketball and learned English alongside their school friends.

Marawi’s university basketball team is called The Aristocrats. But few Maranaos are. Unemployment is high and many young men wind up tambay, or “do-nothings.” Hydroelectric plants at Lake Lanao, and the white waters of the Agus River that runs for 22 miles to the Pacific coast city of Iligan, provide 70 percent of Mindanao’s power. But its profits, too, head north. Three of the five poorest Philippine provinces still sit within the borders of the ARMM.

By the early 2000s, Cayamora and Farhana decided their sons would study abroad. Abdullah went to Jordan. Omar enrolled at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. There he fell in love with Minhati Madrais, the daughter of a conservative Indonesian cleric. He followed her home and learned her language.

Nobody thought they were in the company of a future mass murderer. Friends recalled Omar as a devoted family man who enjoyed playing with his young kids by the Red Sea. “He is very soft-spoken,” MILF mediator Agakhan “Binladen” Sharief told me (the nickname was given to him by the Philippine government for his long, Rasputinesque beard). “They are simple,” he added of both brothers. “They are like most. They watch movies.”

Less is known of Abdullah’s life in the Middle East, including when he returned home. Some speculate the brothers radicalized during overseas work at schools in the United Arab Emirates and Syria. But sometime upon returning they joined Mindanao’s Islamist insurgency. In 2012, they founded Dawla Islamiyah, which people called the Maute Group, or MG. A year later they attacked a security checkpoint in Madalum, a short drive from Marawi.

Organized crime and political Islam were turning Mindanao into a tinderbox. Narco-politicians and traffickers hired militants as muscle. Would-be terrorists were given guns and power. The state did little to stop it.

In 2014, Hapilon, short and slight, appeared in an online video surrounded by masked men in the jungle. “We pledge bay’ah [an oath] to Caliph Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Ibrahim Awwad Al-Qurashi Al-Husseini for loyalty and obedience in adversity and comfort,” he said, staring elegiacally at the camera. ISIS was in the Philippines.

President Benigno Aquino III offered a raft of reforms granting greater legal and fiscal autonomy to Muslim Mindanao—including the replacement of the ARMM with a near-contiguous Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. A new legal framework, called the Bangsamoro Basic Law, or BBL, would be the vehicle through which the steps toward Moro liberty could be achieved.

But it was never ratified by Congress. In 2015, an American-backed Philippine police raid on the MILF resulted in the deaths of 68 men in Maguindanao. The U.S. ceased joint counterintelligence operations soon after. The Maute rampaged. In March 2016, they attacked an Army patrol base in Butig. That April they captured six sawmill workers in Butig and beheaded two.

That June Rodrigo Duterte, a truculent mayor from the Mindanaoan city of Davao, became president of the Philippines. Maranaos hoped Duterte might revive the BBL and ease the island’s tension. But he turned his sights instead on the country’s drug trade, based largely in Metropolitan Manila. The world convulsed at his policy of extrajudicial killing. Media attention left Mindanao.

That August the Maute assaulted Marawi with vehicles and rocket-propelled grenades, springing 30 people from a city jail. Abu Sayyaf killed 15 soldiers in Sulu. A month later, a bomb tore through Davao’s busy night market. Fifteen were killed. Maute members were arrested in connection. Duterte vowed revenge.

“They will pay,” he told an audience in Laos soon after the blast. “If you make me mad, in all honesty, I will eat you alive, raw.” Experts warned that the Maute now numbered 300 men. Omar took to Facebook to call himself a “Walking Time Bomb.”

In late November 2016, the Maute Group seized control of Butig and raised the flag of ISIS atop its town hall. Butig was small. But sophisticated IEDs, trenches and sniper posts suggested it was a dry run for something far bigger. Soldiers liberating the town in early December found a message, scrawled on a chalkboard. “Get ready for the day,” it read.

That month Duterte spoke to business delegates at Malacañang, Manila’s Spanish-colonial presidential palace. “It’s not really rebellion,” he said of the recent violence. “It’s the resurgent Moro nationalism.” But to reports Marawi was about to “burn” at the hands of the Maute Group Duterte had just two words:

“Go ahead.”

Colonel Romeo Brawner was coming to the end of his first month. He is dashing, with an obdurate expression belied by flashes of candor about the war’s difficulty. A hundred and forty of his men were dead. Those who remained lived in slipshod barracks at a basketball court a few hundred yards from the spot where, as we spoke, 80-or-so militants held out in a central mosque complex.

The Philippine military is used to jungle and mountain warfare. Marawi had caught them off guard. One young member of the country’s elite MARSOC Marine Corps described shootouts at a distance of just five meters. “They know we’re coming,” he said. “They are sneaking. And just waiting for you to go.”

Children were, I was told, fighting alongside the terrorists. “Most of them are teenagers,” said Lt. Chris J. Billano as we traipsed through the broken city. “We saw a boy with Kevlar. His gun was bigger than him.”

High-calibre rounds, sniper fire and boobytraps, which Brawner and others said were foreign imports, slowed progress to a near-halt. It took three months to clear just one of the three main bridges into Mapandi. While doing so a militant appeared from the top of a mosque and fired an RPG. Thirteen soldiers were killed.

Bombing raids struck the militants’ post several times daily but with little effect: The Maute Group had contacts in the forces. “They text their comrades, ‘Brother, the bird is flying again,’” Binladen told me. Then the militants headed down to the sewers beneath the city. The Army “is playing bomb, bomb, bomb—[but] no ISIS killed,” he added. “Useless.”

Brawner and his cohort faced a Catch-22: Drag the war out and risk more military deaths, or bombard the mosques and inflame religious tension. “Imagine if we started bombing mosques, and [ISIS] used this as propaganda,” Brawner told me. “They’d say, ‘Look at the soldiers, they’re bombing our mosques, they do not respect Islam: Let’s do a jihad.’”

He is right. Government antipathy has rarely run higher on Mindanao. Almost every Maranao I spoke to, despite condemning the violence, expressed anger at how the BBL and peace process have stalled.

The sheer length of the conflict has handed ISIS a major propaganda win. In August, as coalition forces closed in on its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, the group released a slickly produced video urging fighters from Australia and Southeast Asia to join the fight for Marawi.

Foreigners from Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia—and some as far flung as Yemen and Saudi Arabia—have fought and died in the city. Brawner thought they numbered little more than a couple dozen men. But even that is bad news in a region that has long promised widespread rebellion.

The rise of political conservatism in Indonesia and Malaysia has raised fears they will begin to produce more militants. ISIS has “provided a new basis for cooperation among extremists in the region,” Sidney Jones, director of monitoring group IPAC, has said. “That cooperation could take on a new importance as ISIS losses in the Middle East increase and the incentive to undertake violence elsewhere rises.”

If that occurs, it will be under new leadership. On Sept. 5, the military intercepted chatter on the private messaging service Telegram, that indicated Abdullah Maute had been killed in an airstrike. Omar and Isnilon Hapilon were shot dead a week before the Philippine Army declared victory on Oct. 23: Hapilon while trying to escape the city and Omar by sniper fire.

Cayamora, the father, was dead, too. He had been arrested in Davao just days into the insurgency, on June 6, and died in custody two months later. Farhana was also in detention. She was stopped trying to ferry fighters and guns to Marawi in June. She is widely recognized as the group’s chief benefactor, though her conservatism has been questioned.

“She is only a businesswoman,” a source told Reuters. “But, her clan was involved in a bitter political dispute with the mayor of Butig. And that probably got her into trouble.”

With the Mautes and Hapilon dead, it will take time for Mindanao’s Islamists to regroup. What happens to the ruins of the city, and those the war has displaced, may prove a far greater challenge in the fight to stop it happening again.

The day ISIS flags flew across Marawi, Zelika Dika Cabugatan fled her home. She was among tens of thousands who left everything, jumping into friends’ cars and flatbeds that jammed the only road out of town for a day. Today she and her large family live on the backs of busted flatbeds at the Rich & Poor Junk Shop, a tumbledown breaker’s yard on the edge of Iligan.

When I visited it, Cabugatan, 40, who is short and slight, had turned one truck into a makeshift home. There was no electricity. An elderly relative sat on the dirt below surrounded by cast-off plastic homeware and drying clothes. Around two dozen children, out of school without books or uniforms, played among the yard’s corrugated ramparts.

Relief has been slow. One aid worker told me he received less than a quarter of what was necessary. International charities balked at the continued risk of violence. Things were desperate.

Yet in August, Manila declared there to be no humanitarian crisis in Marawi, adding that the needs of internally displaced persons  were being met. Cabugatan clucked at the thought. There was little reason for her to trust the state. She had left everything in Marawi because, she told me, “we thought it would last only three days, or five.”

All the adults in the junkyard were female: The men had either gone to find work or, as was the case with Cabugatan, run off with second wives. “I don’t want to stay here any longer because I can’t bear it,” she told me.

Around 600,000 Maranaos were initially displaced by the siege. Most have returned, but around 50,000 remain homeless, staying with friends and family—or, like Cabugatan, wherever there’s a spare patch of land.

Each day that passed, hundreds of thousands watched their homes burn to the ground. “It was really psychologically damaging to the population, seeing this happen in their city day after day,” said Justin Richmond, founder and executive director of development NGO impl. “I believe they just took way too long to do it—and in doing so they kept 250,000 people from returning to their homes.”

Cabugatan’s mother, Mina, told me the government destroyed Marawi intentionally to exile the Maranaos from Marawi. She’s not alone in that belief.

Later that week Maranao councillors, advocates and religious leaders met at a motel in Iligan. They discussed abuses on Muslim Mindanao that stretch back decades. Some claimed to have been harassed via text message for speaking out. One even declared what was happening in Marawi to be “indirect ethnic cleansing.”

The government has set aside 20 billion Philippine pesos ($386 million) across three years for Marawi’s rehabilitation. China and the U.S. have also contributed significant resources. When I visited, few thought it would suffice. “I think 50 billion pesos is not enough,” Lorenzana said at a press briefing in Manila last month. “The destruction is really massive.”

Manila urban planning giant Palafox has said it could take 70 years to fully rehabilitate the city. It is difficult to see even that amaranthine target being met, given the government’s disastrous handling of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which left over 6,300 Filipinos dead and razed entire cities. Even today swathes of the country remain without basic amenities.

A commitment to build 1,100 homes falls far below the 6,000 temporary shelters required to house Marawi’s evacuees. A rehabilitation “master plan” has been discussed since June. In late October, having cleared the city of militants, Marawi’s mayor admitted: “We don’t have a concrete plan yet.” A CGI image that circulated earlier in the year—allegedly the work of Palafox—did little to calm local moods. It depicted a gleaming, future Marawi complete with skyscrapers, tower condos and water sports facilities (the government and Palafox have subsequently suggested preserving Marawi’s ruins as a memorial to fallen soldiers). Authorities made no secret of a desire to rebuild the city as a tourism hub. The white rivers that run from Marawi past crystalline waterfalls to Iligan would be catnip to Southeast Asia’s backpack crowd.

“Before the siege, we had no foreigners visiting the city,” said Marawi city planner Narayan Ampang. The attack has “placed Marawi on the map,” she added. “Everybody is curious … We would like to cultivate that idea.”

Tourism might bring valuable money to Marawi, though I’ve yet to meet a Maranao who wants that outcome. They hold a deep fear the city, and lake, are being stolen from them: punishment by Manila for years of unrest. Samira Gutoc, a rights campaigner, addressed the meeting. Lake Lanao is “like a very healthy cow, full of milk,” she said. “But they keep on milking it—and they don’t let the cow drink.”

Few Maranaos have land rights. Some may never return to Marawi. Dispersing a delicate community into the countryside could have disastrous consequences. “If they take a portion of the lake they create another victim,” Hamidullah Atar, Sultan of Marawi, told me. “Big social rift, another social tension, another conflict. Our land serves as a faith: a culture, our identity, livelihood.”

He added, “If they say, ‘Sultan, you have no land title,’ I will fight it until my death, until my last drop.” During a two-hour conversation, Atar, a gregarious and smartly dressed man, waved his hands and vituperated wildly. Much of his speech slipped into conspiracy. But the basic belief the Maranao have been forsaken by Manila is common and, according to Richmond, true.

“The government in Manila actually doesn’t care about Muslim Mindanao,” Richmond told me. “If I was Maranao, I think I’d just give up.”

Driving along the lush, samphire coast of Lanao Del Sur, it is difficult to see how anything bad could happen. It is a natural paradise, peppered with pretty towns and large, open-plan schools where kids play in the sun.

But that malapropism has been the mistake of successive Manila governments, and journalists based in the capital, who often describe Muslim Mindanao with no small dose of orientalism. The deep aquifers of mistrust that cleave its communities have long been dismissed as distant, barbarian disputes.

“I don’t think the Muslim Mindanao problem is seen as a problem of nation-building for most Filipinos,” Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Yusof Isak Institute in Singapore, told me. The White House’s decision to leave was “short sighted,” he adds. “And well before Duterte told the American president to fuck off.”

Duterte’s invocation of martial law—which remains in place—summoned painful memories of the Marcos era, when murderous gendarmes were set loose on the island. In practice, however, it has been administered well, with little effect other than to empty local bars at 10 p.m.

Duterte’s rhetoric since has remained Damoclesian, apologizing to the Maranao for the destruction while threatening tougher forms of martial law. He has, however, promised to “husband” the BBL through Congress, stressing an “equal sharing of the wealth of the nation, the taxes and all.” It’s a popular message. When I visited Marawi, around a dozen children gathered to take pictures, keen to pose with their hands clenched in the iconic Duterte punching fist.

Rodrigo Duterte


The Philippines has begun running regular air and naval patrols with Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore will soon join. The MILF has worked closer beside the government to root out ISIS ideology, admitting recently that many young people had grown “frustrated” at its inaction. “They thought their leaders … have abandoned their struggle,” chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told me.

Since the Marawi crisis the MILF has opened a peace corridor allowing goods and people to move safely through Lanao Del Sur. Last August it faced ISIS head-on, losing 10 men in a gunfight 60 miles south of Marawi.

“They are extremists. They don’t want to negotiate with the government,” Farouk Ali, a veteran MILF soldier, told me. “They don’t agree with negotiation. They think the government is always betraying the people. The MILF want to sort out our problem with a political settlement.”

Others told me the MILF itself was riddled with corruption and fat on government kickbacks. A sustainable solution on Mindanao must involve not just the MILF but corrective justice and economic emancipation. “You cannot just say you’re sorry [and carry on],” Gutoc, the rights campaigner, told me.

Radical groups are already mobilizing in the wake of the siege, and ISIS cells are offering young men $600 to join jihad. Job anxiety has skyrocketed. Firefights have broken out all over the island. Many fear Marawi has already metastasized into something far more dangerous and diffuse.

“I think it’s a no brainer to assume that this would inflame even more,” Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher at Human Rights Watch, told me. “Once they’ve been flattened out in Marawi … where are they going to launch their attacks next?”

If the government does not act to solve the deeper Moro crisis, Sharief told me, there would be a new war “times a hundred, times a thousand what happened in Marawi.”

The MILF have better weapons and greater numbers: If the Maute brothers could hold off the entire country’s army for six months, how long would a full-scale war last?

Mohammed El-Mama had only just been able to return to his home, the ground zero of Marawi’s capture. Beyond him knots of smoke still snarled upward from the bombing of Mapandi. Reports that black-clad men were stalking nearby towns, tossing grenades and shooting guns, had spooked him and his neighbors.

Mohammed looked out at Mapandi, where the remaining few militants fought on. “If you go against them, they will attack you, they will kill you, they will study where’s your home, where do you go to work … they will assassinate you,” he said.

Even so, he could see the appeal of Omar and Abdullah Maute’s bloody uprising. They promoted “freedom,” he told me, that could “gain sympathizers.”

Marawi was a trauma not just for El-Mama but the entire Philippines. Unless deeper, communal changes are made in its aftermath, there could be far more chaos to come.

Sean Williams
Sean Williams is a Berlin-based freelance writer and journalist. His work has appeared at, The New Republic, The Economist, Esquire and many others.