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MARAWI CITY, Philippines – The clashes in Marawi started with a military raid last week – on May 23 – in Barangay Basak Malutlut, where village authorities have long been waiting to see the Maute brothers. They spotted instead Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf Group faction in Basilan.
Hapilon, earlier reported to be in direct contact with ISIS and who recently moved his base to the Lanao provinces, was a high value target. The military quickly decided to move in.
The result is the now 7-day old clashes that have driven away most of the city residents and brought the local government to its knees – and martial law in the whole of Mindanao. (READ: Fast facts: Marawi City)
Rappler sat down last May 25 for an an exclusive interview here with Major General Rolando Bautista, the commander who ordered the raid.
Bautista previously commanded the Presidential Security Group based in Malacañang; he was promoted last March as commanding general of the military’s 1st infantry division that has jurisdiction over the Lanao provinces.
To explain what happened, Bautista cited information that the military received “two to three weeks” before D-Day.
“Two to 3 weeks before May 23, we received reports that local terrorist groups will seize Marawi City,” Bautista said.
It appears now that the military raid “triggered” the prematute execution of this plan, he added.
‘Target of opportunity’
The military worked to validate the information and did observe a consolidation of suspicious personalities in the area. But they could only do so much.
“In the absence of a signature of them bearing firearms, we just reported that there was consolidation,” Bautista said.
They also conducted zoning in the area with the help of the local police. “The goal was to check on locals who are bearing firearms. They isolated those who were residents of the barangay and those who were not,” Bautista said.
And then, in the middle of all this, Hapilon showed up where they were expecting the Maute Brothers. It was a complete surprise.
In military parlance, it’s called a “target of opportunity.” The military saw a target it was not expecting but had the ability to capture.
Bautista gave the go-ahead for the raid in Barangay Basak Malutlut on Tuesday afternoon. (READ: Isnilon Hapilon is target of military operation in Marawi)
“If we did not act, then he can go away. We’ve been looking for Hapilon for so many months. We have to value the informaton,” said Bautista, himself a former Army commander in Basilan, Hapilon’s base for a long time.
“I believe personally that information is credible. We had to act immedaitey and neutralize Hapilon,” he added.
Botched raid and foiled plan
What happened next was beyond Bautista’s expectations.
“We did not expect the outcome, the reactions,” Bautista said, referring to how armed men took to the streets, springing out from nowhere and quickly taking strategic positions throughout the city.
“We did not expect also their sniping capabilty,” said Bautista.
But the rapid-fire events also validated intelligence reports about a looming attack.
Bautista said he believes the raid “triggered the plan” of extremists to seize Marawi. It was executed prematurely, but obviously still very potent.
This makes the Marawi crisis both a botched military raid and a foiled terror plan.
Hapilon as ’emir’ of ISIS
It was in January this year when Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana disclosed that Hapilon has successfully established “direct links” with ISIS.
Lorenzana’s statement made some generals uneasy because they preferred dealing with the problem quietly.
They have received information that Hapilon’s faction of the Abu Sayyaf had already linked up with Maute and other local terrorist groups that have pledged allegiance to ISIS.
According to military officers who have been watching the spread of ISIS ideology in the Philippines, the “unification” of forces is the 3rd of 4 stages that groups wishing to join ISIS’ international network need to complete.
The 4th stage is establishing a wilayat, or a territory. Lorenzana said Hapilon was instructed to scout for a place where a caliphate could be established in Mindanao. (READ: Maute Group waves ISIS black flag on Marawi streets)
Bautista talked about Hapilon being the “emir” of ISIS in the country. His presence in Central Mindanao was taken by intelligence to mean that he had indeed joined forces with the Maute who had been trying to take Butig, Lanao del Sur.
Thus the military has intensified the hunt for him since.
Hapilon was supposedly severely wounded in an air strike in January, and was in fact presumed by some authorities to be dead.
But the military’s intelligence network showed that he’s very much alive, reappearing on Tuesday in Marawi City and in the middle of clashes.
As of Sunday, May 28, the military said 13 soldiers and 61 militants have been killed in Marawi. Almost all of the city residents have evacuated. Although crippled, the local government tries to function.
And the battle that has uprooted thousands of civilians continues to rage. – Rappler.com