MARAWI CITY, Philippines – At least a decade ago, in 2007, the intelligence community in the Philippines was already watching Marawi City residents Cayamora Maute and his wife Farhana.
The parents of the now notorious "Maute Brothers", who are responsible for the ongoing clashes in their homeland, were coddling visiting operatives of Indonesian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), according to an intelligence report obtained by Rappler.
The well-connected couple who has homes and businesses in Marawi City and Butig town in Lanao del Sur and Quezon City helped the terrorists move personnel, funds, and supplies. They used as front Farhana’s commodity trading business in Surabaya, Indonesia.
Back in those days, Al Qaeda was the world’s biggest terrorist network and JI was a member. It was notorious for the worst act of terror in the world’s biggest Muslim country, the 2002 Bali bombing that killed more than 200.
The military used the Maute couple as tracers, according to a military officer privy to the operations, to detect activities of the JI operatives here.
The year 2012 was significant. The Mautes led the military to Ustadz Sanusi, one of 7 JI members who sought refuge in Mindanao. The terrorist allegedly involved in the 2005 beheading of 3 Christian schoolgirls in Indonesia was killed inside the compound of the Mindanao State University (MSU) in Marawi. (READ: PH military says Indonesian terrorist killed)
An intelligence report said Sanusi was found in a house there owned by Mohammad Khayyam Maute, one of the many sons of Cayamora and Farhana who would 5 years later wreak havoc in the city they grew up in.
It seemed the military had relaxed on the Maute family after Sanusi’s death in 2012. Little did they know that the sons would soon bring into the country the ideology of a terrorist group even more radical than Al Qaeda.
Omar Khayyam and Abdullah are the known leaders of the so-called “Maute Brothers” of the “Maute Group”, although they prefer the name Dawla Islamiyah. Both are believed to have been radicalized in the Middle East. Omar Khayyam completed Islamic Studies at Al-azhar University in Egypt. Abdullah also finished his Islamic Studies in Jordan, according to intelligence reports.
Omar is believed to be the brains behind the group while Abdullah serves as the commander of its military operations, athough a video shows even Mohammad contributed to this role.
We tell the story of a well-connected family behind a homegrown terrorist group that most effectively spread the ISIS ideology in the Philippines. This account is based on information from the intelligence community and multiple interviews with security officers, local officials, and residents of the two communities they sought to seize – Butig and Marawi City.
It was also about the year 2012 when the Maute brothers began to display their extemist ideology and tendency for violence, according to Marawi residents interviewed by Rappler.
They were believed to be members of a violent clique that started out attacking gays in the city, warning them to “stop what you are doing." Later, the group progressed to killing soldiers.
Samira Gutoc, back then an Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) assemblywoman and MSU regent, told Rappler how she asked the local police and military to investigate violence in the university. She said she was horrified to see pictures of “young men in turbans” responsible for attacks against victims who were all Christians.
Residents now say that these were the beginnings of the Maute Group. But the military had relegated them to the sidelines, it appeared, as the following year would become one of the most challenging times for the country.
In between the May 2013 midterm elections, Filipinos attacked Sabah in February, followers of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founder Nur Misuari seized villages in Zamboanga City in September, a massive earthquake hit Bohol in October, and a super typhoon hit Eastern Visayas in November.
The sons of Cayamora and Farhana regained the attention of the country’s security apparatus in 2014 when they pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS), the more violent incarnate of Al Qaeda.
But it was in 2016 when they earned their now notorious name "Maute Brothers" after they attacked a military detachment and killed two soldiers in nearby Butig, the hometown of Farhana.
At least 4 military operations – Haribon 1, 2, 3 – were launched in Butig against the Maute Brothers in 2016. In April, they mimicked ISIS executions when they beheaded two Christian sawmill workers whom they dressed with orange clothes. In November, they flew the ISIS black flag at the town hall.
The Maute Group would also be blamed for the September 2, 2016 Davao City bombing that killed at least 15 people.
It was in Butig where Abu Sayyaf senior leader Isnilon Hapilon, the so-called prince of ISIS in Southeast Asia, would join the Maute Group in December 2016 to supposedly hatch a plan to establish a caliphate in Central Mindanao, according to the government.
The military demonstrated its force against their combined forces, deploying the brand new fighter jets of the air force for the first time to conduct surgical air strikes.
In the middle of military operations, President Rodrigo Duterte traveled to a town adjacent to Butig to plead to local leaders to shun the ISIS ideology. "Alam ninyo ‘yung Maute, if they are inspired doon sa ISIS, magkaleche-leche ang buhay natin (You know, if the Maute is inspired by ISIS, we will all be in trouble)," Duterte said in a speech there.
But his emissaries to the Maute Group failed to talk them out of their plans.
The military thought Hapilon was severely wounded in Butig and perhaps dead. But he would show up in Marawi City on May 23. They raided the safe house in Barangay Basak Malutlut, where they found him, but failed yet again to snare him.
What surprised them was the reaction of Marawi residents. The recruits of the Maute Brothers – supposed ISIS cells in the city – sprung out of the streets to conduct simultaneous attacks in the city. (READ: Marawi battle zone: Urban warfare challenges PH military)
While the military ran after the leaders, local politicians and their families took their guns to defend city hall and the capitol from the terrorists who wanted to raise the ISIS black flag there.
A video seized from a safe house in Basak Malutlut shows Hapilon and the Maute Brothers planning an attack on Marawi. Armed Forces chief General Eduardo Año said they wanted to seize the city and declare it an Islamic caliphate on the 1st day of Ramadan. The grand plan, he said, is to replicate how ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Bhagdadi took the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014.
The video also shows, according to Año, that the Maute Brothers were on top of the operations even as they recognized Hapilon as the ISIS emir.
Año said that while the military raid failed to snag Hapilon on May 23, it succeeded in foiling their plan to seize Marawi City.
The Marawi crisis has entered its 2nd month. On May 25, the Islamic city celebrated its saddest Eid celebration with most of its 200,000 residents away from their homes, some living in squalid evacuation centers.
“This fighting brought by the local militant group robbed us of the chance to observe Ramadan peacefully and stole from us the opportunity to celebrate Eid’l Fitr and to be with our loved ones on the religious occasion,” said Zia Alonto Adiong, the spokesman of the crisis management committee.
As of Saturday, June 24, the clashes have killed at least 69 soldiers, 280 terrorists, and 26 civilians. Many houses have been bombed or burned. (READ: One month of Marawi clashes: Death toll now 375)
After Sanusi’s death, the Maute family went into hiding in Butig because they were supposedly afraid they would be arrested for coddling the foreign terrorist, according to an intelligence report prepared after the Butig attacks.
The mountainous hometown of Farhana is where Camp Bushra is located, one of the biggest camps of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s dominant Muslim rebel group that has been fighting for self-rule in Mindanao.
Butig saw massive military operations in the 2000 all-out war waged by then president Joseph Estrada. It would enjoy relative quiet since the MILF began talks with the government to create a new Bangsamoro region envisioned to replace, and have more powers than, the existing ARMM.
The Maute Brothers would disturb this peace when they brought the war to Butig. The military offensives also destroyed houses, buildings, and government offices, as well as displaced thousands of residents.
The Maute family is well connected to the MILF hierarchy, but they have long opposed its leadership and the peace process it pushed.
Cayamora Maute, an engineer, previously served the MILF engineering bureau, according to an intelligence report. But it’s Farhana who is practically royalty. She belongs to the distinguished political Romato clan, which intermarried with the Mimbantas who ruled the MILF for decades.
The Maute brothers are the first cousins of Azisa Romato, the wife of the late MILF vice chairman for military affairs Abdulaziz Mimbantas. Mohammad Khayyam is also married to a Mimbantas daughter – it was in their house where Sanusi was killed, according to an intelligence report.
In Marawi, son Abdullah Maute is married to a sister of former mayor Pre Salic. Salic and his brother Omar "Solitario" Ali, also a former mayor, are among the politicians the government singled out for helping the Maute Brothers. They are facing charges of rebellion.
The links to influential families grew through marriages with families not only in Butig and Marawi but also in nearby Masiu, where Farhana sought refuge and was arrested at the height of the clashes.
These relations have triggered suspicions against the MILF despite the rebel group having cooperated with the military in its offensives.
But the positions are clear. The MILF has categorically opposed the ISIS ideology that the Maute Group promoted.
The blood ties, however, have allowed the Maute Group to recruit among MILF clans, especially among the “second generation MILF” or the children of its members “do not listen to their elders.”
The Maute Group exploited the growing weariness of young Muslims over the continued failure of government to deliver on its promises pertaining to the peace process.
There were many of them in Butig, Marawi, and other places in Mindanao. Successive disappointments with government made them susceptible to the radical ideology of ISIS and the need to take their own territory where they could establish a caliphate in Mindanao.
In Butig and in Marawi, Rappler interviews showed that the recruitment strategy was almost the same. They spoke with residents about their ideology. Those who appeared open to the teachings were invited to discuss the ideology further. At a certain stage they were made to swear on the Koran and vow secrecy.
"Swearing on the Koran is sacred. You can't take your word back," said a Butig resident.
In Marawi, a lot of the recruitment was done on social media. In Butig, where there is no internet, it was face-to-face engagement. It was also in Butig where they brought fighters for training.
They also recruited children based on the promise that they would allow them to study the Koran. They turned them into fighters instead. (READ: I met a Maute soldier. He's a child.)
Butig Mayor Jimmy Pansar said most of the fighters in Butig were not residents. “Karamihan ng recruits from Marawi, Maguindanao, at Balik Islam.” (Most of the recruits were from Marawi, Maguindanao, and Islam converts.)
In Marawi, the fighters of the Maute Group were given a boost by Abu Sayyaf fighters and foreign fighters who took advantage of a Tabligh convention of Sunni Islamic missionaries to fly to Marawi City. Tabligh Jamaat is said to be a movement that calls on Muslims to return to Sunni Islam, the world's largest religious denomination.
The military said the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Ansarul Khalifa Philippines of Sarangani, the two other ISIS-linked terrorist groups, planned to reinforce the fighters in Marawi. (READ: 4 PH terror groups link up with pro-ISIS fighters in region)
When Pansar was elected after two Maute attacks in 2016, among the first things he did was meet with the residents of Butig to discourage them from joining the terrorist group.
“After my assumption, I met with religious leaders and stakeholders – in addition to municipal officials and barangay chairman – to explain to the population that what they are doing is wrong. Most of the residents understood that. It’s not jihad, 101% it’s really wrong,” Pansar told Rappler in an interview back in December.
He was 5 months into his term, in November 2016, when the Maute Group succeeded in raising the ISIS black flag in Butig. It’s what the terrorist group also wanted to do in Marawi City.
A common denominator between the group’s biggest attack in Butig and the siege of Marawi City, according to residents, is this: the sitting mayors are not Maute allies.
“For me, this is not jihad. They are after power and wealth by destroying the community,” said Pansar.
The Maute has received foreign funding, mostly believed to have been coursed through Farhana. Malaysia's most wanted terrorist Mahmud Ahmad also channeled at least P30 million ($600,000) to finance the attack, according to Año.
Duterte himself had claimed that narco-politics helped fund the Maute Group, fitting the conflict into the narrative of his war on drugs. Residents are not dismissing this.
Here lies a truth about conflicts in Mindanao. Families join and support armed groups for various reasons – religion, pride, power, and wealth to name a few. It is dangerous to oversimplify the cause of conflict as one or another to fit a narrative that government wants to push.
Even the "emir" of ISIS in Southeast Asia, Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf Group, belongs to an organization that kidnaps foreign hostages to rake in millions of ransom money. Occasionally, it uses the ISIS black flag to up the group's international profile. But the Abu Sayyaf itself has too many factions and Hapilon is known to have kept some ideology despite the banditry of his group.
"At the core of the Maute Group is the radical ideology supporting ISIS. They will not kill themselves for money or power alone," a local official told Rappler.
Like the young Muslims tired of war, the MILF leadership itself has expressed disappointment over the slow progress of the peace talks under Duterte. But their actions showed commitment to the peace process.
In Butig, the MILF ordered its fighters to give way and not intervene with military operations.
In Marawi, the MILF created "peace corridors" to assist trapped civilians trying to escape the war zone and help secure adjacent towns where the conflict could spill over.
As the battle rages in Marawi City, a new draft for a law that will create the Bangsamoro region has been submitted to Duterte. He is expected to endorse this to Congress when it resumes session in July
Peace advocates argue that the Marawi crisis underscores the need to complete the peace process with the MILF to prevent more young Muslims from taking matters into their own hands.
And while the military is confident they have defeated the terrorists in Marawi, the ISIS threat will not be obliterated even when the fighting in Marawi stops. As ISIS faces defeat and loses territory in the Middle East, the Asian fighters are expected to return and seek refuge back home.
A political solution to the Mindanao problem is urgent. There is no time to waste. – Rappler.com