CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte and Armed Forces chief Lt. Gen. Eduardo Año said separately that the head of the Islamic State in the Middle East, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had instructed Isnilon Hapilon to set up a base for ISIS in the Philippines.
Duterte said this in remarks while visiting soldiers wounded in the fighting in Marawi City, where the Maute Group with which Hapilon had closed ranks laid siege to starting May 23 – putting up a tough, urban guerrila style warfare against government forces despite punishing attacks from the ground and air.
Duterte visited the Camp Evangelista Station Hospital at the weekend and pinned medals on the wounded soldiers and gave out cash assistance.
In the ensuing press conference, Duterte said the Philippine government had confirmed information that al-Baghdadi had given the orders to the Maute brothers and Hapilon to sow chaos in Mindanao, which the President placed under martial law through Proclamation 216 which he signed on the evening of May 23.
The information they got was that ISIS wanted Lanao de Sur to be their base in Asia, and then expanding to nearby areas like Iligan City, where most of Marawi’s 200,000 population have fled.
“Lumabas na si Bagdadi mismo, the leader of ISIS, has physically ordered terroristic activities in the Philippines,” said Duterte.
The bigger, long-term plan of the terrorist group was detailed by AFP chief of staff Año. The government got further information with the capture last week of the Maute brothers’ father, Cayamora Maute – who has since been flown to Metro Manila – and subsequently their mother Okinta Romato Maute alias Farhana.
The latter was arrested with several men Friday, but four of the suspected members who were being transported separately to Cagayan de Oro died when the government convoy bearing them was ambushed Saturday.
The instructions received by the Mautes and Hapilon, according to Año, was that “once they occupied Marawi, they will go to Iligan and kill as many as they can, non-Muslims. To show to the world that there is an existing ISIS in the Philippines, that they have a base in Asia and they chose Mindanao, Lanao Sur.”
US help confirmed
The military confirmed at the weekend that the United States was providing “technical assistance” to government in fighting the extremists in Marawi, but insisted that all operational matters were being handled by Philippine defense and military.
Duterte said in Cagayan de Oro he was not aware of this, but acknowledged that the Philippine military was still handicapped in terms of technical expertise.
Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, Jr explained the situation: “[The US] contribution is more on training and technical assistance. Kasi yung ginagamit nating equipment ay similar sa kanila. But basically lahat ng operational matters, sa amin lahat yun. Walang Amerikanong involved [The equipment we’re using is similar tp theirs, so they’re helping out on technical matters. But there are no Americans involved in operational matters. All of that is ours].”
MDT standing protocols
In Malacañang, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella explained to reporters: “The United States is assisting the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in its operations in Marawi but this is limited to technical assistance.
“We have standing protocols which are already in place under the Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board with the US under the purview of the PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951. It does not involve any boots on the ground nor is there any direct participation in combat operations, a matter prohibited by law.”
Apparently referring to concerns about US intervention in Mindanao, Abello pointed out that “the fight against terrorism, however, is not only the concern of the Philippines or the United States but it is a concern of many nations around the world. The Philippines is open to assistance from other countries if they offer it.”
Duterte acknowledged that the Philippine military still lacked technical expertise. “I am not aware of it. And since martial law, I gave powers to the defense department. [There is a war] …We are not that powerful. We do not have technical expertise, that is why most of the officers of the Philippine Army had their schooling in America,” Duterte said, adding, “ang sentimyento nito pro-American. That I cannot deny.”
He appealed to the people of Marawi to hold on: “I do not want to fight. I simply cannot wage a war against my own people. I pray that there will be a short war, I expect it to be over soon.”
The government, Duterte added, would extend all necessary assistance to the people of Marawi, whose once-bustling city – deemed one of the most progressive Muslim-dominated places in Mindanao – has suffered extensive damage from the 3-week-old siege.