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By all indications, the battle to retake Marawi is winding down dramatically. The threat posed by terrorism, however, will linger for a while.

In the first few days after Maute fighters overrun the center of this Islamic city, military spokesmen estimated that about 40 armed men were involved. To date, the Maute death toll now stands at about 750.

As the body count escalates, it is easy to assume that the terrorist group must have mobilized about a thousand men for this wild adventure. That is a huge investment in men and materiel. The radical group threw in everything they had.

This was not a wild gamble. The occupation of Marawi resembles the strategy and tactics used by the ISIS when they decided to overrun about a dozen Syrian and Iraqi cities including Raqqa and Mosul.

The strategy is based on the sound assumption that a fighting force, prepared for urban warfare and occupying the built up portions of a city, will be very difficult to dislodge. Mosul required over half a year of intense urban warfare to recover, notwithstanding the uncontested air superiority and clear advantage in weaponry enjoyed by Iraqi government forces.

We had a foretaste of the difficulty of urban warfare when Zamboanga City was partially occupied by pro-Misuari MNLF fighters. Although the MNLF force was not able to take the central business district and confined to seaside communities with puny makeshift homes for cover, the AFP units had difficulty recovering the occupied areas.

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Recall that Noynoy Aquino and Mar Roxas encamped in Zamboanga City, role-playing as generals and supposedly overseeing military operations. When the assault became protracted, the two were eventually bored with the whole effort and returned to Manila before the battle could be completed.

The Maute fighters smartly occupied the built-up center of Marawi City. They deployed a much larger force and had hundreds of medium-rise concrete buildings, a church and several mosques to serve as sniper nests. They have been holding fort for over four months now against an intense military assault.

Dislodging the Maute fighters required damaging their concrete urban cover. The core of Marawi is now rubble.

In addition to the cover provided by the built-up area, the Maute fighters also used hostages and religious buildings as protection against the assault. They likewise extensively used improvised explosive devices to slow the military’s advance and inflict heavy casualties on the government side.

It is easy to conclude that the Maute group thought out the occupation very thoroughly. Probably at the prodding of their ISIS masters, they chose the strategy of urban occupation. Massing a force of a thousand fighters in a thinly populated area would have been completely suicidal. The military would have bombarded the terrorist force without mercy.

In Marawi, the military was constrained. They could not bomb the mosques and churches. The assaulting force had to put priority on the safety of the hostages. Soldiers had no choice but to fight house-to-house and even room-to-room, exposing government forces to sniper fire as well as IEDs.

The error in the Maute strategy is that it underestimated the tenacity of the AFP’s response. Despite the costs, the military kept up its assault. Among the costs are 150 good men killed in action and well over a thousand wounded in action.

The Maute strategy likewise overestimated their capacity to resupply and reinforce their fighting forces. The occupation force was easily isolated by bold AFP maneuvers. Attempts to reinforce the besieged fighters were blocked by tight military patrolling to the lake.

Nevertheless, the Maute Group’s action revealed the AFP’s serious inadequacies. The military had poor intelligence on the ground, failing to detect the massing up of a large terrorist force.

The military was clearly unprepared to conduct urban warfare, the experience in Zamboanga notwithstanding. They did not have the training or the exact weaponry required for an urban warfare setting. Aerial surveillance capacity was rushed to the scene of battle by our allies.

There are reports that the ISIS-affiliated armed groups had planned to occupy Cotabato City as well. But the Maguindanao force assigned to do that was simply incompetent. Groups such as the BIFF could only manage small skirmishes that failed to distract the Marawi assault.

Had the ISIS-affiliated armed groups managed to occupy two or three more small cities, replicating the tactics used by the Maute Group in Marawi, the AFP would have severely overstretched. As it is, the AFP had to rely on military operations launched by MILF units to keep the BIFF at bay.

One could surmise that the ill-fated Abu Sayyaf expeditionary force sent out to Bohol earlier this year could have been part of the ISIS strategy to force the AFP to fight on many fronts simultaneously. If this is true, the ISIS affiliated armed groups had a more audacious plan that the action in Marawi, taken in isolation, might suggest.

The effort to retake Marawi is due to be completed in a few days. The AFP had boldly announced completion of operations by last weekend. That was an underestimate of the willingness of the Maute fighters to hold their positions to the end.

At any rate, the occupation of Marawi indicates we have now become a frontline state in the global effort to repel terrorist networks. The destruction of the Maute group in holding on to territory, the support of foreign fighters notwithstanding, does not signal an end to their effort to be a force to deal with in the years to come.

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