Since late May, Marawi City in the Philippines has been the backdrop for fighting between the Islamic State-affiliated Maute group and Philippine government troops. On May 23, the militants began their offensive on the city, following a failed attempt by government forces to arrest militant commander Isnilon Hapilon. Hapilon, also known as Abu Abdullah al-Filipini, is the emir of Islamic State forces in the Philippines and a former leader of the Muslim separatist group Abu Sayyaf.
Since the offensive began, Marawi City has turned into an intense urban battleground. Though Philippine forces are advancing against the Islamic State fighters, militants still hold several hundred buildings throughout the city, and every position must be cleared. Philippine soldiers are having to adjust on the fly to the realities of urban combat, fighting from one house to the next and capturing between 40 to 100 houses per day, according to Philippine military sources.
Securing Marawi City comes at a cost, however, and so far 82 soldiers and police officers have died in the six weeks of fighting. Over 40 civilians have also reportedly been killed, though this number will likely rise as more areas are recaptured. The militants have taken hostage approximately 100 to 200 civilians, who they are suspected of using as human shields. Several hundred more civilians are trapped in their homes by the fighting. In addition to the human cost, the battle is taking a massive toll on the infrastructure of the city, as persistent artillery fire and airstrikes by government forces have reduced major sections of Marawi City to rubble.
At this point, there are believed to be about 100 militants still holding out in the city, with the military claiming to have killed close to 300 members of the opposition during its advance. The building-by-building nature of the advance means progress is slow, exacerbated by booby traps left behind by withdrawing militants. Government forces have been combing liberated areas for unexploded ordnance, which they will likely continue to do even after the militants are defeated. Several high-value targets are also believed to still be located in Marawi — including Hapilon — and Philippine forces will seek to isolate, capture or kill them if they have the opportunity.
Despite Philippine forces being located on all sides of the city on land, there is a risk that retreating militants could escape by water. Local boatmen have been found running the blockade around Marawi City, ferrying ammunition and supplies into the militant-held areas of the city and evacuating injured fighters. As government troops progress, militant leadership and foreign fighters could use these boatmen to escape.
Prior to the fighting in Marawi City, bombing and kidnapping campaigns conducted by the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups resulted in very limited damage. By occupying Marawi City and engaging the Philippine armed forces, the militants have provoked a government response that has damaged the city far more than they could have managed on their own. And the destruction caused by the military further benefits the militant groups by providing a useful narrative for the Islamic State to exploit as it works to build support in the Philippines.