Before May 23, 2017, the band of bandits operating in the Lanao area called Maute Group was nothing but an armed network of clans with familial ties to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. But the Maute Group is now an international terrorist organization, thanks to President Rodrigo Duterte and his declaration of martial law in Mindanao.
What is referred to in military and police reports as a local
The group has now been renamed Maute ISIS. Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff Eduardo Año on Friday said the AFP is considering classifying the group as an international terrorist organization.
So far, only the Abu Sayyaf and the New People’s Army are the Philippine groups listed in the US Department of State roster of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
Research conducted by VERA Files shows that before Mindanao was placed under martial law, police and military intelligence reports have already noted the diminishing strength of the Maute group and as well as its so-called vision to establish an Islamic State wilayah or province in Mindanao.
Both the AFP and the Philippine National Police have maintained that the group is a network of armed clans based in Lanao del Sur. They had relatives in the MILF and connections with local politicians, and maintained training and financial relations with the Southeast Asian terror network Jemaah Islamiya.
But Maute had no established direct ties with the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria. Only when President Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao did Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana label the group Maute ISIS.
“It is actually Maute ISIS because they are the same,” Lorenzana said in a press conference in Moscow after Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao. He said he had reason to believe, based on the reports he received from Baghdad, that photos of the ongoing clashes in Marawi City were simultaneously streamed in the ISIS website in the Middle East. To Lorenzana, this constitutes international backing from ISIS.
The PNP placed the Maute Group’s manpower at 267 composed mainly of relatives with 117 different high-powered firearms. From that high, the military reported killing 85 Maute Group-linked personalities in a series of operations in February 2016, and 37 more in a set of military offensives on April 22 to 24 this year.
“Originally the Maute is composed of close relatives but due to their depleted number of members, they are accepting outside of their clan. Thus, penetrating them is possible,” a PNP intelligence brief obtained by VERA Files said.
The report identified the known clans in Lanao del Sur that comprise the group: Maute, Romato, Mimbantas and Macadatu.
“Currently, the Maute Group has gathered a force not only from the above mentioned clans but from other groups in Central Mindanao such as MILF/Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Force (MILF/BIAF), Moro National Liberation Front/Bangsamoro Armed Forces (MNLF/BAF), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement/Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFM/BIFF), Abu Sayyaf Group/Al Harakatul Al-Islamiya (ASG/AHAI), Ansar al-Khalifa Philippines (AKP) and individuals who want to experience (Hijra) fighting in the name of religion,” the police brief stated.
The Maute Group has been linked to suspects arrested for the Davao night market bombing on September 2, 2016 that killed 15 people and wounded more than 60 others.
Datu Mohammad Abduljabbar Sema, the alleged logistics supplier for that bombing operation, was arrested in Malaysia in November 24, 2016 and remains in Malaysian custody. He is the son of Muslimin Sema, chairman of the largest MNLF faction and former Cotabato mayor. His mother incumbent Rep. Bai Sandra Sema belongs to the influential Sinsuat clan of Maguindanao. His brother, Omar Yasser Sema was appointed by Duterte to the Bangsamoro Transition Council.
The BTC is tasked to revise the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law that will create the new Bangsamoro region to replace the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao. ARMM was part of the peace agreement between the government and the MNLF in 1996 while the BBL is part of Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed in 2014 between the government and the MILF, a breakaway of the MNLF.
The MILF’s First Vice Chair Ghazali Jaafar has been chosen by the MILF Central Committee to chair the BTC. Military reports said he is related to Maute matriarch Ominta “Farhana” Romato.
Meanwhile, the eldest of the Maute brothers, Mohamadkhayam “Otto” is married to the daughter of Alim Aziz Mimbantas, former MILF vice chairman for Military Affairs.
According to a military dossier of the Maute family, Otto graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the University of the East where he also met his wife Adlia Mimbantas. He is reportedly directing the operations and intelligence of the Lanao-based Maute group.
However, the police brief also suggested that enjoining the MILF to engage the Maute can “possibly limit the movements of the Maute members in the mountainous areas of Kararaw complex where one of the camps of MILF is situated. Traversing in other places will be difficult for them.”
In the peace deal with the MILF, the government established a mechanism that requires prior coordination of military and law enforcement activities within MILF-controlled areas. It is as yet unknown how martial law in the whole of Mindanao will affect the peace process with the MILF.
The military for its part began monitoring the Maute group after Indonesian JI leader Ibnu Ghalib Ibghol al-Jitli alias Ustadz Sanusi was killed in a safehouse owned by the Maute patriarch Engineer Cayamora Maute in Marawi City on November 21, 2012. Evidence showed that the Maute family was aiding the transfer of JI funds from Indonesia to Sanusi through their accounts, provided sanctuary and protection, and established connections with ranking JI leaders in Indonesia.
Until early this year, police and military intelligence reports indicated that Maute’s links have mainly been with the JI. It had no reported personal or institutional ties to the ISIS in either Raqqa in Syria or Mosul in Iraq. Foreigners killed along with Maute members in military offensives last year have remained unidentified.
The Jemaah Islamiyah Links
According to a military intelligence report, Sanusi alias Ghalib/Ishrak/Feris/ Monsoy Pamalaoy was believed to be the leader of the JI Mindanao, and when he was killed in a government operation in November 2012, the Maute brothers, Abdullah and Omar, took over the leadership of the group under the auspices of the unidentified JI and foreign jihadist personalities.
Abdullah, the amir of the group, is third of the 12 Maute siblings, composed of seven boys and five girls. Omar, who studied at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, is the second among the Maute brothers and also a leader of the group. He married Minhati Midrais, an Indonesian national who is associated with a certain Yunais, also an Indonesian who is a brother of Sanusi.
Both Omar and Abdullah were trained by the JI in the 1990s when then MILF leader Hashim Salamat hosted the training of Southeast Asian militant extremists in Camp Abubakar in Maguindanao. They were trained by Omar Patek and Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan who came to Mindanao to seek refuge inside MILF enclaves, the military report said.
In addition, the police intelligence brief also disclosed that aside from Sanusi, the Mautes have links with other foreign terrorists like Ahmad Faisal bin Imam Sarijan alias Zulkipli, former leader of the JI cell Wakalah Hudeibiah, and alias Tolha, a member of Koleyah Harbiyah Dauskarayah (KHD-1), a project of the markaziyah (JI Central Command) for an officer cadet training course.
The police also noted that one of the Maute daughters is believed to have served as courier for individuals passing messages to their contacts in Mindanao as she frequented the jail of JI member Taufiq Rifqi who was detained for the 2003 Cotabato airport bombing.
Reports have it that that Abdullah Maute had received P5 million from foreign donors in Indonesia and Jordan. The 35-year old Abdullah graduated as an aleem or religious scholar, a doctor of Qu’ran at the Mutah University in Mutahal, Karak, Jordan.
Abdullah was among four LTG sub leaders seen in a video footage posted on social media on March 20, 2016 where he spoke in the Maranao dialect about their group’s mission, objectives, recent encounters with government forces. Together with Owayda Marombsar alia Abu Dar/Abdul Najid, they introduced their group as Dawla Islamiyah and pledged their allegiance to the ISIS or Daesh under the leadership of Khalif Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi Al-Hussaini Al Kurashi.
The Abu Sayyaf Connection
Both military and police intelligence reports obtained by VERA Files show an alliance between Maute and the Sulu or Basilan based ASG only on the tactical level and their common subsistence through criminal acts. When one group is under pressure from military operations, the other will create diversionary tactics.
When early this year, the military targeted Basilan-based ASG leader Isnilon Hapilon, whom the U.S. State Department has put up a $5 million bounty for his head, he went to Lanao del Sur to seek refuge, the report said.
Prior to that, on December 31, 2016, Hapilon sent members of his group to meet with Maute group negotiator Abdulatip Kanguan for talks on a possible merger in establishing a caliphate in Central Mindanao.
“However, the meeting did not prosper due to the conflict of their beliefs in war,” the police intelligence report said. “The Maute still continues to execute their plan of bombings in Midsayap, Cotabato City, General Santos City, Iligan City and Cagayan de Oro City.”
Joseph Franco, an analyst specializing in countering violent extremism counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism, said that while Hapilon pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014 and was accepted, there was still reluctance on the part of the of the IS leadership to declare a province in Mindanao probably due to the Hapilon faction’s inability to exercise control over territory.
“But even if Hapilon could somehow control wide swathes of Mindanao, changes in the strategic priorities of IS may make it moot. There is speculation that IS may already have abandoned its wilayah-based expansion model. Instead of being declared an emir, Hapilon was referred to as a ‘wali’ or governor of an IS ‘division,’ with the Philippines being considered part of ‘the land of jihad’ and not as the ‘land of the caliphate,’” Franco said in his paper “Mindanao No Place for a Caliphate,” published by the East Asia Forum last month.
Reached by VERA Files, Franco explained that for ISIS to declare a wilayah, there must be a designated leader, a pledge to Baghdadi, and effective control of territory. The first two conditions are easily met, but the third may be very difficult.
“The fact that Hapilon moved from Basilan meant that his control there was tenuous. If you look at the Mautes on the other hand, they are for all intents and purposes a private army of the clan. They used the ISIS brand in utilitarian fashion. To look scary,” Franco said.
He added that Hapilon’s leadership is also tenuous because there is no single ASG. The Sulu-based ASG such as the Abu Rami and Sawadjaan factions will never pledged loyalty to Hapilon. They are more preoccupied with the kidnappings. If they pledged loyalty to Hapilon, that means they would remit their KFR income to the Basilan ASG and the Maute Group, which is unlikely to happen.
Franco also wrote the paper “The Battle(s) for Butig: Contextualizing the Maute Group,” where he argued that the Maute group is more of the clan’s private militia latching into the IS brand theatrically to inflate perceived capability.
He also said that it is ridiculous for ISIS to move their caliphate to Mindanao, even so now with the impending fall of Mosul and Raqqa.
Duterte on Thursday reported to Congress as mandated by law his basis for declaring martial law in Mindanao. He revealed Maute group’s plans to establish an Islamic state in the entire region with Marawi City as its capital.
“The idea of an IS caliphate is unlikely to perish with the retaking of Mosul and Raqqa. But the physical manifestation of the IS vision requires a confluence of history and socio-economic realities. It is irresponsible to assume that an illicit institution could be transplanted from the plains of the Levant to the jungles of Mindanao,” said Franco who is with the Centre of Excellence for National Security of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.