Importance of Military Leadership in Marawi Experience

“Under challenging conditions, leaders should be more flexible, adaptive, and innovative in order to overcome unforeseen obstacles encountered along the road to success.” — BGen Corleto Vinluan Jr

Prelude to the Crisis

Prior to the Marawi crisis, our forces had launched incessant military operations against the ISIS-Maute Terrorist Group. The terrorist group took control of Butig, Lanao del Sur, which prompted the 103rd Infantry Brigade (103Bde) to launch Oplan Haribon 1, which was comprised of a series of combat operations against the ISIS-Maute Terrorist Group. The result of the focus military operations (FMO) was the seizure of the terrorist camp in Sitio Balala, Bgy Poctan, Butig, Lanao del Sur. Another atrocity conducted by the ISIS-Maute terrorists was the beheading of two non-Muslims in Butig, Lanao del Sur. The 103Bde launched succeeding FMOs against the terrorist group (OPLAN Haribon 2 and 3). Haribon 3 ended when units of the Scout Rangers overran the terrorist’s main camp at Hill 1377, Barangay Sundab, Lanao del Sur. In January 2017, another OPLAN (Haribon 4) was executed. This time, Isnilon Hapilon was reported to be with the ISISMaute Terrorist Group as their leader, the appointed Emir of ISIS Southeast Asia. Haribon 4 ended after combined units under the 103Bde overran an ISISMaute terrorist training camp at Piagapo, Lanao del Sur.

Start of the Terror Attack

On the 23rd of May 2017, after relentless efforts to locate Isnilon Hapilon, the terrorist leader proclaimed as the Emir of ISIS in Southeast Asia was sighted in a safe house at Bgy Basak, Malulut, Marawi City. Our immediate plan was to capture Isnilon Hapilon. After we raided his safe house, we recovered videos of Hapilon alongside the Maute brothers and his subcommanders plotting the siege of Marawi City that would coincide with the start of Ramadan.

Our plan to take down the terrorist leader pushed the enemy to launch their planned attack three days earlier. As the encounter at Bgy Malulut ensued, other terrorists who were scattered in other parts of the city attacked the Marawi City Police Station and burned the buildings of Dansalan College in Bgy Moncado, the City Jail in Bgy Marinaut, and the Catholic Church in Bgy Paypay. They then occupied the Amai Pak-Pak Hospital. Apart from burning buildings, the ISIS-Maute terrorists started executing civilians and rounding up our security forces that were caught inside the Main Battle Area (MBA). As the crisis escalated, local residents outside the conflict area tried to flee the city while civilians inside the MBA became trapped and were held hostage.

After receiving reports of all these atrocities, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte who was on a state visit in Moscow announced the declaration of Martial Law covering the entire island of Mindanao. President Duterte abruptly ended his state visit to Russia and flew back home to personally attend to the ongoing crisis. Our initial plan was to contain the terror attack within Marawi City. The prompt arrival of our additional forces in Marawi City helped cordon the ISIS-Maute Terrorist Group inside Marawi City. This prevented terrorists from taking control of the entire Marawi City.

Encircled by our troops, the ISIS-Maute Terrorist Group was determined not to lose their ground without inflicting casualties on our side. They planted Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and booby traps to hinder our troops advance, to give a false impression that they were winning and to show that they were a force to reckon with. The ISIS-Maute Terrorist Group started posting online videos of their execution of the civilian hostages, burning buildings, thrashing of the Catholic Church, and terrorists parading on the streets waving the ISIS flag. The situation in Marawi City worsened as more civilians were taken hostage. Our troops attempted to advance and rescue the trapped civilians but we were met by enemy ambuscades and heavy resistance.

Our military leaders had no choice but to face the challenge squarely and gear up for the Battle of Marawi. Operational plans were drawn, the desired troops were requested, logistical needs attended to, and combat support was readied.

Reclaiming the City

On the 25th of August 2017, our military forces gained control of the Grand Mosque, the largest mosque of Marawi City. The mosque was used as one of the main hideouts of the terrorists. Our troops and the government wanted to avoid any damage or form of destruction to this holy site; however, it seemed that the terrorists had no regard for their cultural and historic icon.

Meanwhile, we rescued hostages of the ISIS-Maute Terrorist Group in other parts of the city. Tales of horror surfaced as the hostages recounted their ordeal and harrowing escape attempts. They thanked our forces for rescuing them.

Final Push

The final phase of our plan was to eliminate the enemies by driving them towards our predetermined
constriction area, so that we can deliver our fatal blow to destroy them decisively. Our operating
troops slowly cleared the buildings one by one and systematically pushed the enemies towards a specific
location. As our troops closed in, a new problem emerged. There were too many IEDs that made the
terrain even more complicated and dangerous. We had to move fast to evade enemy snipers but we
couldn’t because the enemy laid traps made out of handmade bombs along our advance route.

Our Ground Commander, MGen Bautista, ordered the final push to end the war in Marawi City, hence, our troops penetrated the final defensive positions of the terrorists, where the enemies had concentrated their main battle position and firepower to prevent any assault coming from our advancing force. Heavy firefights were exchanged.

On the 22nd of September 2017, the military reclaimed the Raya Madaya Bridge, better known as “Masiu Bridge”—a strategic link within the vicinity of the Agus River and Lake Lanao which was used by the terrorists as their entrance and exit points from the MBA. We also noted that the terrorist-controlled area was getting smaller and smaller as our troops closed in on them. The sphere of the terrorist influence in the MBA measured less than 10 hectares.

Neutralizing the terrorists

On the 16th of October, our Chief of Staff, AFP, Gen Eduardo Año, confirmed that Isnilon Hapilon, the terrorist leader who was the proclaimed the Emir of ISIS in Southeast Asia, and Omarkhayam Maute of the ISIS-Maute Terrorist Group, as well as seven of their fighters, were neutralized after our forces launched a major operation in the heart of the besieged City of Marawi.

Gen Año said that information provided by a female civilian hostage, who was rescued led our government troops to the location of the enemy. She recounted that the two top terrorist leaders had no intention to surrender.

On the 16th day of October, the two top terrorist leaders (Isnilon Hapilon and Omarkhayam Maute) were finally neutralized by the combined operating forces of the government and met their respective deaths in the MBA. On the 17th of October President Duterte declared the liberation of Marawi City from the influence of the terrorists marking the end of the crisis.

Defeating the ISIS-Maute Terrorist Group was never an easy task. It took 165 lives of our soldiers and police with 1,767 wounded to finally put an end to the reign of terror in Marawi City.

Our Strength

Leadership is a critical component in engaging and maximizing our strength. Military leaders in Marawi City had different leadership styles but they were able to complement each other in order to finish the five-month
long operations.

Combat skills, effective communication skills, and a shared goal, these were some of the critical attributes that our leaders possessed during the Marawi crisis. Sharing their vision helped our soldiers see their strengths.

The art of communication is a two-way street with the airing of both the positive and negative sides in an honest setting stirred by the leader into productive solutions that respect the opinions of others though placed in the proper context in keeping with the organization’s overall mission.

A team approach leaves less room for dissent and creates a positive attitude and healthy cooperation among the members of all units concerned. Our leaders harnessed the utmost potential of each and every subordinate leader together with their troops which is what spelled victory for JTF Marawi’s operations in the Battle of Marawi.

In this type of combat environment, key leaders’ communication and synchronization of movements are very important. Smooth communication is necessary in order to connect tasks with their purpose and to synchronize the movement of the organization’s squads, platoons, companies, battalions, and even military staff into one team. Our military leaders also talked to the local leaders and other key stakeholders in order to communicate the situation on the ground.

The presence of our commanders from JTF Marawi in the critical areas also boosted the morale of our soldiers. Then BGen Bautista, MGen Pamonag, and other commanders held fort in the Tactical Command Post (TCP) of JSOTF Trident located at the rear of the MBA to closely supervise and monitor the operational activities of the MBA.

At the heart of it all, leadership is about influence which our army leaders were able to exemplify. They were able to influence the character, potentials, and strengths of every member of all our security forces who participated in liberation of Marawi City.

This entry is part of Book 1: Leading from the Heart.)

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