The jihadist flag flying over the town hall of Butig, Lanao del Sur. (Source: ABS-CBN News)
Elite Filipino troops have been deployed to the restive southern Philippines province of Lanao del Sur to wrestle back control of a town that recently fell to Islamic State-loyal forces. The group, dubbed the “Maute Group” in local media, is also called the Islamic State in Lanao.
The jihadist group captured the town of Butig on Nov. 24 after raising its flag over the town hall. The Filipino military has stated that around 300 fighters are occupying the town. Over the weekend, up to 35 members of the jihadist group and several troops were purportedly killed in clashes near the town.
According to local reports, troops from the Philippines’ elite Joint Special Operations Group have been deployed near Butig to assist regular army troops in battling the jihadist forces for control over the town. An army spokesman said that “Yes, [we started the offensive] at dawn today. The mission is to flush out the group and neutralize the enemies and to bring back normalcy to the area. Before we can achieve that, there will be a series of operations.”
Earlier today, a convoy containing Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s security team was struck by an improvised explosive device in Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur. 11 people, including nine within Duterte’s security team, were wounded in the attack. Filipino authorities have stated that this attack was likely a diversionary tactic by the so-called “Maute Group.”
The Islamic State in Lanao formed earlier this year after announcing its presence on social media. It has released several videos showing clashes with Filipino troops, as well as photos showing the beheadings of captured soldiers. Many of these conflicts have occurred near Butig, which has been a highly contested area. In one photo release, members of the group were seen manning a checkpoint somewhere in Lanao del Sur, but likely near Butig.
In a video release earlier this year, it identified its leader as “Abu Hassan”, while in another video a senior leader is identified as “Abu Hafs al Mashriqi.” Mashriqi usually indicates someone from the Levantine region of the Middle East. At least one training camp has been showcased by the group, as well.
Videos and reports of Filipino groups pledging bayah (allegiance) to the Islamic State have emerged since 2014, shortly after Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, claimed the creation of a “caliphate”. These groups include several battalions from the Abu Sayyaf Group, including the overall leader Isnilon Hapilon, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Ansar Khilafah in the Philippines, Islamic State in Lanao, Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad (a group formerly loyal to al Qaeda), and parts of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) based in Lanao del Sur. These groups operate in several other provinces of the Philippines, including the southern areas of Basilan, South Cotabato, Sulu, Sarangani, and the northern province of Isabela.
Hapilon has been appointed the overall leader of Islamic State forces in the Philippines, according to the jihadist group’s weekly magazine Al Naba and later confirmed in a video released from Raqqah, Syria. Official Islamic State media has produced content both from and about the Philippines, including a statistical report from the Amaq News Agency.
Edit: Article changed to reflect that President Duterte was not in the convoy attacked by an IED in Marawi City.