In late May 2017, about 1,000 Islamic militants led by the Maute group and fighting under the black flag of the Islamic Army of Syria and Iraq took control of the central business district of Marawi City. The raid took President Rodrigo Duterte and the Armed Forces of the Philippines by surprise.
Since taking office, Duterte had focused his attention as well as the resources and personnel of the Philippine National Police on his relentless campaign on illegal drugs. He was unprepared for the Islamic militant threat that had been festering in Mindanao for years, reinforced by the arrival of seasoned combatants from Indonesia, Malaysia, Chechnya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Trained for jungle warfare and used in operating in small-units, the Philippine military initially was unable to dislodge the militants despite deploying ground troops and armor personnel carriers, and bombing the city from the air.
Urban fighting in Marawi City exposed the AFP’s limitations. Ten Philippine Army troops were killed by friendly air force fire while 13 Philippine Marines lost their lives in one day of street-to-street fighting with the seasoned militants from all over the world.
For the AFP, defeating the ISIS militants in Marawi City as soon as possible became an imperative because a lengthy siege would attract more militants to Mindanao to reinforce their fellow fighters in the city or be deployed in other parts of the island.
Confronted with a terrorist movement capable of waging a conventional warfare in an urban setting, the AFP requested security assistance from its security partners. Consequently, while covering the bloody street-to-street fighting between the AFP and Islamic militants allied to ISIS, an Associated Press correspondent and his photographer saw and took pictures of a US-Navy P3 Orion circling the besieged city of Marawi as Philippine Air Force helicopters fired rockets on ground targets.
News of American military presence in Marawi City spread like wild fire in Manila. A day after the reported sighting, AFP spokesperson General Restituto Padilla confirmed that a US Navy aircraft had provided surveillance for the AFP as Philippine soldiers and marines fought house-to-house combat with the Muslim militants.
Another security partner of the Philippines who provided immediate assistance during the Battle of Mariwi City is Australia. Australia sent two Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) AP-3C Orion aircrafts to provide surveillance and reconnaissance support to the AFP’s combat operations. Signal and photographic intelligence provided by the American and Australian reconnaissance planes enabled the AFP to deploy its FA-50s fighter planes and OV-10 ground attack planes to launch surgical airstrikes on the ISIS’ positions in the city.
During the fighting, Australia has also considered sending Australian Defense Force (ADF) personnel to the Philippines to advise and assist the AFP in its counter-terrorism campaign against the Islamic militants—something that the ADF has been doing in Iraq. Since 2015, the ADF’s Task Force Taji has trained thousands of Iraqi military personnel in urban warfare.
In his meeting with Duterte, the director-general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Nick Warner, offered Australian technical assistance, training, and information gathering and sharing to the Philippines in its fight against international terrorism. The presidential spokesperson said that the Philippines is most interested in gaining Australian intelligence assistance, and the country is keen to strengthen its defense relationship with Australia.