A Sniper Waits for a Kill

Excerpts from the book "The Battle of Marawi"

By: Criselda Yabes

The following passage is reprinted from “The Battle of Marawi,” an exhaustive retelling by award-winning author Criselda Yabes of the battle for the Philippine city of Marawi on the island of Mindanao. Asia Sentinel also published a review of the book.

Golf-Three waited for four days before he gave the order to pull the trigger of his sniper’s rifle. For four straight days, when darkness had yet to give way to dawn, he observed his target obsessively through his scope. He could have had him shot easily but he reined in the temptation the way a hunter waits for his prey. Every night for him was the longest night. He’s done this before, he said, waiting, watching, aiming for the precise moment, the perfect second on the hand of time.

He learned to master patience when he was a boy in his father’s farm in the Visayas, using a slingshot to hit chickens or dogs straying through the fence of the plot and ruining the crops. The farm of his childhood was his refuge, finding his place there when he became an outcast in his family. In the Army where he sought to belong, he had discovered his niche with a team of snipers belonging to the most elite of the Army’s special operations command. The fighting in Marawi had been raging for weeks, growing in magnitude from what people thought would be over in a few days. It was going to be the longest and largest battle seen in the country since the Second World War razed Manila into obliteration.

Thousands of government troops had been sent in to take Marawi, the small, landlocked capital of Lanao del Sur province in mainland Mindanao that was under siege by Islamist rebels. In 1980, Marawi had been labeled as the only Islamic city in the entire Philippines, partly by accommodating pressure and demands from Maranao scholars who had studied in the Middle East and Central Asia and tried to change the religious contours of the original Filipino Islam that hinged on Sufism and a great deal of tolerance.

Golf-Three was about eight hundred meters from his target, who was in the main battle area. Marawi was built on the upper part of Lake Lanao, and the Agus River that flowed to the lake had become the dividing line between the safe zone (north) and ground zero (south). He was in one of the houses in the neighborhood already under military and police control, and across the river, the exchange of gunfire carried on, bullets whizzing, machine guns rattling, artillery fire exploding. He had moved a bit further to the side, by the northwest of the lake for an unobstructed view, diagonally, of a specific target that had become his mission. He said distance was his friend. In the pitch black of early morning, when there was respite from the fighting, Golf-Three could see the moving figure of his target.

His contact in the American intelligence had told him about a “heat signature” seen from the surveillance equipment of an unmanned P-3 Orion aerial vehicle. It was moving near the wharf from the Padian market, close to the eastern side of the lake—where the center of Marawi’s bustling life was in shatters. The target usually wakes up at about three o’clock in the morning. The target leaves his tent and makes his way towards the lake to pee.

The target has two bodyguards, both armed with rifles. The target does his ablutions and he could be seen prostrating, bobbing his head up and down in prayer. On the fifth day, Golf-Three was ready. He took a clear shot at his target, whose bodyguard raised his rifle randomly upwards to the buildings around him in an outburst of firing, to retaliate against the bullet that came from out of nowhere. The bodyguard was hit too while trying to retrieve the body of the man who had just been shot dead. The other bodyguard crouched, trying to pull the corpse towards him with a stick or perhaps his rifle. The shot was fired at exactly seven minutes past four o’clock in the morning, recording a distance of 821 meters.

Golf-Three’s account puts the date of this incident on October 4—which would be roughly 12 days before the siege would be declared over, with victory in the hands of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. According to him, their American counterparts who were equipped with more sophisticated gadgets and unmanned aerial objects had alerted him to the presence of the man by the lake. He didn’t know who it was but it had to be a high-value target, or else the Americans would not have zeroed in on him.

A few days later, Golf-Three said he got a text message from his contact. Hey man, remember sometime ago I asked u abt some dudes you killed? Yes. What’s up? Well we had reports but nothing solid, but now it has been confirmed that you guys killed abdullah maute. Feel free to tell the boys to boost morale, but tell them to guard the info.

Abdullah Maute was one of the principal brothers who had planned the takeover of Marawi to create a province, or a wilayat, to be put under the Islamic State. At the time when Lanao’s Islamic capital erupted, the terrorist group ISIS was beginning to lose territories in Syria, so far away in the Middle East. Marawi was going to be the flagship of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia, with a handful of foreign fighters mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia pushing the fight to the hilt.

For reasons not quite known, Abdullah had separated from his brother Omarkhayam during the battle, the latter joining Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf Group in Basilan who came to Lanao for the planned takeover, carrying the title of emir given to him in order to carry out the grand design for ISIS.

Sniper bullets too would kill Isnilon Hapilon and Omarkhayam Maute as they were trying to escape towards the lake in the wee hours of October 16—nearly five months since the siege began in May 23. Their bodies were immediately retrieved and buried in an undisclosed grave. The corpse of Abdullah Maute, however, has never been recovered; save for Golf-Three’s supposed target, there has been no official account of Abdullah’s death. Some say he was killed early on at the start of the battle, with suspicions and probabilities varying in dates and circumstances. The remaining members of the Maute family believe Abdullah is dead, but cannot say what they know, or do not know, about how he died. Abdullah was the younger brother of Omarkhayam but was seen as the leader of the two, the brother who studied the Qu’ran, the brother who was more of the architect who laid out goals.

The Maute family had its stronghold in the remote town of Butig in the southern part of Lake Lanao, where rebel camps had long been active in the years of insurgency for a Muslim homeland. They took the forefront as the millennial fighters that brought jihad to the extreme, following a global trend in the Arab world, breaking the umbilical cord from their elders that had begun the rebellion for separatism since the early 1970s.

Some senior commanders on ground zero have come to accept this version of how Abdullah was killed, partly because it drew encouraging results from foreign military partners willing to provide combat resources. It would be next to impossible to get such confirmation from the Americans, whose assistance for intelligence through the defense department was sought in the battle, operating incognito and usually well below the radar.

It was this version that Golf-Three recounted in closed-door briefings on violent extremism, at least in terms of how his team of snipers operated from their corner of the battlefield. This was one window Golf-Three has opened to the hidden stories of Marawi, but we don’t know how much of it will give depth to the historical event of urban warfare in Mindanao. It is like a puzzle that could fit into a narrative, but it could also be the missing piece in a much larger story. This could mean there might be more to be unearthed, and others more that will remain unknown and never told.

I chose this window for a peek into the battle for Marawi, a preview of one segment of the siege. It’s as if I too were looking through the scope, a spectator of the theater, putting myself at a distance from the unbelievable—that something of this magnitude was unfolding, a war of our own. From this preview, allow me to tell you how it began, what led to it, and the days of capturing key buildings within Ground Zero of the Islamic city that was in the past an enchanting enclave of the Maranao tribe, the people of the lake. Golf-Three told me he was the eyes and ears of the battle, the maligno stalking the bad guys. He was on the balcony not too near the scene, where on the ground the assault teams fought for every inch of space in an unfamiliar and labyrinthine city.

He would stay up all night waiting, in a room of a house that belonged to a family or other whose lives he could put together by the things they left in a rush to flee the madness. He was a loner and he seemed comfortable with that, let no one mind his business. Let me do what I have to do, he told the commanders. He had very few men with him, in a box of a house they had carefully selected for their hideout. There was a stray cat following them. They bored holes through the thick walls to make them their eyes, searching for targets in the worst possible places. That night in early October, Abdullah Maute—if that was really he—was a lonely figure too without his brother, with whom he had trained many younger Maranao men to their cause. Out there, he had the night sky and prayed to Allah before the sun rose and the crackling of bullets began.

If this were a play, I’d draw their dichotomy and their similarities: they were driven to fight for a territory, one for an Islamic state, the other for the integrity of the republic; on the personal side they were both fond of their mothers, one who would lift her up in joy upon coming home from years of studying abroad, the other returning home from duty to be with his dying mother in her last hours at the hospital.

Eventually, when the fighting had to stop not sooner as the nation would have wanted, it was a sniper’s bullets that drew the final curtain call. Abdullah was killed, and later, both Omarkhayam Maute and Isnilon Hapilon were felled in the dead of night. The soldiers roared in triumph at the break of light, after months of pushing the rebels in an effort to corner them by the lake where there would be no escape. Each man in the battlefield has a story to tell. I could not seek out each and every one, but the attempt of writing the story of this battle was to make it coherent though not quite complete, to find a beginning and an end.

The stories that surfaced for this book will tell us, in the pages that will follow, of how the battle unfolded, the decisions made by commanders, the tactical innovations of soldiers and their gains and losses, and collectively, of how Marawi turned to rubble.

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