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Reli L. German: Urban warfare: Zamboanga City as the trial run


It was a “shock and awe” urban warfare strategy that the Abu Sayyaf and Maute terrorists employed in Marawi as their fighters battled combined elements of the police and the military. The bloody confrontation started last May 23 when a police contingent tried to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon.

Their tenacious but suicidal stand that lasted five full months was said to have stunned and surprised the police and the military supposedly because they had no experience in dealing with open warfare in an urban setting.

With the killing of a remaining band of some 40 jihadists, the military formally announced last October 23 the complete liberation of Marawi. For the first time since the battle began, people were able to see the terrible devastation suffered by this bastion of Islamic faith that was almost completely reduced to rubble.

Damage to public infrastructure and private property ran into billions of Pesos. In terms of ruined lives, lost jobs and livelihood, financial and material losses, the toll is incalculable. The death count is placed at 165 soldiers and policemen, 47 civilians and 920 terrorists.

As stability gradually returns, the police and the AFP need to review and reassess their operational readiness and their capability to adjust and respond to the deadly reality of urban warfare. But even as they butt heads in this regard, the inevitable question arises: could this tragic event have been prevented?

There is no definitive and clear-cut answer to that question. But perhaps it could have been avoided. The fact is, a preview of the Marawi siege took place in Zamboanga City four years ago when fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) under Nur Misuari battled government forces and occupied parts of the city for several days in September 2013.
Then President Noynoy Aquino even went to Zamboanga City for a personal assessment of the situation, project his role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and assert sovereignty over all Philippine areas that the MNLF wanted to claim.

The Internet provides a chronicle of the events leading to the hostilities. Data shows that on August 12, 2013 in Talipao, Sulu, Misuari proclaimed independence from the Philippines. This was, however, ignored by the Aquino government.

It also stated that Misuari had earlier declared the establishment of a United Federated States of Bangsamoro Republic with territorial domain over Mindanao, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Palawan and the Borneo state of Sabah over which the Philippines has an existing claim. There were conflicting reports, though, on whether Misuari had a direct hand in the MNLF attack that started September 9, 2013.

As in Marawi, the attackers also seized hostages whom they used as human shields. On September 28, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin announced the end of hostilities as government forces regained complete control of all contested areas.
Zamboanga City is highly urbanized, is the sixth most populous and the third largest city in the country. But the military says that it was surprised and stunned by the urban warfare that the ISIS-inspired terrorists employed in Marawi. Does this mean that the AFP did not analyze, evaluate and operationally integrate the many lessons that the MNLF siege of Zamboanga may have imparted?

Australia is now offering to train our troops in urban warfare because of its experience in fighting ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq; but not in its home ground. After Zamboanga City and Marawi where our troops engaged the enemy in house-to-house and building-to building combat, shouldn’t it be the other way around?