Marawi, Philippines – In Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines, two rented apartments a few streets apart are perforated with fresh bullet holes.
The tenants, who arrived two months ago at the first apartment and last week at the second, were women with young children, and the interiors are strewn with the debris of domestic life: baby clothes, kitchen utensils, a pram.
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But in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the loudspeaker at a nearby mosque warned residents to stay inside as more than 100 officers from five Philippine army and police battalions stormed both locations, leading to an exchange of fire that ended the lives of two senior fighters from the ISIL [ISIS]-linked Dawlah Islamiya Maute (DI-Maute) group who were hiding in the flats.
“That woman told us that her husband was working in Saudi Arabia. We didn’t even know he was here,” neighbour Faridah Cotaan Saripada told Al Jazeera. “We didn’t know the house was rented to [ISIL].”
The raids targeted two of the region’s most senior ISIL-affiliated fighters: Abu Zacharia, the head of DI-Maute and the so-called Emir of ISIL in Southeast Asia, according to the Philippine military, and Abu Morsid, the DI-Maute group’s logistics mastermind.
The deaths have left the group without a leader – and reduced its local footprint to a retreating band of mostly child soldiers, according to a source in the Philippine military on condition of anonymity.
But the bloodshed also left locals reeling in Marawi, much of which still lies in ruins from the devastating five-month siege that followed DI-Maute’s seizure of the city in 2017.
In the house where Abu Morsid was killed, the family that unknowingly rented him the property pointed out the bloodstains and brain matter mixed with broken concrete on the floor.
“We are anti-ISIS. We experienced already the Marawi siege. It was a nightmare. We don’t want it to happen again,” said an older relative, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. “We’re just praying every month that this will be the last of it. We’re thankful that the authorities discovered them.”
Neighbours reported seeing soldiers remove, unharmed, the female tenant and three children from the apartment with Abu Zacharia, as well as one of the two women claiming to be sisters, who rented the house where Abu Mosid was killed. However, a second woman and her baby living at the property had already absconded, according to the landlady and her family.
Meanwhile, at a military base in Marawi, officers were exhausted but enthusiastic about the outcome.
Abu Zacharia, who also went by the names Jer Mimbantas and Faharudin Hadji Benito Satar, was the target of what one senior commander called a “sustained, carefully planned operation”.
A nephew of Alim Abdul Aziz Mimbantas, vice chairman for military affairs with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Abu Zacharia broke away from his influential family in 2012, when the front – a group fighting for an independent Muslim state since the 1970s – signed a preliminary peace agreement and began pursuing autonomy through political means rather than force.
Abu Zacharia joined the hardline DI-Maute, which pledged loyalty to ISIL, with brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute. In 2016, Abu Zacharia helped DI-Maute seize control of his birthplace, Butig in Lanao del Sur, and the following year, the group launched the attack on Marawi city.
In 2022, he succeeded Owaida Marohombsar (Abu Dar) as DI-Maute’s leader with the Philippine army claiming he had been designated ISIL’s new Emir for Southeast Asia – although Georgi Engelbrecht, a Philippines-based senior analyst with Crisis Group, says the movement’s ties to ISIL in the Middle East are “somewhat murky”, with almost all funding and recruits now coming from local sources.
On May 31, four members of DI-Maute were killed in a clash with Philippine forces, and Abu Zacharia appears to have taken refuge in the house in Marawi afterwards.
Shift to peacebuilding
For decades, Mindanao has been host to a plethora of armed groups, ranging from Islamist to separatist to communist, but support is dwindling across the spectrum.
This owes in large part to a shift in policy – on all sides – towards peacebuilding and improving livelihoods rather than crushing opposition.
The Tripoli and Jakarta agreements and the Bangsamoro peace process helped end armed conflict with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front. The government has created avenues for hardliners to surrender, which has seen more than 1,000 fighters lay down their weapons since 2016.
Across Mindanao, military bases now refer to soldiers as peacebuilders and display incident reporting boards stating the number of days without a person killed or a human rights complaint made.
The targeting of Abu Zacharia and Abu Morsid – both of whom were reported by sources in the military and local residents to have thrown a hand grenade, fired their weapons, and been armed with M16s and Glock pistols – resulted in no further casualties, with just one Philippine army soldier sustaining a leg injury.
This is in stark contrast to previous clashes, including the siege of Marawi, in which 1,200 civilians died and hundreds of thousands were forced to move into displacement camps, where many remain today.
“It was good that the encounter has not caused massive damage to properties or hurt civilians,” said Engelbrecht. “In the past, these operations had a toll on communities. If the government makes an effort to avoid these, we already can see improvement.”
Still, community members are sceptical that the two men’s deaths mark the end of ISIL in Marawi, especially given that one tenant, whom some suspect is a sister of the Maute brothers, remains at large.
But many believe this marks a significant strike against hardliners in the Philippines. Englelbrect says Abu Zacharia’s death is “first and foremost a blow to the remnants of the militants”, while in an email, a spokesperson for the United States state department applauded the Philippines’ “persistent and years-long effort to rid the country of ISIS”.
In Marawi, the military commander described Abu Zacharia’s former comrades as “on the run and in a state of demoralisation”, creating an opportunity to defeat them.
More importantly, he said, “It’s time to give peace a chance”. After years on end of conflict, he and his community are simply tired of war.