By Perry DiazWho’s behind the Marawi attack?Like most rebellions, the Marawi rebellion couldn’t have happened without the financial support of someone who has the wherewithal to sustain a long siege. More than six weeks after the attack, the militants are still entrenched in Marawi City. No amount of ground assault by the Philippine Marines or bombing by Philippine Air Force warplanes could dislodge the militants consisting of members of the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).The Philippine military had been after the ASG terrorists for several years now. Yet, most of the leaders of the ASG managed to evade capture. The most recent one was Isnilon Totoni Hapilon, also known as Abu Abdullah al-Filipini. He is believed to be linked to ISIS. He was formerly leader of ASG before its battalions pledged their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. An April 2016 issue of ISIS' weekly newsletter Al Naba said that Hapilon had been appointed as "emir of all Islamic State forces in the Philippines." [Source: Wikipedia]What is interesting to note is the role of the Maute matriarch, Ominta “Farhana” Romato-Maute, mother of the Maute founders Omar and Abdullah. Last June 7, she was arrested in Masiu, a town about 34 kilometers from Marawi City, as she and two wounded men and seven women were trying to escape the government troops. She is believed to be the “heart of the Islamic State-inspired Maute group,” directing its movement and operations and taking care of finances and international networking. She and her husband Cayamora are said to be the “masterminds” behind the Maute attack. Farhana is reputed to be a “fiercely astute” businesswoman and politician. She manages several business interests including several rental houses in Quezon City, Iligan, Catabato City, and Davao City. She once served as assemblywoman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).Before her capture, Farhana tried calling President Rodrigo Duterte to talk about peace and negotiate a ceasefire after the heavy bombing and fighting in Marawi City. Duterte turned her offer down, saying the government forces have lost too many soldiers in the Marawi attack. The question is: Is Farhana really the mastermind of the Maute group or is someone much higher in the food chain calling the shots?Last July 5, government forces foiled a possible bombing in Cagayan de Oro when they arrested Farhana’s niece Monaliza “Monay” Solaiman Romato. Monay reportedly replaced Farhana as the Maute’s matriarch. However, it didn’t take too long for the government forces to capture Monay, which begs the question: With Farhana and Monay in detention, who would take over the Maute’s financial operations? Or could it be that Farhana and Monay were just figureheads? Is the matriarch’s role to shield the real power behind the group? Meanwhile, the real power can lead a normal life conducting his business empire – probably illegal drug trade -- out in the open without any fear of scrutiny from the government.Back-channel talksRecently, Reuters reported that President Duterte initiated a move to negotiate an end to the conflict with the Maute group. However, Malacañang said that it has no information on Duterte’s reported attempt to hold back-channel talks with the Maute terrorists. The Reuters report said a senior Duterte aide approached Agakhan Sharief, a prominent Muslim leader, to use his connections with the Maute group’s leaders to start back-channel talks. The report said the talks failed as the Maute leaders “did not show sincerity and continued to attacks on government forces.” Two other sources familiar with the matter confirmed that Duterte had worked behind the scenes to hold talks with the Maute brothers, Omarkhayam and Abdullah. Marawi City Mayor Majul Usman Gandamra also confirmed that back-channel talks were started but said he was not privy to details.The back-channel talks did not push through when Cayamora was caught on June 6 in Davao City, three days before Farhana’s arrest in Lanao del Sur.Chinese financierA few days ago, I received an interesting – and intriguing – information from one of my sources in Manila. He said, “How can you crush the ASG (Abu Sayyaf aka Abu Shabu) when it’s an open secret that the Chinese financier of these bandits is close to so many powerful people? He's believed to instigate the Mautes to create a situation in Marawi to divert the attention of the AFP who are almost done in apprehending all of them to put closure to ASG. This Chinese who uses his being a converted Muslim to lord it over basically owning all big businesses Sulu and Mindanao wide, wants to protect his puppet Hapilon by floating the disinfo that he escaped the military cordon in Marawi.“If the concerned people of Marawi is serious in finishing this tragedy, they should act asap like the Boholanos helping the PNP and AFP in getting all the remnants of ASG. Huwag na tayo maglokohan, kawawa mga sundalo at peaceful Muslims na nadadamay sa kalokohan ng iilan na may hidden agenda. Sobra na. (Let’s not fool with ourselves. It’s a pity the soldiers and peaceful Muslims are dragged into this foolishness of a few people with hidden agenda. It’s too much).”Link to drug lordsMy source also said that some of these militants have business relationships with some government officials, which makes one wonder: Are the Maute militants working as mercenaries for those behind the Marawi attack and are paid through the “matriarch”?
During a recent media briefing, PNP Chief Ronald ”Bato” dela Rosa confirmed the Maute group’s link to drug lords. He said that the Maute group is known to have “protected” the drug lords as early as last year. He said that he received information that majority of the drug lords in Metro Manila, Luzon and Visayas went to Marawi City a year ago to hold a “drug summit.” He added that the drug lords were protected by the Maute group and narco-politicians. Surmise it to say, Marawi appears to be the “Vatican” of the illegal drug cartel in the country.Underground fortificationsWhen the government forces breached the Maute’s defensive positions, they discovered bombproof tunnels used by the militants as bunker and bomb shelters. The military spokesman said that the roughly 10 percent of Marawi held by the Maute militants has many tunnels and basements that can withstand 500-pound bombs.Clearly, the underground fortifications couldn’t have been built in the short time since the “Marawi attack” commenced last May 23. They must already have been constructed long before that date, which is to suggest that the Maute’s presence in Marawi may have been a common knowledge to the city residents. The question is: Is the military aware of their presence long before the siege? I believe so. But for as long as the Maute group stays out of “trouble,” the military would stay out of their way. It was a de facto coexistence between the Maute group and government forces.But on May 23, the military decided to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, who was believed to be in Marawi City. Hapilon is on the FBI’s “most wanted terrorists list” with a $5 million bounty offered for his capture, which was a good enough reason to arrest him. It was then that the Maute group purportedly “entered” Marawi and clashed with government troops.The botched attempt to arrest Hapilon led to open warfare between government forces and the Maute group. With Hapilon out of sight -- either dead or out of the country -- and the Maute group leaderless and in disarray, it’s just a matter of time for the fighting to come to an end. But it would a devastated city and grieving people that would suffer for a long time from the atrocity of the “Marawi attack.”