Black fatigues and bullet-ridden walls: A terrorist's hideout

A member of Marawi's security forces inspecting a damaged room in Isnilon Hapilon's hideout. The terrorist's death in a military operation on Oct 16 was the catalyst for the end of the Philippines' longest and most intense urban battle in recent hist
A member of Marawi's security forces inspecting a damaged room in Isnilon Hapilon's hideout. The terrorist's death in a military operation on Oct 16 was the catalyst for the end of the Philippines' longest and most intense urban battle in recent history.PHOTO: REUTERS

Inside the lair in Marawi where Isnilon Hapilon plotted attacks before he was killed in a strike

MARAWI CITY (Philippines) • Prayer mats, chequered scarves, black fatigues and bullet-ridden walls mark the hideout where the South-east Asia "emir" of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group spent months preparing the most brazen and devastating militant attack in the region.

A four-storey house in a quiet alley of Marawi city in the southern Philippines served as the secret lair of Isnilon Hapilon until late May.

After a botched military raid to apprehend him, a 1,000-strong rebel alliance held large parts of the city for five months.

Hapilon's death in a military operation on Oct 16 was the catalyst for the end of the Philippines' longest and most intense urban battle in recent history.

Security forces moved in on the house on May 23, trying to capture the country's most wanted man, but came under sustained attack from rebels firing rocket-propelled grenades.

A bomb-battered structure, shattered windows and wall-to-wall holes from machine gun fire tell the story of the ferocious three-day battle that erupted at Hapilon's hideout, and prompted the call to hundreds of fighters to expedite the planned takeover of Marawi.

Hapilon escaped through a large hole that was blasted out of a rear wall, making his way across a rice field to a mosque next to Lake Lanao. From there, he joined the guerillas.

NO TELL-TALE SIGNS

At the time, no one knew who these people were. People saw them about but there was no reason to suspect anything.

MR MOHAMMED SEDDICK RAKI, who lived near the house in Marawi where Isnilon Hapilon hid while plotting his attacks.

Properties near Hapilon's house stand empty, with neighbours having fled long ago.

"At the time, no one knew who these people were. People saw them about but there was no reason to suspect anything," said Mr Mohammed Seddick Raki, who lived nearby.

Inside the house, black shirts, pants and plaid scarves synonymous with the ISIS were strewn across rooms littered with broken floor tiles and chunks of rock from blasted walls.

Left behind were waterproof boots, a balaclava, medical supplies and camouflage bags and waistcoats typically used by soldiers to carry rifle magazines. On the floor of every room were pocket-sized copies of the Quran.

A mosque, about 100m behind the house, was the venue for an annual gathering in Marawi of Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni missionary movement, just days before the fighting erupted.

Military officials say the foreigners who fought in Hapilon's alliance - among them Indonesians, Malaysians and some from Arab states - had used that event as a cover to slip into Marawi without raising suspicion.

Marawi's deputy taskforce commander Colonel Romeo Brawner said Hapilon evaded security forces because the rebels had a network of lookouts and gunmen ready to defend him.

"They put up heavy resistance. They were spread across a large area. They were strategically placed," he said.

Hapilon's escape in the last week of May led to anarchy in the city of about 200,000. Rebels took hostages, set fire to buildings, ransacked churches, broke into the local jail to free inmates and looted an armoury.

The government had insufficient security forces to prevent the fighters from fanning out across the city and seizing hundreds of buildings.

Hapilon, who was wanted by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and had a bounty on his head of up to US$5 million (S$6.8 million), was killed by army rangers in a night operation.

Marawi has now been all but destroyed by government air strikes and shelling that levelled commercial areas and crushed thousands of shops, homes and vehicles.

"No one could have known what would happen," said Mr Mohamed Faisal Mama, a resident in the Basak Malutlot district where Hapilon was hiding.

"No one knew them. They weren't famous then."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 29, 2017, with the headline 'Black fatigues and bullet-ridden walls: A terrorist's hideout'. Print Edition | Subscribe