Marawi (Philippines)-On his Facebook profile page Omarkhayam Romato Maute describes himself as a “Walking Time-Bomb.”
When a band of militants led by Omarkhayam and one of his brothers overran a town in the southern Philippines on May 23, festooning its alleyways with the black banners of ISIS, the Facebook description seemed appropriate.
Governments across Southeast Asia had been bracing for the time when ISIS, on a back foot in Iraq and Syria, would look to establish a ‘caliphate’ in Southeast Asia and become a terrifying threat to the region.
“The Middle East seems a long way away but it is not. This is a problem which is amidst us,” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Australian radio on Saturday as the battle to re-take Marawi neared the end of the third week, with a death toll of nearly 200. “It is a clear and present danger.”
Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute grew up with several other brothers and sisters in Marawi, a Muslim-majority town in a country where over 90 percent of the population is Christian.
Marawi is, historically, the center of Islam on Mindanao, a sprawling island where violent resistance to authority has been a tradition since the era of Spanish colonialism, spurred in recent decades by poverty and the neglect of successive governments.
As teenagers in the 1990s, the brothers seemed like ordinary young men, said a neighbor of the Maute family: they studied English and the Qur’an, and played basketball in the streets.
“We still wonder why they fell to ISIS,” said the neighbor, who was once an extremist himself and surrendered to the government.
“They are good people, religious. When someone gets to memorize the Qur’an, it’s unlikely for them to do wrong. But this is what happened to the brothers.”
In the early 2000s, Omarkhayam and Abdullah studied in Egypt and Jordan, respectively, where they became fluent in Arabic.
Omarkhayam went to al-Azhar University in Cairo, where he met the daughter of a conservative Indonesian Islamic cleric. After they married, the couple returned to Indonesia. There, Omarkhayam taught at his father-in-law’s school, and in 2011 he settled back in Mindanao.
It may have been then, and not when he was in the Middle East, that Omarkhayam was radicalized.
In Cairo “none of his fellow students saw him as having any radical tendencies at all,” Jakarta-based anti-terrorism expert Sidney Jones wrote in a 2016 report.
Little is known about Abdullah’s life after he went to Jordan, and it is not clear when he returned to Lanao del Sur, the Mindanao province that includes Marawi.
Intelligence sources said there are seven brothers and one half-brother in the family, all but one of whom joined the battle for Marawi.
The Mautes were a monied family in a close-knit tribal society where respect, honor and the Qur’an are paramount.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera said the ‘Maranao’ clan, to which the Mautes belong, has a matriarchal tradition, and so their mother played a central role.
He said Farhana Maute, who according to the neighbor had furniture and used-car businesses, helped finance the group, and she drove recruitment and radicalization of local youths.
On Friday, she was stopped outside Marawi in a vehicle loaded with firearms and explosives and taken into custody. It was a major blow for the militants, according to Herrera, as she had been the “heart of the Maute organization.”
A day previously, the brothers’ father, an engineer, was arrested in Davao City, 250 km (155 miles) away.
When the Marawi siege began, several hundred militants were involved, including men from nations as far away as Morocco and Yemen. But most of the marauders, who took civilians as human shields and torched the town cathedral, were from four local groups allied to ISIS, and in the lead were the Maute, military officials said.
According to Jones, the Maute group has “the smartest, best-educated and most sophisticated members” of all the pro-ISIS outfits in the Philippines.
Samira Gutoc-Tomawis, a local civic leader who knows some of the Maute’s extended family, said the brothers rely heavily on social media to recruit young followers and spread their “rigid and authoritarian” ideology.
The leader of the ISIS himself ordered the siege of Marawi City, which has been ravaged by prolonged clashes between government forces and Maute militants for the past three weeks, President Rodrigo Duterte said on Sunday.
Speaking to reporters in Cagayan de Oro City, Duterte said ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “specifically ordered the conduct of terrorist activities in the Philippines.”
For his part, Foreign Affairs Minister Allan Peter Cayetano said in an independence day speech in Manila that the militants’ had planned to take over at least two or three cities in Mindanao.
Their plot was foiled because troops made a preemptive raid on Marawi to capture Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the Abu Sayyaf group and ISIS’s “emir” of Southeast Asia.
“We want to coordinate very well with Indonesia and Malaysia so they won’t also suffer in the hands of extremists,” he said.
“But the president knew at the start of his term that, as the allies become more successful in Syria and Iraq, ISIS will be looking for a land base, and Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines will be a potential target to them.”
Washington said at the weekend it was providing support to the Armed Forces of the Philippines to clear the militants from pockets of Marawi. Manila said this was technical assistance and there were no US “boots on the ground”.