The Battle of Marawi occurred from May 23 to October 23, 2017. Marawi is the capital city of Lanao del Sur province on the island of Mindanao, the Philippines’ second-largest island. The city is located on the island’s interior. To its south is the 340-square-kilometer Lake Lanao. It is otherwise surrounded by mountains and jungle, with Mount Mupo to its north and Moncado Hill to its east. Due to these geographic features, only three main roads, along with several smaller secondary roads, enter and exit the city. The Agus River bisects Marawi, travelling from Lake Lanao to the northeast. Three hundred-meter bridges cross the river, allowing movement between Marawi’s eastern and western sides: the Masiu (Raya Madaya) Bridge, located approximately 150 meters from Lake Lanao; the Bayabao (Banggolo) Bridge, approximately 150 meters farther northeast; and the Baloi (Mapandi) Bridge, approximately 650 meters farther downstream to the northeast. Known as the “Islamic City of Marawi,” ninety percent of the population of approximately two hundred thousand residents before the battle were Muslim.

The city spans approximately eighty-seven square kilometers, but some of that is semi-rural with the battle largely taking place in the dense built-up area immediately on the northwestern side of the Agus River and in the larger area southeast of the Agus River. The street layout in the heart of the city is primarily linear with grid-pattern areas in the denser parts. The city’s building construction is influenced by four factors. First, a long history of resistance against foreign powers and, most recently, the state and military forces of the largely Catholic Philippines contributed to the growth of extremist Islamic fundamentalists within the Muslim population of Mindanao. The second factor is rido, which are family or clan feuds. The warring Moro clans follow traditional honor codes that make it obligatory to enact revenge for perceived injustices. Third, extortion and short-term kidnappings within Marawi have been frequent with the absence of Philippine police and military within the city due to a political agreement. Fourth, given this history of violence, illicit firearms proliferated due to families becoming incentivized to protect themselves. These factors resulted in the city’s structures being built in the buhos style—poured concrete reinforced with rebar rather than the usual cinder blocks used in other Philippine cities. A majority of the homes and buildings also had concrete-lined basement dugouts, bunkers, and tunnels to shelter from the various and frequent violence. Underground spaces were also used to store food, water, and weapons, in additional to serving as ready-made fortifications and strongpoints. City blocks are divided by two-lane roads with buildings built extremely close together, separated only by very narrow passageways. Buildings reach three to four stories in the city’s center. A military base, Camp Ranao, is located approximately 1,200 meters northwest of the bridges.

The Battle

In 2016, several distinct terrorist and insurgent groups united as the Islamic State in the Philippines (IS-P; the group is also known by other names, including the Islamic State–East Asia). The Islamic State appointed Isnilon Hapilon, the former head of the Abu Sayyaf Group, as the emir of IS-P after having earlier sworn allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014. The Maute Group, led by two brothers from one of the more powerful clans in the city, swore its allegiance to the Islamic State in 2016. The brothers, Abdullah and Omarkhayam, were a wealthy, influential, and politically connected family that was deeply involved in criminal and terrorist activities in Marawi. IS-P leaders began deliberate planning to attack and seize control of Marawi, timing the attack to correspond with the first day of Ramadan, May 26, 2017. They put out a call for domestic and foreign fighters to travel to and infiltrate into the city, resulting in approximately 900–1,000 fighters in Marawi at the time of the 2017 battle.

By the end of the battle, approximately twelve thousand personnel from the Armed Forces of the Philippines had participated in the fighting, but the number was much lower at the battle’s start. The battle included six phases: (1) insurgent infiltration, (2) military raid, (3) anarchy, (4) reaction, (5) consolidation, and (6) clearing operations.

Phase 1: Insurgent Infiltration

Several months prior to the battle, Isnilon Hapilon and the Maute brothers started to plan an operation to attack and seize control of Marawi. By May 2017, they had already infiltrated a large amount of foreign fighters, weapons, explosives, drones, and video equipment into the city. They successfully smuggled these fighters and resources into the city without the government’s knowledge after conducting careful reconnaissance and counterintelligence activities. They also prepared the battlefield by creating hundreds of mouseholes between and inside buildings to allow fighters to move between buildings without being seen or targeted. They constructed and emplaced hundreds of improvised explosive devices and Molotov cocktails throughout the city. They developed a detailed information operations campaign and employed civilians within the city as slave labor before the attack and as human shields afterward.

Phase 2: Military Raid

On May 23, Philippine ground forces were informed that intelligence indicated Isnilon Hapilon, a Maute brother, and approximately ten subordinates were meeting in a residential house on the city’s western side, approximately 1,600 meters west of the Agus River’s southern two bridges. Despite a lack of detailed information, senior AFP officers directed a raid to capture Hapilon that day. The target house was located at the south end of a dead-end street, making the operation especially challenging. The 4th Light Reaction Company hastily planned and executed the mission. At 2:18 PM, the raiding party approached the house in several civilian vehicles, in an attempt to maintain stealth, while other AFP units using armored vehicles cordoned off the area as best they could. Their main blocking position was located 400 meters north of the target house at a T-intersection where the dead-end street met the main road. The raiding party failed to explosively enter the house, so they lost the element of surprise normally associated with an effective raid. After entering, a major firefight ensued. The small raiding force found itself quickly outnumbered due to all the fighters that had infiltrated into Marawi over the previous months.

As a result, the armored vehicles moved to reinforce the raiding party but once they made it to the front of the target house, one became stuck between two fences on both sides of the narrow street and the other had its tires flattened from incoming rounds as insurgents fired heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades from the second and third floors of the target building. The firefight at the target house continued into the night and the following day. By mid-afternoon on the second day, the 4th Light Reaction Company finally cleared the objective building, but not before Hapilon, Abdullah Maute, and their fellow insurgent leaders had escaped.

Phase 3: Anarchy

The insurgents had planned to initiate their major offensive three days later, but the raid caused them to act sooner. Thus, Marawi exploded into a frenzy of violence involving hundreds of insurgents. IS-P fighters took civilian hostages, killed police officers, set buildings on fire, and conducted a bold attack against the AFP’s Camp Ranao. Fighting throughout the city raged as AFP soldiers were thrown onto the defensive. Civilians started to flee the city, many successfully, but some were stopped at IS-P checkpoints. In many instances, IS-P fighters executed Christian men, women, and children who were trying to escape. As the AFP sent additional personnel to reinforce embattled and pinned-down forces, IS-P fighters used drones to observe the reinforcements and then quickly moved to ambush them. Given the mountainous terrain, Marawi had only a limited number of wider roads, so it was not hard for IS-P fighters to anticipate which routes the AFP would use. By the end of May 23, the city had fallen to IS-P.

In one successful ambush, IS-P fighters destroyed an AFP column and took possession of the military’s armored vehicles. One reinforcing element consisting of approximately twenty soldiers from the 51st Mechanized Rifle Company crossed the Baloi Bridge in armored vehicles to rescue a wounded company commander that had been trapped deep within Marawi’s eastern side after being sent there to respond to insurgent violence. IS-P militants fired on the element several times along the route, eventually stalling the vehicles before they could reach the wounded commander. They soon became trapped themselves, seeking refuge in four houses where they fought for a harrowing six days before an element from the 1st Scout Ranger Battalion finally rescued them on May 28. IS-P also conducted information operations on media and social media outlets, which reached international audiences within hours of the city’s fall.

Phase 4: Reaction

Senior AFP leaders developed a hasty plan to retake the city. They tasked several units to seize the Bayabao and the Masiu Bridges, and then cross into Marawi’s east to rescue the trapped soldiers from the 51st Mechanized Rifle Company. On May 25, the group began its movement but became decisively engaged north of the Bayabao Bridge. The AFP sent additional units from Camp Ranao to support, but they became decisively engaged before reaching the first group. Sporadic firefights continued as the AFP and police advanced and cleared buildings. It took two days for the AFP to clear western Marawi and finally reached the first group, just 650 meters from Camp Ranao.

On May 28, the 6th Light Reaction Company finally crossed the Bayabao Bridge into eastern Marawi and gained a foothold in the first floor of what was nicknamed the “green building” due to the color of its roof, near the east end of the bridge, where the soldiers took enormous fire from the building’s top floors and surrounding structures. They cleared the building’s top floors the following day with the help of their armored fighting vehicles’ .50-caliber machine guns and the aid of artillery, mortars, and armed helicopters to suppress the enemy positions surrounding the building. Concurrently, a Marine company secured positions near the Baloi Bridge and then advanced into eastern Marawi. They made it two blocks before a large group of insurgents ambushed them. The ensuring firefight lasted two days.

On May 30, senior AFP leaders decided that the IS-P defenses around the bridges were too strong and directed all units to withdraw into western Marawi until they could develop a deliberate plan to clear and secure the city. Before dawn on May 31, the 3rd Light Reaction Company crossed into eastern Marawi using the Bayabao Bridge to help facilitate the 6th Light Reaction Company’s withdrawal. Under extremely challenging conditions, they completed the withdrawal the following day, but not before an AFP close air strike killed ten soldiers and wounded many others. Due to the heavy fighting, the Marines located just southwest of the Baloi Bridge were unable to withdraw until June 9, and only after suffering thirteen killed and forty-two wounded.

Phase 5: Consolidation

Although AFP senior leaders’ natural reaction was to quickly counterattack to retake the city, three factors challenged them. First, they lacked intelligence on IS-P’s composition, disposition, and strength. Second, the AFP had spent decades fighting in the jungles and lacked experience fighting in urban environments. Third, they needed more forces to conduct the operation than were stationed at Camp Ranao, home to an infantry division headquarters and a single brigade, so they had to wait for additional troops to arrive. With these factors glaringly apparent, senior Philippine political and military leaders created a deliberate plan to retake eastern Marawi that focused on both the physical and psychological planes of war.

The AFP organized Joint Task Force Marawi to conduct both combat and civilian relations operations—what the AFP termed hard power and soft power, respectively—within Marawi. For the hard power operations three joint task groups were organized, each around a combined arms brigade and with police and special operations forces embedded. Army brigades formed the core of Joint Task Groups Vector and Musang (JTG Vector and JTG Musang), and a Marine brigade formed the core of Joint Task Group Tiger (JTG Tiger). The plan called for the three joint task groups to move through Marawi’s west side, cross the Agus River further to the city’s north, move to the northeastern side of the city and then conduct a coordinated attack to clear the city, moving southwest toward Lake Lanao where Joint Task Force Lawa had naval watercraft to stop any IS-P reinforcements, resupplies, or withdrawals over the water. Two other joint task groups using soft power would focus on activities aimed at supporting civilians while conducting information operations to include interacting with media to positively influence domestic and foreign audiences.

Later in the battle, on August 6, the AFP amended its order of battle to better accomplish its mission. As the joint task groups advanced southwest toward Lake Lanao, they encountered more civilians in need of rescue, which in turn influenced the widening information operations campaign. As always, the need for good sustainment operations remained important. While Joint Task Force Marawi still existed, it transitioned to focusing on soft power, which included information operations, working with the media, and taking care of the displaced civilians. The newly created Joint Task Force Trident headquarters focused on hard power and provided command and control over JTG Tiger, JTG Vector, and JTG Musang. This transition and clear delineation of responsibilities eased the burden on Joint Task Force Marawi’s commander and planners.

At the operational and tactical levels, the AFP created the SLICE (strategize, locate, isolate, constrict, and eliminate) offensive scheme of maneuver. Military leaders developed a strategy to divide Marawi into reasonable objectives, whether they be individual buildings or larger operations areas. Within each area, the unit responsible would locate and isolate insurgent positions. Military forces would then constrict IS-P fighters by advancing and using firepower to prevent them from withdrawing. Finally, military forces would eliminate insurgents starting with fires, mainly from artillery and mortars, followed by an infantry assault.

Once the AFP forces had cleared a building, defensive position, or area they moved to the next one and repeated the SLICE method. It was a time-consuming and firepower-intensive approach that caused much collateral damage, but it was effective and saved soldiers’ lives. The AFP also added control measures—such as clear unit boundaries, code names, and alphanumeric codes for buildings—to reduce friendly-fire incidents. Armor, engineers, direct-fire 105-millimeter artillery, tear gas (for use in subterranean tunnels and buildings), bulldozers, close air support, and snipers all supported the infantry assault of each building.

In terms of soft power, the AFP made a significant effort to support the civilian population and to design an information operations campaign to counter IS-P messaging. At the strategic level, AFP efforts and messages focused on the Philippine nation and the global community. At the operational level, they focused outside Marawi and were aimed at the leaders and people displaced from the city and the residents of the surrounding towns and provinces. At the tactical level, they focused within the city on the IS-P fighters, their hostages, and trapped civilians.

Winning over Marawi’s residents was important to both sides and social media played a major role in the information operations campaign. IS-P initially had the upper hand as the city’s largely Islamic population inherently distrusted the Philippine government. But over time, the government forces won the information operations battle due to the significant efforts that they invested into planning and executing it, as well as IS-P mistakes. Fortuitously, the AFP had recently created a digital media capability enhancement course and were able to send the course’s eighty students to Joint Task Force Marawi’s newly created social media team immediately after graduating. The social media team promulgated images of AFP soldiers conducting daring rescues of civilians that were trapped or held hostage and AFP soldiers conducting humanitarian operations by giving transport, shelter, food, and water to civilians. The AFP created a social media page that allowed Philippine civilians to send messages and create videos demonstrating their support to the soldiers on the front line. The social media center also monitored and analyzed IS-P messaging, identified who was posting and reposting the group’s messages, developed truthful counter-narratives to refute IS-P claims, and sent forceful parallel messages to IS-P sympathizers warning that the insurgents would be not just defeated, but killed.

The AFP also established relationships with social media companies so that they could identify and remove IS-P profiles to further degrade IS-P efforts. Of course, IS-P militants would create new profiles that had to be removed, so monitoring social media was a continuous process. To conduct these tasks rapidly, the AFP delegated the authority for much of the information operations messages to the lowest level. Thus, the social media center’s personnel, down to the lowest ranks, were given an unusually high level of trust and freedom to engage both civilians and IS-P supporters without the tight control and rigorous messaging oversight typical of most militaries. This may have been risky, but it was extremely effective.

To prove that they were actively aiding civilians, the government and the AFP quickly established sixty-nine government-run evacuation centers outside Marawi that provided shelter, bedding, clothing, hygiene kits, food, and water to residents displaced from the city. However, as is common to all urban battles, not all of Marawi’s civilians were able to flee. Approximately two thousand remained trapped within the portion of the city controlled by IS-P, hiding from or being held hostage by IS-P militants. The AFP used drones equipped with written messages and cell phones to locate and communicate with these civilians.

Phase 6: Clearing Operations

On June 6, Joint Task Groups Vector and Musang moved to Marawi’s northeast side and commenced offensive operations into the city on June 8. JTG Tiger joined them on June 12 after finally disengaging from the Baloi Bridge. JTG Tiger had the joint task force’s right flank, with its right boundary on the Agus River. JTG Vector was in the middle. JTG Musang was on the left, its left boundary at Lake Lanao.

JTG Tiger consisted of the 1st Marine Brigade headquarters, three Marine battalion landing teams (5, 7, and 10), and four companies of the Marine Special Operations Group. On the joint task force’s right flank, the AFP forces soon discovered that despite lacking significant firepower, the insurgents were a formidable opponent. The way that IS-P fighters employed drones, improvised explosive devices, and sharpshooters using mouseholes and loopholes—the latter being small holes drilled through walls to allow shooters to fire through them—their use of Molotov cocktails to set buildings on fire, and their fanaticism, combined with the buhos-style buildings, made fighting extremely challenging. As JTG Tiger conducted its advance, casualties continued to mount.

As a result, JTG Tiger’s Marines started using close air support to weaken the defenders’ positions prior to sending ground troops into a building. To minimize the likelihood of sustaining friendly casualties from the aircraft’s bombs, the Marines would withdraw approximately two hundred meters, drop the bombs, and then rapidly assault. The IS-P fighters, however, quickly learned this tactic. As soon as they observed Marines withdrawing—either visually or by using drones—they quickly advanced and occupied the basements and the main floors of the buildings the Marines had just vacated. Due to the buildings’ solid concrete construction, the bombs rarely impacted the main floor or basement, so after the bombs dropped, the insurgents simply brushed themselves off and then reoccupied fighting positions on the upper floors before the Marines could get there. The Marines now had to refight for a building that they had just cleared before they could even reach their intended objective. If they could not take the building, the Marines would withdraw and call in another close air support strike, only to have the insurgents once again occupy the just abandoned positions. It was like taking one step forward and two steps back.

This tactic proved detrimental not only to JTG Tiger but also to the adjacent JTG Vector. After one of JTG Tiger’s withdrawals, the insurgents found that JTG Vector’s right flank was now exposed, so they turned south and attacked into JTG Vector’s sector. JTG Vector eventually pushed them back out, but only after a two-hour firefight and only with the help of reinforcements. IS-P fighters also took advantage of the unit boundaries. After being displaced back into JTG Tiger’s sector, they positioned sharpshooters along Makalilay Street, which delineated the sector boundary between the AFP joint task groups, to fire at JTG Vector’s forces. In response, JTG Vector’s subordinate commanders asked permission to cross the joint task group boundary on June 25 so that they could clear buildings on both sides of Makalilay Street. They were learning the hard way that challenges often result when roads are used as sector boundaries and units are unable to move together.

Given the slow pace of JTG Tiger’s tactic of temporarily withdrawing and calling in close air support before advancing once again, JTG Vector’s soldiers were becoming increasingly and justifiably frustrated with not only having to fight forward but also having to fight to their right flank. To remedy the issue, one of the company commanders of a light reaction company convinced the Marines that they only needed to withdraw fifty meters for a close air support strike, rather than two hundred. This was one of the many urban warfare lessons that the AFP learned during the battle. In this case, two hundred meters might be danger close in a jungle environment, but this distance could be reduced to fifty meters in the city because of the protection offered by the concrete buildings. After reducing the minimum safe distance for close air support, JTG Tiger’s pace of advance picked up.

The AFP forces learned many other age-old urban warfare lessons. They purchased sledgehammers and learned how to use C4 plastic explosive to make mouseholes. They learned to use ladders to climb up a building’s exterior so that they could enter through the roof or top floor, and fight from the top down, instead of from the bottom up. They learned to employ .50-caliber heavy machine guns against stubborn enemy positions. They also learned to fight at night using the limited number of night optical devices that the Marines’ Special Operations Group owned. They became more proficient as time wore on.

JTG Tiger finally reached Lake Lanao on September 22, ultimately suffering thirty-six killed in action and approximately three hundred wounded in action in the process. JTG Tiger was still three blocks ahead of JTG Vector, so its forces turned southeast into JTG Vector’s area of operations and fought toward a mosque, known locally as the White Mosque. After fighting building by building, they secured the mosque on September 30.

JTG Vector had the widest sector to clear. Its major elements included five light reaction companies (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 6th), the 4th Scout Ranger Battalion with its five scout ranger companies (3rd, 4th, 6th, 10th, and 11th), and Scout Ranger Class 201.

As the weeks passed, it became difficult for the large joint task group to maintain one steady line of advance, so its headquarters had to constantly issue fragmentary orders to adjust and move subunits around to support each other and to avoid friendly-fire incidents. The light reaction companies also employed tear gas grenades from June 26 to July 6 to facilitate their advance. On average, the light reaction companies’ soldiers cleared three buildings a day. The 4th Scout Ranger Battalion often outpaced the light reaction companies’ soldiers on its right, so had to slow its advance to maintain the same tempo or risk leaving its flank exposed. The joint task group’s forces also learned to use .30-caliber and .50-caliber machine guns to not only neutralize and destroy enemy positions but also to make mouseholes in buildings for entry. They continued to advance southwest using the SLICE method and cleared approximately three to four buildings per day.

Both sides employed drones for reconnaissance. AFP units also used them to help spot their mortar rounds’ impacts so they could adjust their fires. The AFP also used improvised up-armored bulldozers to clear debris to facilitate faster resupply and casualty evacuation. AFP personnel hung slats of wood like venetian blinds on sides of their vehicles to protect them from rocket-propelled grenade rounds. Lacking night-vision googles across the force, once evening set in, most AFP forces set up hasty defensive and sniper positions to get much-needed rest before starting the process anew the following morning.

The urban fighting was mentally and physically exhausting. The IS-P fighters were competent and determined, employed improvised explosive devices effectively, used the buhos-style construction to strongpoint seemingly every building, and used the underground tunnel network to hide and reposition forces. The AFP realized that even trained soldiers were not capable of conducting these brutal and stressful operations continuously without some kind of physical and mental rest. Thus, leaders developed a rotation schedule to prevent physical and psychological fatigue. After a company took one building, it would get a brief reset while another company took the following building. In the evenings, special operations forces or other soldiers would occupy buildings at the line of advance so that the attacking companies could rest for the night without having to pull their own security.

Most recuperation areas were just a few buildings back, and while often severely damaged, they offered some shelter from foul weather. The AFP brought portable generators forward to provide power and most recovery areas had serviceable deep-water wells that provided almost unlimited fresh water for cooking, washing clothes, and bathing. Logistical elements also brought hot and fresh meals to the frontline fighters. The joint task groups also rotated companies out of the battle for an entire week to further mitigate physical and mental exhaustion. As their units advanced, the battalions moved their headquarters and supply points forward to ensure good command and control and that sustainment needs—ammunition, rations and medical supplies—were close at hand.

Companies could clear smaller buildings by themselves quite well, but larger and more complex buildings required several companies or even two to three battalions working together. For each building, one to two subunits provided fire support, while one to two subunits cleared the building. Before the assault, the AFP often used generous amounts of tear gas, five-hundred-pound bombs from close air strikes, direct-fire artillery, .50-caliber heavy machine guns, and 90-millimeter cannons from armored fighting vehicles to soften the enemy before the assault. The soldiers created mousehole entrances using heavy machine guns, cannons, explosives, and chainsaws. They employed these methods for both smaller buildings and larger, multistory buildings such as the Saffrullah Hospital, the Grand Mosque, the Land Bank Building, the Bato Mosque, and a structure known as the Pink Building. It often took several days of preparation, multiple attacks, and several days of fighting to secure the larger buildings. Sometimes AFP units built in multiday operational pauses to strategize and plan between attacks. As an example, it took JTG Vector two weeks to clear the Land Bank Building and its city block. Likewise, it took JTG Vector three weeks to clear its final two hundred meters, from Perez Street to Lake Lanao.

JTG Musang owned the joint task force’s southeastern sector (left flank). It was composed of the 1st Scout Ranger Battalion, 2nd Scout Ranger Battalion, 3rd Scout Ranger Battalion, 63rd Infantry Battalion, 51st Infantry Battalion, and the 10th Infantry Battalion. At the start of the offensive, JTG Musang established its headquarters just north of Moncado Hill. The hill, combined with the urban terrain, presented a challenging environment as the joint task group’s forces were split until they advanced beyond the hill. Some of JTG Musang’s forces advanced west-southwest, with JTG Vector on their right flank, while others advanced around the hill. This southern element did not need to advance far to reach Lake Lanao, so after reaching the lake, it had to turn northwest and eventually into the advance of JTG Musang’s subunits, requiring careful fire control measures. The 3rd Scout Ranger Battalion’s first objective was a very large, solitary building. Lacking experience in urban warfare, the battalion suffered nineteen wounded and one killed during its first attempt to seize it. The battalion quickly learned that it required additional armor to support the attack, but even after securing the armor, it took four more attempts to clear the building. The battalion learned to use armor as part of a combined arms team for the remainder of the battle and eventually cleared five city blocks from June to October.

JTG Musang’s 2nd Scout Ranger Battalion had a very tough fight at Dansalan College. It took three attempts to clear Laubach Hall and the smaller buildings beside it. The twelve-day battle finally ended on July 9, and resulted in over thirty scout rangers wounded and five killed for this one objective alone.

JTG Musang’s 10th, 51st, and 63rd Infantry Battalions slowly advanced and cleared their buildings in southeastern Marawi around Moncado Hill. However, poor weather, poor hygiene, a lack of rations and water, and cases of dengue fever from mosquitos, all combined with poor tactics, lowered the morale of these three battalions. The joint task group replaced the battalion commanders to address these challenges. The new commanders subsequently withdrew their companies for several days to train them in urban warfare and better sustainment practices, so that the battalions could be reinserted into the city and continue the fighting. They then made steady progress until late September. The 63rd Infantry Battalion created what became known as the “great wall”—an above-ground trench several hundred meters long, made of sandbags to provide cover and iron sheets and wires to provide overhead concealment—to allow soldiers the ability to surreptitiously move into the city.

By October 9, the three joint task groups had cleared most of eastern Marawi, but they still needed to destroy the insurgents’ final location, what they called the “constriction area,” just north of the Lake Lanao wharf. The converging joint task groups had isolated the IS-P fighters within this small group of city blocks. As control measures, the constriction area was broken up into the Padian Pier area, the Padian Alpha block, and the Padian Mosque area. Until this point in the battle, Hapilon and the Maute brothers had avoided capture, so the AFP did not know if they had been killed, had escaped, or were in the constriction area. The AFP feared that they had somehow escaped from Marawi but hoped that they were trapped in the constriction area. Only JTG Vector and JTG Musang participated in the final clearance operation since the area straddled their shared boundary and was too small for the entire force. Some battalions isolated the constriction area while the scout ranger battalions and light reaction companies shouldered the fight, along with the 63rd Infantry Battalion and forty students of Scout Ranger Class 201 who were tasked to take the Old Markaz Mosque.

The AFP initiated the attack on October 14 with a close air strike as the scout ranger battalions and light reaction companies advanced. By the early afternoon, they had cleared nine buildings using direct-fire weapons and tear gas. During the fighting, they discovered a group of civilians, so they immediately stopped the assault and worked to facilitate the civilians’ escape. Under questioning, a woman identified the location of other hostages and stated that Hapilon and a slightly wounded Omar Maute were located within the Padian Alpha block of the constriction area, although she could not verify if Abdullah Maute was also present. That same day, the 63rd Infantry Battalion and Scout Ranger Class 201 started their two-day assault on the mosque.

On the morning of October 15, during fighting in the Padian Alpha block, three civilians—a man, a woman, and a girl—escaped to one of the AFP positions. While all three claimed to be hostages, the AFP quickly determined that the male was indeed an IS-P fighter. Upon questioning, he verified that hostages were still present and that Hapilon and a wounded Omar Maute were in the vicinity. As a result, the AFP initiated a temporary ceasefire to conduct targeted psychological operations. They had an FA-50 fighter jet conduct a flyover, followed by loudspeaker and megaphone operations transmitting targeted messages to IS-P fighters and civilian hostages. The newly captured insurgent, a police officer who was also an imam, local AFP soldiers who could speak the Maranao language, and some of the rescued hostages transmitted the messages to provide maximum effect. These operations continued into the evening, with the AFP using artificial light sources such as spotlights, chemical glowstick lights, and flashlights to locate enemy positions or to illuminate routes to safe positions where escaping hostages could link up with AFP soldiers and be taken to safety. The AFP rescued seventeen additional hostages in this manner and employed tear gas grenades to prevent the insurgents from impeding their escape.

Snipers from the light reaction companies were a critical enabler throughout the battle. They effectively employed the urban terrain’s many features to hide from IS-P fighters. Nonetheless, they faced many challenges that they had to overcome. They had to contend with enemy drones continually flying and attempting to locate their positions. Targets of opportunity appeared fleetingly and at short to medium ranges of unknown distance, so AFP snipers had to be patient yet quick to engage targets accurately. They also had to deal with the stresses of being a sniper—toward the end of the battle, some snipers suffered psychologically due to the extended mission or from killing so many IS-P fighters. Regardless, snipers devastated the insurgents by whittling down their numbers throughout the battle. In the darkened and early morning hours of October 16, a sniper killed both Hapilon and Omar Maute as they ran across a street in an attempt to escape. With the enemy leaders dead, and the area nearly secure, the AFP declared the battle over the following day, although sporadic fighting continued until October 23.

The AFP achieved its victory by effectively employing both hard and soft power, although the cost was significant, as it is in most urban battles. The AFP destroyed IS-P and rescued more than 1,780 hostages, suffering 165 killed with over a thousand wounded, while killing approximately 920 IS-P militants. Of note, while urban warfare often produces disproportionately high numbers of civilian casualties, the number of civilians killed during the five-month fight—estimates range from forty-seven to eighty-seven—was comparatively much lower than those produced by almost any other urban battle of this size. However, the effect on the civilian population was not limited to these casualties. Three years after the battle 120,000 former residents remained displaced. Almost every building within the portion of the city where the battle occurred was ruined, with over 95 percent of the structures in eastern Marawi suffering battle damage: 3,125 were completely destroyed, while 913 suffered major damage and 1,232 suffered minor damage. The Asian Development Bank’s comprehensive financial assessment detailed a large number of private- and public-sector costs and concluded it would take approximately $969 million (US) to rebuild Marawi. These costs have likely increased since 2017 given that a majority of the city remains destroyed and abandoned—it is now nicknamed “ground zero” as a result. The World Bank has estimated that it may take two decades to restore Marawi to its original condition.

Lessons Learned

At the strategic level, the first lesson from the Battle of Marawi is that hard and soft power must be fully integrated. The physical and psychological planes of war have always overlapped and influenced one another, but due to the comparatively slower speed of information, past conflicts could be managed, at least to a larger extent than is possible today, by governments and actors who had time to ensure that the right audiovisual products could be coupled with the right messages and actions to win over the population. The decision on when to release information to domestic and international audiences could also be largely controlled. In the twenty-first century, however, the widespread availability of technology to collect information and to record and transmit almost real-time videos of events means information can now be quickly broadcast to international spectators without a controlling mechanism. The ability to conduct hard power methodically and soft power effectively, in combination, is necessary for all present and future operations, regardless of environment, but this is an especially important consideration in urban areas, where the destruction of a city coupled with the presence of a civilian population make military operations, both hard and soft power, even more visible to viewers for them to judge.

During the Battle of Marawi, IS-P and the AFP understood that they needed to dedicate resources to both hard and soft power operations, and a lack of focus in one could be a detriment to the other. Ultimately, the side that combined the effective combination of both hard and soft power won. Had the AFP failed to couple both, it is very likely they could have won the hard power battle but lost the war. The AFP dominated IS-P not only by applying the necessary resources across multiple warfighting domains, but also by creating and executing a comprehensive, simultaneously reactive and proactive information campaign that was complemented by positive actions that demonstrated care to the civilian population. Importantly, the hard and soft power operations were integrated and not simply executed separately. This ultimately convinced the population that the AFP was the more ethical actor. Future urban operations must follow this model.

A second strategic lesson is that it takes a whole-of-government approach to achieve victory. If the government’s goal is limited narrowly to using military means to defeat the enemy, then even if successful in the short term, the success is not likely to endure. This is particularly important if the enemy’s stubbornness compels senior leaders to make the decision that their military forces must “destroy the town to save it.” If so, then the entirety of the government must have a long-term plan not only to reestablish the city physically, but to provide the resources to resuscitate the city socially, culturally, and financially. Construction crews building or repairing houses, apartments, shops, and other structures will be the easy part; returning civilians to a city that has a functioning government, a stable economy, essential services like electricity, food, and running water, and a society that is allowed to freely practice its religion and express its culture while being free from persecution will be considerably harder. It is understood that all of this will need a heavy infusion of time and money, but it is best if those two essential resources are in place before or just after the urban battle has begun. Waiting until after the fighting has ended to begin thinking about how to bring a city back to life is too late, largely because by that time it probably will not occur at all. In Marawi’s case, the government and its military were focused on the immediate defeat of the enemy. In the seven years since the battle, the rebuilding and revival of the city has been a very slow process, and the optics give the impression that the Philippine government has been sluggish in closing this violent chapter in Marawi’s history.

At the operational level, one lesson is that urban operations are more likely to occur than ever, yet militaries are unprepared for them. Despite the fact that urban warfare has increased since World War II, the AFP was unprepared for it, its forces focused primarily on jungle environments. The AFP did not understand the challenges, complexities, specialized tactics, or planning and sustainment requirements of urban operations.

A second operational-level lesson is that synchronized control measures are especially important in urban warfare. The density of the three-dimensional urban terrain combined with the chaos of battle will confuse military personnel as they try to make sense of it all. Control measures that are universal and easily understood across units mitigate friendly-fire incidents and provide situational awareness through good audio and visual communication methods to the personnel conducting the fight. In this battle, the AFP’s use of boundaries, phase lines, alphanumeric codes for buildings, and code names for streets minimized the number of friendly-fire incidents. The AFP also issued multiple orders to update these control measures as they shifted units around the urban battlefield as the enemy situation changed. On multiple occasions, units paused operations to give the newly repositioned troops time to understand their new control measures.

Many tactical lessons can be learned from this battle. One is the necessity to eliminate enemy strongpoints given this battle evolved into a series of strongpoint assaults. The AFP had to develop tactics for these assaults that were new to Philippine forces, even though they have been common throughout the history of urban warfare. The AFP developed its SLICE method and the necessity of using heavy fires to reduce strongpoints only after suffering many fatalities and casualties.

The AFP found that tear gas was particularly effective at dislodging enemy fighters while at the same time minimizing collateral damage, civilian casualties, and risk to friendly forces. Yet, most Western nations ban the use of tear gas in warfighting—despite the fact their police are often able to use it on their domestic populations—leaving few options for nonlethal force. The AFP did not adhere to such restrictions. The extensive use of tear gas at Marawi allowed AFP forces to advance by forcing insurgents, who found it difficult to breathe and fight, to withdraw from buildings to recover. This also saved AFP lives because units could then attack a building that did not house enemy fighters. The use of tear gas instead of explosives also results in less damage to buildings, making it easier for soldiers to defeat opposing forces without having to fight through rubble, while at the same time minimizing civilian casualties and making reconstruction after the battle faster and cheaper. All of these benefits offer a strong argument that the tactical use of tear gas should be made legal again. This particular weapon cripples some enemy forces and their ability to fight, ultimately saving soldiers’ and civilian lives and causing less collateral damage.

Another tactical lesson is the need to rotate soldiers out of battle more frequently in urban warfare. Warfighting is stressful enough, but the complexity of the three-dimensional urban terrain combined with the chaos and close quarters of the battle and the stubbornness of the enemy makes urban areas the most challenging and stressful combat environment. Urban warfare is physically and mentally exhausting. Headquarters staffs must consider soldier fatigue or risk high casualty counts and operational failure. During the Battle of Marawi, some snipers found themselves fighting for extended periods of time. Some suffered from severe physical fatigue or mental health problems due to the sustained fighting or because they killed so many IS-P insurgents. Conversely, JTG Vector established a routine of rotating its units into and out of the urban fighting, so they likely suffered few long-term psychological effects from the battle. Thus, commanders and planners must develop plans that allow for a more frequent troop rotation in urban warfare.


The Battle of Marawi demonstrated what has become the norm for successful operations in urban warfare: lethal combat actions must be inextricably tied to nonlethal information operations and the need to mitigate harm and provide care to civilians. The AFP combined innovations—such as the various use of drones, improvised armor protection, and tactics to reduce enemy strongpoints—with historical tried-and-true techniques such as the effective employment of combined arms in the urban environment during the battle. Two other factors contributed to the AFP’s victory. First, decision-makers were willing to dedicate the necessary lethal and nonlethal forces to win. Second, once in the thick of the battle, AFP leaders demonstrated operational and tactical patience. They were willing to pause, plan deliberate operations, and rest troops when required rather than continuing to push unprepared troops into battle. Arguably, this patience helped them achieve victory faster (and more effectively). They were initially optimistic about how short the battle would last, but even with this initial optimism, they did not set an arbitrary timetable for the operation and then incur unwarranted and counterproductive risk in an attempt to achieve victory by a set date, as is done far too often. While the government’s commitment to rebuild the city has been underwhelming and far too many residents remain displaced, this battle is generally considered a success.

John Spencer is chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute, codirector of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project, and host of the Urban Warfare Project Podcast. He served twenty-five years as an infantry soldier, which included two combat tours in Iraq. He is the author of the book Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connections in Modern War and coauthor of Understanding Urban Warfare.

Major Jayson Geroux is an infantry officer with The Royal Canadian Regiment and is currently with the Canadian Army Doctrine and Training Centre. He has been a fervent student of and has been involved in urban operations training for over two decades. He is an equally passionate military historian and has participated in, planned, executed, and intensively instructed on urban operations and urban warfare history for the past ten years. He has served twenty-eight years in the Canadian Armed Forces, which included operational tours to the former Yugoslavia (Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Afghanistan.

Liam Collins, PhD was the founding director of the Modern War Institute at West Point and a Fellow at New America. He is a retired Special Forces colonel with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, the Horn of Africa, and South America, with multiple combat operations in Fallujah in 2004. He is coauthor of Understanding Urban Warfare.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of any organization with which the authors are affiliated, including the Canadian Army Doctrine and Training Centre, the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian Department of National Defence.