WATCH: Before victory, Marawi military commander explains tactics vs terrorists
MARAWI CITY, Philippines – On September 22, 2017, Day 120 of the conflict between government troops and ISIS-backed terrorists, Rappler gained access to the Tactical Command Post of the 3rd Scout Ranger Battalion.
Rappler's Natashya Gutierrez spoke with Lieutenant Colonel Mon Almodovar – commander of the battalion – who walked Rappler through a stronghold they retook from the Maute terrorists in August.
He talked about the challenges faced by the military in taking over the area leading toward the city, their shifting strategy nearing the end of the war, and the various tactics deployed by both sides.
The interview was embargoed until the end of the war. The fighting officially ended on Monday, October 23, exactly 5 months since it started in May 23.
It was Almodovar's men who led the assault that killed top terrorist leaders and ISIS supporters Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute.
Below is a full transcript of the discussion, as translated to English.
Natashya Gutierrez: The walls have ISIS written all over them. What was this building before? Was it a Maute stronghold?
Lt Colonel Mon Almodovar, Commander, 3rd Scout Ranger Battalion: This was a hospital before. So it is a 5-story building. This was occupied by Maute from the start of the siege. They really made this a stronghold. Because as you can see, it’s a huge advantage. It’s high, so you overlook the surroundings. It provides you enough cover so you can position snipers, machine guns. If you’re far, especially over there in the hills, this building stands out. On top there’s like a dragon but it’s a slide of a swimming pool on the rooftop. On top of the building.
Gutierrez: How about that? What’s that?
Almodovar: That’s Dansalan college. It was also a stronghold of ISIS for the first few months of the crisis. You can see in the ground floor there are really some bunkers, ratholes, and sandbags as their cover. So it was really a challenge for our soldiers to occupy. Then this whole building provided cover fire. But when we were over there, we put our tanks on top of the hill. So if you see these holes, those are hits from our tanks, and the 25-mm cannons. So all the floors, as long as you can see it from there, our troops were able to hit. So as we inched closer, they were neutralized in the upper floors but they were in the ground floor. Then from time to time, at night, they came up here. Until we were able to come close slowly, but by that time, the upper floors were already opened by our fire and they were burnt.
Gutierrez: That’s why the upper floors are burnt because the military fired all over it?
Almodovar: Yes. This was hit by cannons or they were burned. But the ground floor is not burnt because it was covered.
Gutierrez: What have we used this building for since you took over?
Almodovar: So after we occupied this, since it’s high and it offers us some advantage, we made it a tactical command post. This building, this is the HQ of the battalion. This is where we conduct planning. Our maps are here. We make assessments. This is where we control the war. This is where we command. From here we clear adjacent blocks. But now, we’re a little bit far already. The TCP is here but we’ve opened the advanced command post in the front.
Gutierrez: How far is that from here?
Almodovar: We're around 300 meters from the frontlines.
Gutierrez: Can you show us your sniper’s nest?
Almodovar: Yes. Up here we have a lot of snipers’ nest that we used over here. We’re in the 4th floor and now we’re approaching the 5th floor. So here, since it’s high, it’s very ideal to put snipers here. So these holes here are sniper holes. Before when the enemies were still right in front we had snipers, machine guns. Then all those holes with covers, and these beddings, that’s where our snipers lay on their stomachs. And then we have more upstairs. But of course because this is open, the enemy can see us that’s why we put a cover of clothes and curtains. Especially when the Landbank still hasn’t been cleared, that high white building.
Gutierrez: And from here, you can see the lake, so what does that mean?
Almodovar: That means we’re just about kicking distance. Of course when you get to the lake, it’s pretty much done.
Gutierrez: You can see it already, huh?
Almodovar: Yes you can almost touch it. Unfortunately they’re still there. You can see, it’s a small area left. So it’s only about 20 hectares where they’re fighting.
Gutierrez: So you’ve cornered the enemy.
Gutierrez: And you can hear the gunshots from here.
Almodovar: Yes, from time to time. Right now this is even quiet. When the offensive of the units start, you can hear it everywhere. Right now it’s still calm. Especially when there are operations with major objectives they try to occupy, that’s the time when the explosions are loud. Right now it’s still relatively quiet. A while ago, we were shooting the cannon before you came. Around 9 am.
Gutierrez: Your cannons? Is the sound different?
Almodovar: Yes. The Howitzers, the pilled artillery cannons, the 105. They’re loud. And early morning the FA-50 you could hear the air strikes. There are more (sniper nests) over there, but we’ll have to run a bit to go up there. But we can pass there so you can see the sniper nests, the sandbags. Do you want to see it?
Gutierrez: Okay sir, if you lead me.
Almodovar: Yes of course, just follow me and run. It’s hard to be exposed here for long. Come here.
So that’s already the frontline actually. Behind that green mosque is already where the enemy is. Where the flag is, there are already government forces there. This is the sniper position, and up there, that’s where they position themselves where there are sandbags. This is where spotters stay, from there they search where the enemy are. Actually going up there’s a sniper there. There’s just no cover right now. We can go up if you want to see the sniper hide. But you have to be quick. Now we’re upstairs. If you look here, it offers a very good view of the front. Here, come here so you can see it all the way to the water. You can see them. So our troops, they are in those buildings with the flags. The flags mean they’ve occupied those buildings. The sniper stays here, just waiting.
Gutierrez: So this is the view of the sniper, what we see right now.
Almodovar: Yes, that’s what he sees. But he peeks from a lower spot. He would stay here and peek through these holes in the sandbags.
Gutierrez: And the sandbags?
Almodovar: They serve as cover. The snipers need cover so even if the enemy fights back, they won’t get hit.
Gutierrez: Do the bags absorb it?
Almodovar: The small bullets, it can absorb. The 16, the 14. But of course the RPGs, not really.
Gutierrez: What can you say about the weapons used by the enemy?
Almodovar: They’re the same as ours. They just don’t have cannons or tanks, however they have machine guns, RPGs, M16, M14, sniper rifles.
Gutierrez: So the operation is very well funded?
Almodovar: Yes. They have mortars even.
Gutierrez: The view here is better of the Maute stronghold. All of this was theirs?
Almodovar: As I said before, the Mautes tried to prevent us from coming into the city. They tried to block all possible access of the military. They had someone guarding those, especially the roads. Of course they occupied the major buildings, the high, solid ones like this one that’s pretty high to give them a good advantage. And you can see Dansalan College, there are solid campuses there, buildings. They were everywhere there, and that building there, they had a lot positioned there as well. I think that’s Senator Ninoy Aquino College. This university belt was a former stronghold.
Gutierrez: How about this? Why are blankets covering this?
Almodovar: Well of course, the enemies are still there on the other side. That’s the front, that’s where the frontline is. Before this whole thing was covered, because there were enemies from all sides. However, now they’re a little farther away. The frontline is about 300 meters away. But you still need to cover this, because bullets can still reach us from the current location of the enemy. So this, we use this as a sniper hide. From time to time, we have snipers who position here, to guard at night. Especially when the nearby areas were not yet cleared. Now that our troops have gotten closer though, our sniper has repositioned over there. But sometimes they still use this. Especially when targets are far away. So that’s why this is all covered. And if you peek through the sniper holes, you can see until the lake.
Gutierrez: This is the top of the building that you now use as base by the 3rd scout ranger battalion. This is the view. And this side of the city is already cleared?
Almodovar: Yes. That’s where we came from. From that side. That was the first one we cleared. That’s what is called the ICom tower, because the cell sites of Globe, the antenna of radios were there before. So you can see it’s really high, those were also their stronghold. You can see the Globe tower there, a lot of enemies were there. And behind that, is a gym going downhill. Here you can see this is the hit of an MA-50 bomb. A 500 pound bomb. That’s why it collapsed.
Gutierrez: You hit it from a cannon of the military?
Almodovar: Not actually a cannon. It’s a bomb from an airplane, from our FA-50 jet. It’s a bomb that’s 500 pounds.
Gutierrez: When you do that, do the terrorists start running out?
Almodovar: Not necessarily. Not actually. After the bomb that was 500 pounds, still you can see that the only thing broken was the top. But from the 4th floor and the ground floor, it was still intact. So perhaps they’ll be dusted or rocked, but they still occupy the ground floors even when you’ve bombed it.
Gutierrez: So what makes them finally leave?
Almodovar: When you’re right in front. When the troops come close. When we’re near them and the buildings, when we enter the building, when there’s an encounter. And that’s slowly. Then they’ll be forced to leave the buildings when the troops are already there. When we’re closed in already, or else they will really die. So they really have to leave. They leave through the ratholes that they’ve created. – Rappler.com