At the beginning of the battle that has raged for the past 12 days in Marawi City at the southern end of the Philippines, dozens of Islamist militants stormed its prison, overwhelming the guards.
“They said ‘surrender the Christians’,” said Faridah P. Ali, an assistant director of the regional prison authority. “We only had one Christian staff member so we put him with the inmates so he wouldn’t be noticed,” he said.
Fighters from the Maute group, which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS), menaced the guards and shouted at prisoners: but no one gave up the Christian man. “When they freed the inmates, he got free,” said Ali.
It was a brief moment of cheer, but over the next few hours the militants took control of most of the city, attacked the police station and stole weapons and ammunition, and set up roadblocks and positioned snipers on buildings at key approaches. The assault has already led to the death of almost 180 people and the vast majority of Marawi’s population of about 200,000 has fled.
The seizing of the city by Maute and its allies on the island of Mindanao is the biggest warning yet that the Islamic State is building a base in Southeast Asia and bringing the brutal tactics seen in Iraq and Syria in recent years to the region.
Defense and other government officials from within the region told Reuters evidence is mounting that this was a sophisticated plot to bring forces from different groups who support the Islamic State together to take control of Marawi.
The presence of foreigners – intelligence sources say the fighters have included militants from as far away as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Chechnya and Morocco – alongside locals in Marawi, has particularly alarmed security officials.
For some time, governments in Southeast Asia have been worried about what happens when battle-hardened Islamic State fighters from their countries return home as the group loses ground in the Middle East, and now they have added concerns about the region becoming a magnet for foreign jihadis.
“If we do nothing, they get a foothold in this region,” said Hishammuddin Hussein, the defence minister of neighboring Malaysia.