AS he descends the dozen steps into total darkness, Corporal Roger Morillo pauses for a moment, less to allow his eyes to adjust and more to note the gravitas of what lies beneath.
The air is dank, the relentless monsoonal rains outside have seeped through the underground plastered walls and the bespectacled young soldier sighs as he twists his slight but tall frame to enter the dungeon.
Some of the 100 soldiers from the Armed Forces of the Philippines have been killed by what was done here in this cramped space below a house in the city of Marawi; some were friends, all were colleagues and their deaths and the continued conflict weighs heavily on most of the 20-something year old soldiers on the newest ISIS frontline.
In the first four weeks of the insurgency in this once lively city of Marawi on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, Filipino forces suffered more than 300 casualties many maimed from the sorts of injuries from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) like the ones that were believed to have been made from this and other hidden dens of death.
A mini bomb factory using eight to 10 inch nails packed into urns and other vessels that can tear a body apart and have hampered forces from retaking the city from the Islamic State backed rebels.
“We weren’t expecting this,” the Filipino soldier Morillo says as his torch lights up the dark corners.
It is not clear whether he means the discovery of the hidden den below a laundry in the home or the broader war that has now entered its third month and has prompted fears across the region it could be the powder keg catalyst for Islamic uprisings across South East Asia.
It is probably more accurate to say everybody expected something like this to happen in the Philippines but perhaps not to the extent of such a well-trained, foreign, financed and organised insurgency that from May 23 has resisted a battalion-sized force of Filipino troops, daily 105mm Howitzer canons pounding and helicopter gunship and aircraft strafes.
For many months intelligence agencies have warned that battle-hardened ISIS fighters being routed in Iraq and Syria were setting up a new front and had formed alliances between up to six jihadist groups in the Philippines including the deadly Abu Sayef and Maute groups and Ansar Khalifa Philippines and 60 groups elsewhere in the region including the remnants of the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiah — the group behind the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings.
But despite suspicions hundreds of jihadists had slipped into Philippines across the Sulu Sea from Indonesia, Sulawesi and Kalimantan or just flying in on direct commercial flights including from Turkey to attend jihadist training camps, when Marawi happened it still caught many off guard.
For the four Australian Federal Police agents who flew out to sprawling Davao City in the Philippines southern province of Mindanao in September last year, their brief was simple.
Provide 28 Filipino senior counterparts with high-level training on counter terrorism intelligence gathering, the signs to look for, analysis of social media and review the latest information available on the movement of foreign Islamic State fighters.
The night before it was to be held, along Roxas Avenue in the city’s central business district night markets, an improvised explosive device was detonated killing 15 people and wounding 70 others. Two of the AFP members, instead of lecturing in a classroom, joined Filipino counterparts in actively investigating the bombing, their involvement later praised by Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte.
It became apparent the Davao bombing was not part of the regular three decades of violence in Mindanao by secessionist and or Muslim groups, with the strategy and bomb making hinting at overseas influence and an alignment between groups.
But still ISIS on South East Asia’s doorstep felt more like rumour or the bragging by a desperate militant until Marawi and specifically the discovery of a mobile phone.
On it was a video where Filipino militant Isnilon Hapilon, who receives instructions directly from ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, could be seen literally drawing out a battle plan to capture a city and inspire Islamic revolution across the region in much the same way ISIS had captured Raqqa and Mosul.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one Australian intelligence agent involved in the counter terrorism fight said events in the Philippines were long viewed as the greatest threat to regional security but the phone clip was proof.
“Mindanao is of far greater concern as a magnet for extremism than what has happened say in London or Manchester but it has got little attention here,” he said.
“I get the colonial ties and all but what’s happening in the Philippines is a seven and a half-hour flight from Sydney, it’s in our backyard but we talk more about what has happened over there (UK) than what is happening here, front and centre of Australia.”
ASIO and ASIS last year deployed resources across the region to analyse the marked threat in extremism but also the erosion of secular sentiment, particularly in Indonesia, in favour of Muslim militancy that threatens to evolve into something more. The AFP has also taken a lead in counter terrorism in the Philippines, performing in joint investigations and 15 counter-terrorism training courses in the past 12 months, their biggest commitment since 2004 when a whole squad was dispatched in 2004 in the post- 9/11 terror probes wash-up. It earlier this year also brought Filipino counter terrorism chiefs together with counterparts from Indonesia and Malaysia to create joint strategies to tackle ISIS, a second meeting slated for later this year.
Now the Australian Defence Force is also looking at how it can help. Two RAAF P3 Orion surveillance aircraft have already performed missions over Marawi for Filipino ground troops and Defence Minister Marise Payne has told News Corp the ADF stood by to do more if requested, including looking at training Filipino soldiers in urban warfare tactics. The US has also provided technical military advisers and weapons, China has also provided weapons and Russia has pledged unspecific assistance.
Last week President Duterte extended martial law across Mindanao, a region of 22 million people, until the end of the year but took the heat out of his action by offering greater autonomy to the region’s predominant Muslim population if they actively rejected ISIS.
“This is the best antidote to the violent extremism that has wrought havoc in many Muslim areas,” militant turned political group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Vice Chairman Ghazali Jaafar said.
But it might be too little too late. The reason the Marawi conflict has continued for so long, and claimed the lives of at least 600 people and displaced an incredible 500,000 people, has been local support and the amount of food and arms, including military-grade assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades and mortars, the extremists have stockpiled but also foreign support.
This is a siege that was months in the planning and according to intelligence, cost at least AUD$2.5 million to finance, mostly from overseas supporters in the Middle East and Malaysia.
When on May 23 the Filipino army moved to arrest Hapilon they suspected he was backed by a force of 40 militants but it was closer to 400. That number swelled to 700 not least from when the militants broke into a jail for support, like ISIS had done in Iraq.
But it was the number of foreigners in his ragtag ranks that has shocked some, militants from Malaysia and Indonesia but also as far away as Yemen and Chechnya; some 40 foreigners have been killed in Marawi many identified through passports and other documents.
An estimated 1000 South East Asians have travelled to ISIS-controlled territories in the Middle East with intelligence pointing to many of those having survived battles there, already having slipped backed into the region. The proof was now in Marawi.
Adbal Karim Ambor, a local Muslim Ustadz leader who ranks above an imam, said the foreigners slipped into Marawi the day before the May 23 uprising under the cover of attending the annual Sunni Tablighi Jamaat gathering. It was reported to authorities but no action was taken.
“The bigger problem we need to look into is the ‘rido’ or clan war because what is happening now is there are clan wars the military does not get involved in, they will leave the fight and so there remains the real possibility the rido will lead to extremism or encourage some to join extremism,” he told News Corp.
“After the war there will also be conflicts over land. When residents go back and fight for their lands and that will inflame clan wars and promote terrorism. So this is more of a concern as this will be a bigger problem later on.”
Armed Force of the Philippines spokesman Lt Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera said Marawi and urban warfare could be a new norm in the region and the ADF could be recruited to help train his forces as they have done since 2015 for 20,000 security personnel in Iraq.
“I think this is now the trend, so I think there should be more engagement between our two countries or multilateral approaches in dealing with terrorism,” Col Herrera said.
“Countries should come together to share their knowledge and expertise in dealing with the menace of this generation. I can see the enemy is well connected as seen by the presence of foreign terrorists here so those should be cut off, those logistic supports, cut not just in the Philippines but other Asian countries.”
Ambor said recruitment for ISIS was rampant in his region despite his and others pleading to resist the call.
“This is only going to get worse, they (ISIS) are recruiting the young with money, the problem is only just beginning.”