Following their declaration of the so-called caliphate in 2014, Islamic State (ISIS) started receiving pledges of allegiance from various radical Islamic militancy groups around the world. This included several jihadist groups from the Philippines, such as Abu Sayyaf, Maute Group, Ansharul Khalifah Philippines, and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. These groups along with others from the region were organized as Islamic State in East Asia. ISIS appointed the Filipino militant Isnilon Hapilon to be the overall Emir, though in practice there was significant operational independence among different groups.
Even before pledging allegiance to ISIS some of these Filipino groups had welcomed foreign fighters, normally from nearby countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. But following their allegiance, larger numbers of foreign fighters, including those from outside the region, started to arrive in the Philippines.
During the battle of Marawi, between May and October 2017 when ISIS militants overran the southern city, their presence received widespread attention. As well as regional fighters from nearby countries there were also multiple reports of foreigners from further afield. The nationality and number of these non-regional foreign fighters were hard to clarify, but Filipino government officials had stated that militants from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Myanmar, Yemen, and Chechnya were present, while other sources report more nationalities.
A few months later, on January 22, 2018, a Spanish man was arrested on Basilan, an island near Mindanao with an active ISIS insurgency. This was the first known case of a European successfully traveling to the Philippines to join an ISIS group. In his possession were two grenades and bomb-making parts, and he was with a known local ISIS militant at the time of his arrest.
In the same month, a British national named Lewis Ludlow was stopped while trying to board a flight to the Philippines, where he was planning to join the ISIS group. Despite being prevented from traveling, Ludlow continued his allegiance with ISIS sitting in the United Kingdom and set up Facebook and PayPal accounts for funding ISIS activities in the Philippines and the region.
Ludlow was in contact with a man named Abu Yaqeen, based on the island of Sulu in the Philippines.
In April 2018, two people unsuccessfully attempted to travel from Germany to the Philippines to join ISIS. One German man was apprehended by police before leaving the country, while a second, Turkish national Emre U, made it to Bangkok before being arrested and deported.
According to information released by the Swiss government, between May and August in 2018, some left Switzerland and successfully joined the ISIS-affiliated group in the Philippines.
In addition to Europeans, other non-regional foreign fighters have also traveled to the Philippines this year. An Egyptian man was arrested while attempting to reach Basilan in February. A UAE-born man was also arrested that month; significantly he was reportedly a former ISIS commander in Syria.
According to counterterrorism experts, there are a number of factors that may be behind the increase in would-be foreign ISIS fighters attempting to travel to the Philippines, and it may remain a popular destination in the future as well.
The Philippines is a tourist destination with regular flights from Europe and elsewhere in the world, unlike the active warzones and failed states where most ISIS branches operate. This makes it much easier for foreign fighters to reach and gives greater plausible deniability to those attempting to travel there. When stopped at the airport, the British national Ludlow claimed he was a “sex tourist.” His passport was confiscated but he was not arrested.
Even if traveling to the Philippines overtly is difficult, there are still well-worn smuggling routes into the country for a would-be foreign fighter, through the island-strewn waters separating Malaysia from the southern Philippines. ISIS has set up cells in Malaysia with the explicit purpose of helping to facilitate travel.
Experienced foreign fighters, such as the Egyptian who was reportedly an ISIS commander in Syria, would be even more of an asset to the jihadist groups in the Philippines. If they have fought in other locations, such as Syria, they could bring important lines of communication to ISIS or to other branches. These fighters also bring technical expertise and new tactics that could help intensify ISIS activities in the Philippines. Foreigners who can provide training in bomb-making or weapons handling could help increase the effectiveness of local militants.
For the authorities in Manila, the most disturbing fact is – ISIS might have already chosen the Philippines as their next destination. Despite effective counter-terrorism measures of President Rodrigo Duterte’s government, the presence and influence of ISIS are continuing to grow in the country. An unknown number of foreigners are also joining ISIS in the Philippines every year.