The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is posing new challenges to counterterrorism activities as the jihadists and terrorists are entering various countries through seaways, mostly using small boats. In 2015, Singapore authorities stopped some Indonesian men who traveled from the Riau Islands to Singapore via ferry. These men were on a journey to Syria to join ISIS jihadists. Also, Singapore’s National Maritime Sense-Making Group – through the use of data analytics – detected a possible ISIS supporter on board a tanker.
In 2017, Indonesian authorities stopped an ISIS-linked terrorist cell in the Riau Islands. This cell had planned to launch a rocket attack on Singapore, possibly from a boat near the coastline. This cell also helped to smuggle two Uighur militants from Malaysia into Indonesia through the porous borders of Riau Islands to join the terrorist group Mujahidin Indonesia Timor in Sulawesi.
Earlier in 2001, Islamist rebel group Jemaah Islamiyah had explored smuggling explosive materials from the Riau Islands to Singapore while its recruits attended training in Mindanao in the Philippines.
Meanwhile, during the first week of December, Islamic State-inspired jihadists in the Philippines attacked a town in Maguindanao province, terrorizing residents and bringing back memories of the Marawi siege three years ago on the southern island of Mindanao.
Under the cover of darkness, reports said about 50 heavily armed members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Forces (BIFF) occupied the center of Datu Piang town, formerly called Dulawan, once the seat of power and commerce for Muslims in that part of the country in the early 1900s.
“Dulawan, Datu Piang is now like Marawi. ISIS-inspired BIFF attacked the town center,” Datu Zamzamin Ampatuan, a senior executive at the
Philippines’ Department of Agriculture, posted on social media.
An army company stationed in the municipality and the town’s small police force repelled the attack until back-up forces arrived, prompting the militants to withdraw an hour later.
In 2008, tens of thousands of people sought shelter at the town center of Datu Piang after fighting broke out between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) after the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain between the two parties, which the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional.
The recent jihadist attack in Datu Piang by pro-ISIS militants associated with the BIFF is a strong indication that the threat of terrorism in Mindanao persists. It may be mentioned here that, Islamic State in the Philippines is continuously recruiting in the new Bangsamoro region.
After Marawi’s liberation from the clutches of Islamic State militants as proclaimed by President Rodrigo Duterte in October 2017, several deadly suicide blasts hit Muslim-dominated areas in Mindanao, including twin Jolo cathedral bombings in January 2019 and twin explosions in Jolo last August that killed a combined 45 people and wounded nearly 200. Both involved foreign militants.
Hundreds of Islamic jihadists entering the Philippines
After the weakening of ISIS in the Middle East, this dangerous Islamic jihadist group is considering the Philippines as their new land of jihad, and for the past few years, in addition to Islamic State jihadists entering the country, they are also building fund generating projects mostly through some Arab, African and Pakistani nationals in the Philippines. Islamic State monies are being invested in money exchange shops, barbershops, groceries, hotels, resorts, restaurants, bars, pubs and other small and medium-scale business ventures in the Philippines, mostly under the cover of ownership of a third person, who is clean from any jihadist or terrorist record. While until the end of mid-2020, the number of newly entered ISIS jihadists in the Philippines would be between 300-500, every month this notorious jihadist outlet is setting new business establishments under disguise.
In my opinion, under the leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte, although terrorist threats in the Philippines have been substantially reduced, they still persist and continue to evolve.
Continued skirmishes between the Philippines government and Islamic State-affiliated terrorist groups in the months since the COVID-19 pandemic suggest that the terror threat in the country has not receded. The twin bombing in Jolo city on August 24 was yet more proof. Ongoing terror attacks and extremist ideological activities in South Mindanao point to the urgent need for a holistic countering-violent extremism (CVE) strategy in the Philippines, which has been so far been burdened by various legal and resource challenges.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Philippines lawmakers approved the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 (ATA 2020), which effectively repealed the 2007 Human Security Act and strengthened the government’s response to terrorism. Given the difficulties in the Philippines of prosecuting individuals for terrorism-related offenses, Philippines lawmakers campaigned for a stronger legal tool-kit to counter the threat posed by the communists as well as ISIS-affiliated units such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) jihadists and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) jihadists.
Despite the beefed-up anti-terrorism law allowing broader legal and kinetic measures against these terrorist groups, these actions are incomplete without a serious counter-ideological approach to neutralize violent extremism. Hence, even when IS-affiliated groups were defeated after the 2017 siege of Marawi City, their ideas continued to percolate and inspire new recruits, as well as new attacks.
For example, in May 2020, a spokesperson from an IS-affiliated terrorist group tried to garner renewed support for terrorism through a video that was circulated on chat platforms. The video was a response to public anger following the destruction of Marawi City and the continuation of terrorist activities and conflict with the Philippine government, both of which hurt Muslims. The spokesperson acknowledged the role of IS-affiliated terrorists in the forced evacuation of Marawi residents, who continue to reside in paltry conditions in evacuation centers, their homes in ruin and livelihoods lost forever. But he blamed the plight of Muslims on the lack of Shariah and poor governance by non-Muslims. To justify the protracted violent extremism, the spokesperson quoted a hadith to assert that jihad should prolonged despite the harm to Muslims. According to scholars, this was a case of misinterpretation of hadith.
Such religious falsehoods, typical of extremist viewpoints, suggest that the spokesperson has a superficial religious background. In justifying his group’s violence, he ignored the recognized status of Marawi as an Islamic city and the peace agreement establishing the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. Such a background and perspectives are not uncommon among Muslim youths who had supported or joined ISIS-affiliated groups prior to and during the Marawi siege. If they were not radicalized online or brought into the fold of extremism through family or clan ties, these youths received religious education in informal, poorly funded schools staffed by radical preachers who were educated in informal extremist circles overseas.
Madrassas breeding jihadists in the Philippines
Despite the fact of serious threats posed by radical Islamic jihad, the Department of Education in the Philippines started financial assistance to private Koranic schools or madrassas, although, such establishments are considered as breeding grounds of jihadists and radical Muslims.
Senior government officials in the United States, United Kingdom and France, among other countries, as well as counterterrorism experts, have repeatedly voiced concerns about the threat to world security posed by Islamic schools that allegedly teach hate and murder. In 2005, Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey published an op-ed with the New York Times on “The Madrassah Myth,” where they argued that most madrasas, or Islamic boarding schools, are “moderate and are not associated with terrorism and political violence”, was certainly wrong.
We must remember, the first breed of Islamic jihad was the Afghan Taliban, and they were from the madrasa background. Onwards, for decades, madrassas have played a pivotal role in spreading religious hatred as well as inspired youths in participating in jihad and killing “non-Muslims” and “infidels” and embrace “martyrdom”. It is a blunder to think most madrassas are peaceful and serve a constructive role in the societies where education is often a privilege rather than a right. Instead, the reality is just the opposite. Madrassas never have played any role either in serving any constructive role in any country in the world. Those have always been playing destructive roles and been poisoning Muslim minds with religious hatred and madness of jihad.
In Muslim dominated countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, madrasas such as al-Mukmin, Lukman al-Hakiem and al-Islam have been vitally important in furthering the mission of some of the most volatile terrorist groups, such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), in efforts to attack American, Australian and other Western-related interests. In fact, the majority of JI terrorist attacks—including the Christmas Eve bombings of 2000 and Bali I in 2002, as well as the Jakarta Marriott bombing in 2003 and the Australian Embassy attack in 2004 (which involved JI members but were not institutionally JI) – have been staffed and led by individuals associated with madrassas.
Radical Islamic jihad continues
As a string of brutal attacks in France in the recent time reminds us, Islamist terrorism actually in far from dead. Anyone who thinks the end of the so-called Islamic State in 2019 destroyed the threat has only to look at France and across Africa.
The Tunisian who shouted “Allahu akbar” after knifing three people to death in Nice in France on October 29 most definitely been inspired by the decapitation of a history teacher near Paris on October 16 by a Chechen refugee. Has anyone investigated if this Chechen refugee was a member of the radical Islamic group in Russia’s Chechnya?
We need to realize – Islamic terrorism, a virus that has barely slowed by coronavirus pandemic, even as the world has looked elsewhere. Consider the gory examples: The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara murdered six French aid workers and two others in a Niger safari park attack in August. A week before, Boko Haram killed 16 and wounded six in Cameroon.
In March, Boko Haram killed at least 69 people and razed a village in Nigeria. A couple of months before, an al-Shabab suicide bomber in Somalia killed four people.
The toxin that is terrorism has not abated, just moved. In its 2019 “Country Report on Terrorism,” the US State Department warned that surviving ISIS leaders welcomed affiliates throughout Africa. Such ISIS supporters launched attacks in Asia, including the killing of more than 250 people on Easter Sunday in 2019 in Sri Lanka. In the United States, a Saudi killed three people and wounded eight at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, in December 2019.
History tells us that Islamist doctrine can be contained for a time, but soon springs up anew. Until the World Trade Center towers fell in 2001, most Americans had dim memories of the 1993 bombing there that killed six people and hurt over 1,000. Many were likely oblivious to attacks on transit systems in France in 1995. And many likely forgot that bombers killed 224 and wounded over 4,500 in 1998 at US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Americans paid close attention after 2001. But terrorists largely laid low until 2008, when Islamists – led partly by an American – killed more than 166 in Mumbai. Five years later, terrorists killed 67 in a Nairobi shopping mall. Attacks climbed after ISIS set up the Caliphate in 2014, attracting more than 40,000 fighters from nearly 100 countries.
Terrorists moved into the United States with the 2015 spree by a married couple in San Bernardino, who killed 14 and hurt 22. The following year, an ISIS supporter killed 49 and hurt 53 in a nightclub in Florida.
And in 2016, a jihadi bomber hurt 31 in New York and New Jersey. Then a Somali American hurt 11 in a bizarre car-ramming and stabbing spree at Ohio State University.
In 2017, an Uzbek jihadist Islamist killed eight people and hurt a dozen in New York City, followed two weeks before Christmas by an attempted suicide bombing at New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Back in December 2018, US President Donald Trump declared the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists, although the so-called real end of this notorious group’s territorial hold in Syria came on March 23, 2019, when Syrian Democratic Forces took over Baghouz. Although by then, hundreds of ISIS fighters either have melted into the society or migrated to other countries. Even after losing territorial hold in Syria, ISIS-inspired attacks in Kenya, Syria, Somalia, France, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines have proved – this radical Islamic jihadist monster is not yet dead. Coronavirus will be vanquished. But, if the recent jihadist attacks prove anything, it is that Islamist fanatism will endure. Authorities in different countries in the world should know, our war against radical Islam and jihad is not yet ended. Instead, we have to adopt a long-term strategy not only to fight jihad, but we have to eliminate breeding grounds of radical Islam and jihad. We have to impose stricter surveillance on madrassas, mosques and Islamic centers around the world to ensure, the culture of spreading religious hatred and jihad is effectively combatted.