Ever since the fall of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, this dangerous radical Islamic terror outfit has been eyeing a number of countries as its next destination. Since then, ISIS fighters, with the help of its followers amongst the Filipino Muslim community have been gradually expanding its existence, thus posing the gravest threat to the national security of the Philippines. The most alarming fact is – ISIS has received pledges of support from certain local militant entities, none represents a viable vehicle for furthering sustained attacks outside of Mindanao. Arguably a more relevant threat relates to the large Filipino expatriate community in the Middle East that could either be co-opted as recruits or targeted in attacks.
The Philippines has long been a significant source of Islamist extremism in Southeast Asia. Although the largest and most infamous militant group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), apparently has abandoned its terrorism madness, at least two other established entities remain active and new ones have emerged. There also are disturbing indications about ISIS recruiting and sending its fighters into other provinces in the country, with the notorious agenda of continuing various types of jihadist activities.
Two main militant entities operate in the Philippines: the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
ASG was established in 1991 by Abdurajak Janjalini, a veteran of the Afghan mujahideen campaign against the Soviet Union during the 1980s. Its stated goals are the purge of all Christian influence in the southern Philippines and the establishment of an independent Islamic State of Mindanao (MIS). From the outset, this agenda was tied to larger, transnational extremist plans, mostly rhetorically but occasionally substantively.
In its early years, ASG operated as a cohesive and explicitly religious organization. It had also regular interaction with the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), while hundreds of ASG members along with a vast majority of the Muslims from Mindanao were also associated with TJ.
The loss of several senior commanders, however, has progressively seen the group degenerate into a fractured and criminalized entity. Until 2016, the organization, which number was no more than 100 members, was split between roving kidnap-for-ransom bands operating on the islands of Basilan and Jolo. Isnilon Hapilon, an elderly cleric who now goes by the name of Sheikh Mujahideen Abdullah al-Philippine, was leading the largest and most active of these factions from the island of Basilan.
Other jihadist groups in the Philippines
Besides ASG and BIFF, there are at least three smaller groups that have emerged in the Philippines in the last few years: Jamaal al-Tawhid Wal Jihad Philippines, Ansar Khalifah Sarangani (AKS, or Supporters of the Caliphate), and Khilafa Islamiyah Mindanao (KIM). While information on these entities is scant, none is believed to number more than a handful of followers.
Jamaal al-Tawhid Wal Jihad Philippines (JaTWJP, sometimes also referred to as Tawhid and Jihad Group in the Land of the Philippines and Pride) emerged sometime in 2012. The organization espouses a jihadist ideology, and it has taken responsibility for a number of sporadic assaults against the military. Abu ‘Atikah al Mujahir is thought to lead the group although it is not known how many members he oversees.
AKS surfaced in 2014 under the leadership of Abdul Basit Usman, one of the most wanted men in the Philippines with a US$1 million bounty on his head under the United States’ Rewards for Justice Program. It is essentially a bomb-making outfit but has lost much of its relevance largely due to the death of Usman who was killed by elements of MILF on May 3, 2015. Many of the remaining members have since migrated to KIM.
KIM, the largest of the three, is a dedicated jihadi organization that seeks the creation of an independent religious state in Mindanao. It is led by an Afghan-trained Islamic cleric known as Humam Abdul Najid, who is believed to have carried out twin bombings against the al-Imam mosque and Rural Bus Transit station in Zamboanga City on August 16, 2012. KIM has occasionally been referred to as an umbrella movement that links Islamists from ASG, BIFF, and rump local elements from the now-defunct Jemaah Islamyyia (JI) network, though it is still unclear whether the group acts as a collective entity rather than a stand-alone in its own right.
Presence of ISIS in the Philippines
Ever-since Islamic State had emerged back in 2014 in Iraq, there has been growing concern amongst the counterterrorism experts as well as law enforcement agencies in the Philippines about ISIS’s spreading ideological and operational influence in Southeast Asia. This far, most attention has been centered on Muslim majority countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Maldives. While these Muslim nations do warrant a cause for worry, there are clear indications that the Islamic State has also sought to extend its reach into the Philippines, alongside some other non-Muslim nations in Asia, such as India, Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka, China, and Myanmar.
In a 24-minute audio narration that the al-Furqan Media Foundation aired on December 26, 2015, for instance, ISIS-founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi specifically included the Bangsamoro struggle as one of several campaigns that Muslims from around the world should support. The speech came on the heels of a purported Islamic State-produced video that featured militants performing physical exercises at a “boot camp” in the jungles of Mindanao. There has also been at least some speculation that the bomb attacks in Jakarta on January 14, 2016, were a response to the activities of pro-Islamic State Filipino supporters who were seen as competing with Indonesian jihadists as the recognized standard-bearers for al-Baghdadi’s group in Southeast Asia.
While some experts argue saying, none of the above provides definitive evidence that the Islamic State has managed to establish a concerted operational presence in the Philippines, but in my opinion, as Islamic State has used social media tools in an attempt to co-opt potential followers and sympathizers from schools and universities in Mindanao – there is no room to think – this notorious radical Islamic jihadist group has no existence in the Philippines. We also need to remember, Tablighi Jamaat, for instance, has been radicalizing Muslims and recruiting them for jihadist activities under the disguises of preaching Islam.
Equally, Filipino Muslims are also getting radicalized through the mosques and Koranic schools (madrassas).
According to anti-jihadist sites, local Islamist terror groups in the Philippines were directly connected to the Islamic State and had enlisted fighters to join al-Baghdadi’s self-defined jihad in Iraq and Syria. Each of the recruits was offered an amount between US$ 150-200 as a joining bonus with the promise of monthly salaries. Such activities first came to light in July 2014 when Musa Ceratino—an Australian-born Christian convert to Islam and regular attendee of the now-closed radical al-Risalah Salafist center in Sydney, Australia – was arrested in Cebu City for inciting terrorism on the internet and exhorting Filipinos to go fight for the Islamic State in the Middle East.
It is not clear how successful the Islamic State’s recruitment efforts have been and/or the extent to which it has been able to sway popular sentiments among radically prone Muslims in Mindanao.
One organization that has certainly not been influenced is MILF, the dominant rebel group in the area. The Front has not only vociferously denounced the “savagery and barbarism” of al-Baghdadi and his movement, but it has also stressed a ready willingness to work with Manila to prevent the latent spread of Islamic State ideology.
In August 2014, leaked government documents claimed that as many as 200 Filipino nationals had infiltrated Iraq to undergo militant training with the Islamic State, further warning that many of these volunteers intended to return to the agenda of waging jihad. These were hardened and trained radical Islamic jihadists. Although the Philippines’ Foreign Ministry had quickly issued a statement saying the postulated figures were “entirely hypothetical”, in my personal opinion, the real figure actually would be much bigger.
There had also been a number of intelligence reports confirming the presence of Filipino jihadists in the Middle East, alongside several Filipina sex slaves and brides of the ISIS fighters.
Irrespective of the number of Filipinos who had gone to fight with the Islamic State, it is clear that the group has enjoyed at least a degree of moral support from a major segment of the Muslim population in the Philippines. This first became apparent on June 25, 2014, when the leader of ASG’s largest faction, Isnilon Hapilon, pledged full “loyalty and obedience” to the Islamic State and al-Baghdadi. The bay`a (oath of allegiance) was made on an uploaded YouTube video that also featured more than a dozen men who were praying with him in a forest clearing while shouting “Allah Akbar.”
In January 2016, Hapilon put out a second video announcing his support of the Islamic State. The seven-minute taping, which also featured a pair of militants claiming to represent the previously unheard-of Ansar al-Shariah Battalion and the Ma’arakat al-Ansar Battalion, was distributed on Twitter, Telegram, and the Deep Web forum Shumukh al-Islam. In it, Hapilon declared “a pledge of allegiance to the Caliph, Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Ibrahim bin ‘Awwad ibn Ibrahim al-Qurashi al-Husseini al-Hashimi,” and exhorts Allah to “preserve him, to listen and obey… and not to dispute about rule with those in power.”
In common with ASG, BIFF has also affirmed its backing for the Islamic State, this time in an amateur visual recording that was aired on August 13, 2014. Although not as strong as Hapilon’s twin bay`a—in the sense of articulating full obedience to al-Baghdadi – the video nevertheless made clear that a mutually beneficial alliance had been made. Abu Misry Mama, a spokesman for BIFF, later confirmed the authenticity of the recording, declaring that while his group did not intend to impose the Islamic State’s highly radical brand of Sunni Islam in the Philippines, assistance to the movement would be proffered should such a request be made.
The various smaller groups that have emerged in the Philippines have had similarly expressed support for the Islamic State. In November 2012 Jamaal al-Tawhid Wal Jihad Philippines posted a film urging Muslims in Mindanao to back the group’s jihad. Just under two years later, AKS produced its own video pledging allegiance to the Islamic State while also threatening to deploy suicide bombers in the Philippines and make the country a graveyard for American soldiers. And KIM, which uses the black flag as a backdrop on its Twitter and Facebook accounts, has made no secret either of its admiration for al-Baghdadi or its own self-defined role as the leading force of the so-called Black Flag Movement in the Philippines (BFMP).
The various pledges of allegiance that ISIS has managed to solicit from militant groups in Mindanao have generated growing fears that his group has found a new operational base in the heart of Southeast Asia.
Hapilon’s bay`a in January 2016 caused particular concern as it seemed to suggest that ASG had moved to coalesce its own backing for the Islamic State with other additional jihadi outfits, possibly presenting a new unified extremist front against Manila that could have been further buttressed by returning fighters from the Middle East.
Authorities in the Philippines needs extra vigilance
Information gathered from various anti-jihadist and counterterrorism sources, it is understood that Islamic State and other jihadist outfits, may go for “retaliatory jihadist attacks” on Churches and Christian properties during Christmas. Law enforcement agencies in the Philippines need to take this matter seriously and increase surveillance activities. It may also consider imposing a ban on the activities of Tablighi Jamaat in the country.