Since the early 1990s international Islamist terror groups have been courting Muslim separatist movements in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. They’ve had training exchanges and conducted joint exercises with them there and at camps in Afghanistan; later in Iran and Somalia. They’ve sent in bomb-making instructors and cash, elevating the region’s prestige as a global terror centre. They put their marker down there long ago; now they’re ready to cash in.
The previous two governments – those of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino – downplayed or outright denied that there was any serious international-terrorism presence in the Philippines. Any links to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or ISIS by its common acronym), were dismissed – even though there was any amount of evidence showing strong links between a number of the Mindanao groups and Al Qaeda, the organisation out of which ISIS evolved. It wasn’t difficult to join up the dots, but maybe it was deemed politically imprudent to so.
Now, finally, we have a clear statement from President Rodrigo Duterte that ISIS is a real and present danger in the Philippines – “The problem is ISIS is there and we have been debating for so long. But we are now of the opinion in the Cabinet that the ISIS ideology is here to stay”. He made these remarks at an oath-taking ceremony of newly appointed government officials in Malacañang’s Rizal Hall on Monday. “Be aware that you know things might overrun or events might overrun us. If we don’t try and solve the Mindanao issue it will be the biggest problem of our land and of our children,” he said.
And it will. In an article posted 18 June last year – Terror threat to tour and travel trade – The Volatilian™, said this: “Islamic State (IS) has stated that it is ready to declare Mindanao a wilayat (a province, or canton) of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This would put it under the administrative control of Raqqa, the IS capital in Syria. When this happens – and there’s little doubt that it will – the terrorist stronghold of Basilan Island, the largest island of the Sulu Archipelago, is likely to become the provincial capital of ‘Al-Mindanao Wilayat’.”
We stand by that analysis but would add that, given recent events in Iraq and Syria which have seen ISIS pushed back from territories it had gained in that region, the Philippines is now being viewed by IS tacticians as even more critical for the organisation’s global war plans.
Duterte ascribes the richness of the soil in southern Mindanao for ISIS to take root and flourish to two factors. One, that Moro (Muslim) nationalism – the struggle for an Islamic homeland – “has been overtaken by this ideology of violence and brutality: ISIS”. And two, the large illegal-drugs trade in the island region which is bankrolling a number of the militant groups. “They are driving the war using shabu (crystal meth),” he said.
And that should also not come as any surprise. The Taliban and al-Qaeda financed much of their operations through the sale of opium grown in their poppy fields in Afghanistan – the world’s biggest producer of opium for quarter of a century; its poppies’ latex is in 90% of heroin worldwide.
There are no poppy fields in Mindanao, it’s too hot. But shabu is not reliant on climate; it’s made indoors in farm buildings and hidden labs. You don’t have to cultivate battery acid and drain-cleaning fluid and the other ingredients; you just truck them in by the barrel load. But for the terrorist groups it amounts to the same – a ready income stream providing the operating capital for their terror enterprises. And there is not a shadow of a doubt that domestic terror groups in Mindanao are heavily involved in the drugs trade.
On Monday, Philippine National Police chief, Ronald dela Rosa said that he believed there were presently “about five to 10 foreigners” training with local groups before going to Syria to join IS. That’s more than likely, given the training infrastructure and terrorism coaches that Mindanao has spawned, but we would be very surprised if there were only five or 10 of them enrolled. The Mindanao bases are probably the best equipped in the Southeast Asia region; training in one of these would look good on any terrorist’s CV.
IS is not some latter-day ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ gang from Kansas City or somewhere as US President Barack Obama seemed to think it was. It’s a highly sophisticated fighting forces run by battle-hardened generals from the old Iraqi Republican Guard, the Chechen mujahedeen, and defected commanders from across the quilt of North African and Middle Eastern militaries.
But the problem is that while Moro-related terrorism may be able to be largely contained within a fairly narrow patch of southwest Mindanao, ISIS is a very different proposition. It’s not concerned about an independent homeland for the Moro people; it’s looking to erect a Southeast Asian caliphate of which Mindanao is just a part. Furthermore, the wider Philippines – the island groups of Luzon and the Visayas – offers rich targets for ISIS; American ones, too.
So which are the IS-linked groups in the Philippines’ south? There are at least seven of them, but possibly more. Most are small if they’re compared to the Moro National Liberation Front and its later offshoot, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front – the two main groups which have been fighting for an antonymous homeland for the Moro people since 1972 and 1984 respectively. Both these organisations are involved in peace talks with the Philippine Government. The ones we are about to describe are not part of those discussions; they’re well-and-truly outside any of that.
Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). The most high-profile on this list, ASG pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2001 and embraced ISIS in 2014. Formed out of the Mujahedeen Commando Freedom Fighters in the early 1990s, it has up to 400 men under arms and, along with the Bangsamoro Freedom Fighters and the Maute Group (see below), it is the government’s and the Philippine army’s main concern.
ASG is extremely capable of large-scale terrorist events. It proved that in 2004 when it sent the 10,000-ton Superferry 14 and 116 of its passengers to the bottom of Manila Bay. One of its agents had planted 8lbs of TNT on one of the vessel’s lower decks. Although also in the kidnapping-for-ransom business, what makes ASG a natural soul mate of ISIS is its propensity for publically displaying its foreign victims and executing them by decapitation.
Formerly known as al-Harakatul al-Islamiyyah, ASG has been continually underestimated as a terrorist force. Arroyo described it as “a money-crazed gang of criminals”; Aquino referred to it as a group of bandits, though later acknowledged that it was terrorist. But both leaders questioned ASG’s links to extreme Islamic ideology, portraying it rather as an organised-crime mob. Its affiliations, however, particularly to ISIS, suggest that that may no longer be the case.
Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Ideologically committed, the BIFF is a breakaway faction from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). An Islamic separatist organisation established in 2010, its members rejected the 2012 Bangsamoro Framework Agreement which offered regional autonomy rather than absolute independence.
Largely operational around Cotabato City, Maguindanao in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, the BIFF affiliated to ISIS in 2014, around the same time as ASG. Its foot soldiers number a few hundred, a fraction of the MILF’s 12,000-strong force. The rift between these two organisations still exists with battles occasionally breaking out between the BIFF and the MILF’s armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (or, BIAF).
Adherents of Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative brand of Islam, the BIFF is uncompromising when it comes to its goal for an Islamic free state in Mindanao. It’s most notorious military engagement was on 25 January 2015, at Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, in Maguindanao when BIFF militants attacked members of the Philippine National Police’s Special Action Force (SAF) who has gone their to capture two bomb makers under BIFF protection. In the firefight that ensued, 44 SAF officers were killed.
Ansar al-Khilafah in the Philippines (AKP). Based and operational in South Cotabato and Sarangani provinces and General Santos City, AKP pledged allegiance to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on 13 August 2014 along with two other smaller groups, Katibat Ansar al-Shariah and Ma’rakah al-Ansar. This group may be small but it’s extremely influential – or at least it was until last Thursday when Philippine armed forces took out its leader, Mohammad “Tokboy” Jaafar Sabiwang Maguid and arrested other member of his team outside the Angel Beach Resort on the outskirts of Kiamba Town, Sarangani.
Maguid, “the most wanted person” in the south, who had a PHP300,000 bounty on his head, was a bomb maker, trained by Malaysian explosives expert, Zulkifi bin Hir (or, Marwan) whom the SAF units were looking for in Mamasapano. Under him, AKP – of all the groups – had the closest ties to ISIS. It also has links to a number of other foreign militant groups including Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah, responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing which killed 202 locals and tourists, and ISIS-affiliated Mujihidin Indonesia Timur. Locally, it is now known to have assisted the Maute Group in the Davao City night-market bombing (see below).
A sponsor and trainer of overseas ISIS recruits, one of its foreign “guests”, Abu Naila, a Sudanese national training in that area before going on to Syria to join ISIS, was killed along with a female companion during a raid by Philippine law enforcement at the weekend in the town of Maasim in Sarangani province. But while recent losses – there were a number at the end of last year – will seriously cripple AKP’s operational capabilities, it still remains a threat.
Maute Group (MG). Also known as Islamic State of Lanao (it’s based in the province of Lanao del Sur), has its headquarters in the small town of Butig where it flies the ISIS flag.
Two recent actions have brought this organisation to the fore and made it a household name in the Philippines. These were: the Davao City bombing in which an improvised explosive device (IED) tore from a trash bin in a night market killing 15 people (a joint operation with ASG), and a blast attempt outside the US Embassy in Manila which was foiled when the IED, which bore the MG signature, was detected and safely detonated by police bomb disposal experts.
MG’s ISIS links were confirmed when Philippine troops recovered ISIS training manuals and other documents from a raid on the group’s Butig stronghold. The group takes its name from that of its founder, Abdullah Maute, a hardliner whose brutal methods have earned it acclaim beyond its small size.
In April last year Maute and his men abducted six Butig sawmill workers whom they charged as government spies. They put them in orange ISIS jumpsuits and beheaded two of them when the PHP20 million ransom wasn’t paid. The group is also though to have been recruiting child warriors
Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM). Named after the 16th century ruler of the Kingdom of Maynila (Manila), RSM was founded in 1991. It’s small but it’s potent and well-connected. It has ties to al-Qaeda, ASG, Jemaah Islamiyah, Saudi Arabian terror sponsors and now ISIS. Its founder, Ahmad Santos, while languishing in Camp Bagong Diwa jail, Taguig City, Metro Manila, is believed to have organised a mass pledge of allegiance to ISIS by dozens of Muslim detainees.
Two things set RSM apart from the other groups. The first is that it is not based in Mindanao, it operates out of the northern island of Luzon – specifically in the province of Pangasinan where it runs a jihadist training camp and gives bomb-making and suicide-bombing instruction. Although there is no recorded incident of a Filipino suicide bomber, the 2005 Valentne’s Day bombings (coordinated attacks in Makati City in Manila, and the Mindanao cities of Davao and General Santos, which left eight dead and more than 100 injured), and the scuttling of Superferry 14 – both joint operations between RSM and ASG – were planned as suicide missions.
Most of RSM’s activities are outside Mindanao and largely in Luzon and around the National Capital Region – such as the foiled Ermita Plot which was designed to bomb an area of Manila frequented by foreign tourists. Santos had received funds from Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist, Umar Patek, carried out a survey of the area and bought 600 kilos of explosives which he stored in a house he’d rented in Quezon City.
The second difference is that among RSM’s recruits are Filipino Christians, mostly Catholics, who have converted to Islam.
The ISIS presence in the Philippines is now undeniable and it’s growing fast. In September 2014, more than 100 Muslims pledged their allegiance en mass at an oath-taking ceremony at the Masjid Islamic Center in Marawi City in Lanao del Sur. On hand was a Muslim cleric who had been a MILF member and representatives of the Khilafah Islamiyah Mindanao-Black Flag Movement who had organised the event.
President Duterte had a great deal on his plate to sort out the domestic Moro problems in Mindanao – the stalled Bangsamoro accord in particular. This added ISIS dimension, however, makes those problems far more difficult because the eyes of ISIS are unlikely to stay focused just on Mindanao. They will eventually look north. He knows that, his army commanders know it and they know they have to prepare.