The Islamist insurgency in the Philippines is taking an alarming twist. Once virtually contained to a number of provinces in Western Mindanao and the region of the Sulu Archipelago – all in the south of the country – there are worrying signs that the extremists could be getting ready to take their terror to other parts of the archipelago.
The improvised explosive device (IED) found just 25 metres from the US Embassy on Roxas Boulevard in the capital, Manila, on Monday is a departure for groups which are fighting for a southern homeland. Traditionally, their main enemies are Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) troops and Philippine National Police units in the south; not indiscriminate targets on the streets of Manila.
Also IEDs are becoming a more common munition in the terrorist arsenal. The 2 September Davao City night-market bombing which left 14 people dead was caused by an IED. Like the one in Manila it had been placed in a trash can.
And yesterday, back in Mindanao, outside Marawi in Lanao del Sur province, a roadside bomb – an IED – injured seven members of President Rodrigo Duterte’s advance security team, there to scope out any potential threats before the president’s visit to the region.
What’s known about the first two IEDs is that they were almost definitely both manufactured and planted by the Maute Group, given the similarities of the bombs.
Maute is a small but potent extremist organisation that also glories under the name of Islamic State in Lanao. No one knows exactly how many men the group has under arms but it’s thought to be around a hundred. And over the past few days, following a major offensive by the AFP to recapture the group’s HQ at Butig – they took it in June, but the group returned – those ranks have been diminished by at least 20.
The Maute Group is a fledgling terrorist organisation, first emerging just three years ago. But it’s committed and it’s not being underestimated. Its leadership has sworn allegiance to Islamic State (IS) and the IS flag flies above Butig. Formerly, it was allied to Jamaal Islamiya (JI), possibly Southeast Asia’s most dangerous and best organised terror group. JI, with links to both al-Qaeda and the Taliban, was responsible for the October 2002 Bali bombings that left 202 people dead, among them 88 Australians.
But for the Maute Group to “earn its spurs” with IS and thus gain access to IS funding, it needs to show that it’s capable of producing a “spectacular” – a major atrocity. The Davao night market blast was most likely an attempt to do just that. Had the Manila bomb caused similar casualties, Maute’s currency would have gone up in value considerably. This attempt was at the other end of the country, away from Mindanao; it would have been an attack on the capital, and a direct warning to the US – Islamic State’s number one enemy.
So what does all this mean? Basically, that there is a real potential for small extremists groups – and there are a number of them – to wage war outside Mindanao. Besides Manila, main targets could include Cebu and Subic – certainly, anywhere where US military personnel or US interests are.
But the real worry is this. Groups that have bought into the IS ideology will not be confined to military and government targets. As we have witnessed around the world over the past year, civilian targets – soft, unsuspecting targets – generate far more publicity for their cause than killing soldiers. The Western lifestyle is what they want to eradicate and that gives them limitless scope in the Philippines as it does in Europe.
Of course, there is no way that the public can be kept completely safe from terrorists who are hell-bent on killing and maiming. It happens in Israel which has one of the best intelligence gathering networks in the world; it happens in Belgium, Britain, France and he US which deploy tremendous resources to stopping such incidents. So the reality is it can certainly happen in the Philippines.
Moreover, the Maute Group aside, IS has clearly stated its interest in establishing bases in the southern Philippines, and as it continues to lose territory in Iraq and its strongholds in Syria become increasingly threatened, it will split and move like an amoeba. Southeast Asia has a particular allure for the Islamic extremists. JI has longed dreamed of Daulah Islamiyah – an Islamic caliphate stretching from the southern Philippines right across the region to southern Thailand.
IS has exactly the same designs. Its founder, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has talked about bringing militant groups in the region into conformity with IS doctrine and “turning them into a unified force”. The first part of that endeavour is already well underway. To date there are at least five groups in Mindanao that have already sworn allegiance to IS. And, predictably, they’re the most violent ones.
Beheadings have been carried out in the region with victims made to wear the signature IS orange jumpsuits. It’s also believed that an ISIS training camp has also been established.
For the Philippines, this is a tickling time bomb and the government will seek to defuse it quickly. Islamic State is not a bunch of mavericks; it’s an extremely disciplined, well-funded organisation, led by battle-hardened and highly proficient military strategists. To underestimate them would be foolhardy in the extreme. These small groups have already been instructed to join forces and conduct joint operations. And so, unless it’s dealt with now – and decisively – the AFP is well aware that it will grow and be very difficult to stop.