Government News Analysis

ISIS at the backdoor

Islamic State in the Philippines (ISIP) – a regional office, for want of a better description, of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – is taking shape. It’s already appointed its Emir, now it’s just a matter of time before it declares a wilayat, province, on the southern island of Mindanao. For while the past two Philippine administrations sleepwalked around such a possibility – even denying it – ISIS has been steadily caliphate building; at least getting the architecture in place.

Now it looks as if the terrorists have sufficient human resources around the south and west fringes of Mindanao – specifically across the jungle islands that form the Sulu archipelago – to set about tumbling a line of dominos that stretch the length of maritime Southeast Asia; the perceived territory of the new caliphate.

If it happens, this will link the Muslim provinces of Mindanao through the Muslim lands of Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia to the four Muslim-dominant states of southern Thailand. It’s no more complex than joining up the dots. Furthermore, across this entire region, like ISIS, the vast majority of these Muslim populations follow the Sunni branch of Islam. Ideologically then – at least at the basic level – this region would seem ripe for picking.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration are now fully up to speed with this threat. They’ve decided that the days of denial are over; the realities of what’s happening on the ground – not just in Mindanao, but in Iraq and Syria where ISIS is losing territory – can be ignored no longer.

Last week, Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop, told the UK’s Sky News that there’s now concern that ISIS will declare an Islamic caliphate in the southern Philippines. “This brings the threat right to our doorstep,” she said. Australia lies due south through the Celebes, Banda and Timor Seas – a route used by Australian cargo and passenger ships; prime terrorist targets. But if it’s on the doorstep of Australia it would seem to be at the Philippines’ backdoor.

Past Philippine administrations appear to have adopted a relative laissez faire approach to the smaller terrorist groups operating in the south of the country. The main effort had been to deal with the large Moro Islamic Liberation Force by seeking a peace partnership through delivering a measure of autonomy to the Moros (the indigenous Muslim people).

The relative small numbers of combatants involved in the patchwork of the other terror groups in Mindanao – most have just a few hundred men under arms – may not have been seen as posing a significant threat. But that could quickly change with an infusion of up to 1,000 battle-hardened fighters returning from the Middle Eastern war theatres as ISIS loses its grip on its territory there. This would considerably change the dynamic.

Furthermore, ISIS has money and sophisticated weapons. Put that into the mix in Mindanao and the Armed Forces of the Philippines could be overwhelmed. Plus those smaller groups, increasingly, are uniting under the ISIS banner.

But there’s likely to be two more elements which will change the complexion of terrorist warfare in the southern Philippines. The first will be a heightened bombing campaign – car bombs, greater use of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. And – so far unheard of in the Philippines – suicide vests. These are the tools of the trade of the Islamic State, and they’ll bring them with them.

The other element is equally worrying – their jihadist war in the southern Philippines will not be restricted to the southern Philippines. After all, why would it? ISIS ambitions aren’t confined to regaining territories claimed by Islam as much of southwestern Mindanao is by the Moro people who comprise just over 5% of the country’s population; it’s about defeating the Infidel; and Roman Catholics – of which some 78% of Filipinos are – certainly subscribe to that definition in the ISIS lexicon.

Rome is the arch enemy. One of ISIS’s main goals is to conquer Rome and fly its black flags above the city. They want to defeat “the armies of Rome” at Dabiq in Syria, its appointed venue for Armageddon. Roman Catholics are synonymous with the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades that swept a bloody trail through Islam’s past.

And so the worry is that if ISIS through ISIP builds its army and its capabilities in Mindanao, the entire country could come under threat. And while the United Nations and the European Union are wittering on about Duterte not playing by the Queensbury Rules in his handling of the drugs war, something far darker – far more lethal – is spreading its roots in the Philippines deep south. And given those organisations’ penchant for ineffectiveness, they will continue to fiddle, literally while Rome burns.

The Emir of the Islamic State in the Philippines is Abu Abdullah al-Filipini, otherwise known as Isnilon Totoni Hapilon. He’s the second in command of Abu Sayyaf, a 25-year-old terror group that is currently the main focus of Philippine army efforts to halt the march of extreme Islam dead in its tracks. In early 2014, Hapilon broke ties with the group’s main terror sponsor, al-Qaeda. On 23 July 2014, he swore an oath of allegiance to Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Two months later, Abu Sayyaf was kidnapping in the name of ISIS.

Hapilon is on the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list and has a bounty on his head under the US State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program of US$5 million (PHP250.93 million).

At 50 years of age, he’s a graduate from the University of the Philippines School of Engineering and is the main engineer for the construction of the Mindanao wilayat. Born in Basilan – Abu Sayyaf’s island stronghold in the Sulu Archipelago – he is unquestionably the ISIS point man in the Philippines.

In a video entitled “The Solid Edifice – The Philippines” (photo), released by Islamic State in June last year, Hapilon was identified as “the Mujahid [guerrilla warrior] authorised to lead the soldiers of the Islamic State in the Philippines”. It also described him as “al-amir” [the Emir].

In addition to the Abu Sayyaf factions that have crossed to ISIS, a number of small Mindanao-based Islamist outfits have also sworn allegiance to al-Baghdadi and it’s believed that Hapilon facilitated these moves. One such outfit is the Maute Group – the bomb that killed 15 and injured 70 in a Davao City night market last September was their handiwork.

With its headquarters at Butig in Lanao del Sur, the Maute Group – also known as Islamic State of Lanao – has strong links to Abu Sayyaf and is now believed to be allied with ISIS. Hapilon is known to have spent time in Butig and the ISIS flag has been seen flying over the small town. ISIS training manuals have also been recovered there in swoops by the Philippine armed forces.

All this is in line with al- Baghdadi’s pronouncement that all groups engaged in militant Islam are called to forego their individual struggles and serve the Islamic State. “The legitimacy of your groups is null and void. It is a sin for any of you to sleep this night without pledging allegiance,” he said, adding that those that don’t answer his call delay victory because they are a cause for divisions. This is globalisation ISIS style.

And so the picture that’s emerging – and its outline has been visible for a long time – is that the Philippines is a real and present destination for the Islamic State. But while the ramifications from this are extremely worrying, denying them would be extremely reckless. Former US president, Barack Obama, proved that in 2014 when, just after ISIS had taken over the Iraqi city of Fallujah, he referred to the organisation with disdain as a “JV team” – meaning a high-school, as opposed to a professional, basketball team. Amateur; unworthy of regard. Pretty sure he doesn’t think that now though.

Denial, in the psychology sense, is defined as “a defence mechanism in which confrontation with a problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality”. As Duterte and his army chiefs know however, it will provide no defence against this enemy.

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