An Islamic State (IS) bomb-making couple is in custody in the Philippines awaiting deportation. Claiming to be man and wife, one is an IS commander in Syria; the other is the widow of Islamic State’s second most senior military chief who was killed by a US airstrike in Syria on 26 December last year. These are not small-fry; these are senior time-served members of IS; and any assignment which they had been given to carry out in the Philippines would be significant.
They weren’t in the country on holiday to check out if “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” – though they may well have been sightseeing; scoping out possible targets. More likely they would have been there on a specific IS mission; possibly – given their skills – to either teach bomb-making or to construct a bomb for a specific event; such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit for which world leaders will gather in the Philippines at the end of this month and again in November. At the latter meeting, the presidents of the US and Russia and the Chinese premier will be present.
It’s a worrying development but it’s not unexpected – Facing the IS reality. What it underscores, however, is Islamic State’s commitment to the archipelago where it plans to build a comprehensive terror infrastructure and lay down its first key stepping stone to colonising maritime Southeast Asia – building an Islamist pathway that will link the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Southern Thailand.
These arrests also highlight a major worry – that the long-running Muslim insurgency in the island region of Mindanao in the south, a struggle based on securing a homeland for the indigenous Moro (Muslim) people, could switch into a wave of jihadism that could engulf the entire country. IS has little interest in domestic grievances – though it’ll exploit them; its interests are regional and global and the Philippines will be viewed as just a piece in that jigsaw.
The couple arrested are Husayn al-Dhafiri (photo, right) and Rahaf Zina (left). Al-Dhafiri is a Kuwaiti national who as an IS commander in Syria goes by the name of Abu Muslim al-Kuwaiti. He was on a watch list in Kuwait and is wanted there in connection with explosives and bomb-making activities according to Kuwaiti security services. Zina, a five-months pregnant Syrian national who claims to have married al-Dhafiri following the death of her husband, is also believed to have been involved in manufacturing explosives. She is extremely well-connected within the IS hierarchy.
Her late husband was Abu Jandal al-Kuwaiti, another Kuwaiti national, who rose to one of the highest ranks in the Islamic State. He was a top battlefield commander and a member of IS’s War Committee which plans and oversees the deployment of suicide car bombs, improvised explosive devices and chemical weapons, and was close to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State leader. Shortly before his death he was appointed as chief commander for the defence of Raqqa in Syria, the caliphate’s capital.
The pair have made a number of previous trips to the Philppines and are known to have visited Davao City in Mindanao, the hometown of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and Cebu City in the Central Visayas, spending a few days in each place. Originally traveling on visitor’s visas, the couple gained work visas as employees of a Kuwaiti recruitment or placement agency. Al-Dhafiri last entered the Philippines on 28 January having travelled there from Qatar. The couple then have been in the country over three months.
This throws open the possibility that the couple were establishing their credentials as bona fide expatriates living and working in the Philippines which would allow then to travel freely to all parts of the country to conduct reconnaissance and develop terror cells.
Although news of their apprehension was only announced on Thursday, they was arrested 13 days ago at Bonifacio Global City, a financial district of Metro Manila. The arrests were kept secret while the Philippines’ National Bureau of Investigation conducted further probes into the couple’s movements and possible local contacts. Nothing further seems to have arisen from those investigations which has led Philippine law enforcement to believe that any plot which the couple was working on has been foiled.
Information leading to their arrest came from US and Kuwaiti intelligence sources. Forty-year-old al-Dhafiri now faces extradition to Kuwait where he’ll likely be tried on terrorism charges. Zina, 27, is to be deported to Qatar where it’s unknown what her fate will be.
This is a major wake-up call for the Philippines’ anti-terrorism taskforce and illustrates the vital importance of intelligence sharing. While it’s possible that these two arrests have prevented a major terrorist incident on Philippine soil, it also brings into sharp focus just how porous the country’s borders are. Tighter immigration control at ports and airports will likely be called for.
But it also begs the question, who else is in the country? This pair, given their backgrounds, is well known; they were already on the radar – hence the intelligence. What about low-level operatives travelling as Middle Eastern tourists; students? How capable right now is Philippine law enforcement of identifying and tracking them.
It’s known that jihadists from neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia have been encouraged by Islamic State to join the ranks of Islamist groups in Mindanao – particularly those who are unable to travel to Iraq and Syria. How many have already answered that call?
And then there’s the question of what precisely al-Dhafiri and Zina have been doing in the Philippines during their “multiple entries” to the Philippines. Justice Secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre, is unable to confirm whether they made contact with any local terror groups; but it would seem inconceivable that they didn’t.
For Islamic State, the Philippines is a gold mine waiting to be tapped. And money from kidnappings, bank robberies, human slavery and the shabu (crystal meth) industry – they’ll certainly want a piece of that – will go to finance their caliphate building across Southeast Asia. And of course, good old Philippine corruption where a few hundred pesos goes a long way, will ensure that laws are skirted and access is procured as officials look the other way. There’s also the poverty that will provide the foot soldiers to build IS local ranks – a seemingly endless human resource.
And finally, there’s the whinging political opposition to Duterte which will continue to distract the country’s attention from the real ills that inflict it while the terror groups coalesce into a formidable force.
But the Philippines is much more than a stepping stone to, and a keystone of, a future Southeast Asian Islamic State caliphate; it’s a country loaded with soft targets and some high-profile ones – US forces occupy five bases under the controversial Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement made between Washington and Manila; American personnel wander the streets and drink in the bars of bases towns.
The publicity value from successfully hitting any of these will not only draw in more local recruits but will attract fighters from across the world. And for Philippine immigration to try and filter them out will be virtually impossible.
Islamic State terrorism is becoming increasingly established in the Philippines and the question has gone well beyond ‘when’ and ‘if’ and should now be focused on how. The nucleus of the movement is still concentrated in the provinces of western Mindanao that look out onto the Sulu Sea.
But the couple who were arrested spent time in Luzon in the north of the country and the Visayas in the centre. The question is, when their immediate known power base is almost exclusively in the far southwest, why were they there? No doubt that’s a question which the investigating teams are asking.
Hopefully, this development – the presence of two top IS operatives in the Philippine capital – will increase the need for vigilance and remove the last traces of doubt that Islamic State in the Philippines, or ISP as it’s been referred to, is a real and present danger.