News Analysis Tourism

Terror threat to tour and travel trade

The killing of two Canadian nations in April and May by Abu Sayyaf terrorists on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao will impact tourism in the region, both in terms of foreign tourist arrivals and in attracting investment to the sector.

The Canadians, along with a Norwegian national and a Filipino, were abducted from the Holiday Oceanview Samal Resort on Samal Island, just 30 miles east of President-Elect Rodrigo Duterte’s home city of Davao, on 21 September last year. The group had demanded a ransom of PHP4 billion (US$86.21 million) – US$21.5 million for each captive’s release.

Duterte, who has spent much of his life on the doorstep of terrorist-entrenched Mindanao, is likely to take a hard line with the groups operating in the south and west of the island – and particularly with Abu Sayyaf. Currently there are some 16 battalions of the Philippine Army engaged in Sulu Province. That number is expected to rise and the implementation of Martial Law across the entire Sulu Archipelago is a distinct possibility.

Terrorism is by far the biggest threat to Mindanao’s tourism industry, with the island, the second biggest in the 7,000-island archipelago, constantly being the subject of travel warnings from foreign governments.

A travel advisory issued by the US State Department on 21 April warned its citizens of “the high threat of kidnapping of international travellers” in the vicinity of the Sulu Archipelago, and cautioned against any unnecessary travel in much of the west and south of Mindanao. “General threats to US citizens and other foreigners throughout Mindanao remain a concern,” it adds.

The Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade urges its citizens to exhibit a “High degree of Caution,” when travelling anywhere in the Philippines. More specifically, it states: “Eastern Mindanao: reconsider your need to travel”. And, “Central and western Mindanao, including the Zamboanga Peninsula, and the Sulu Archipelago and southern Sulu Sea area: do not travel”.

The Outbound Travel Alert issued by the Hong Kong Government’s Security Bureau gives this advice: “Residents intending to visit the [Philippines] or are already there should monitor the situation, exercise caution and attend to personal safety. Residents should avoid all non-essential travel to eastern Mindanao and avoid all travel to central and western Mindanao due to the unpredictable security situation”.

These are serious warnings and they come from three countries which, between them each year, provide a large chunk of foreign tourist arrivals to the Philippines. And from Tokyo to London, the advice is much the same. Tourists, like investors, put personal safety at the top of their travel requirements and increasingly they are taking notice of the travel warnings. Meanwhile, the number of places they are urged not to travel to in Mindanao is growing. On most lists are the following: between the Sulu Archipelago and the Zamboanga Peninsula, the islands of Basilan, Jolo and Pangutaran, the provinces of Sarangani, North Cotabato, South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, and the cities of  General Santos, Zamboanga, Pagadian and Patikul. Isabela province and its capital, Iligan City, on the northern island of Luzon, also remain on the watch list.

There is no question that a terrorist event can devastate a country’s tourist trade – Luxor and Sharm al-Sheikh in Egypt; Sousse in Tunisia, and Bali, Indonesia took years to recover from the killing of tourists on their soil. But the threat itself can be enough to seriously debilitate the industry – terrorism and tourism can never mix. And the news and the intelligence coming out of Mindanao over recent months is extremely troubling.

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’. Philippine security forces are extremely concerned about this development, as are their counterparts in eastern Malaysia, seeing in it a bold push for IS influence right across the region.

Furthermore, if IS is able to galvanise the region’s patchwork of terrorist groups – and so far, at least six have sworn their allegiance to IS – the threat to the Philippines goes beyond Mindanao; it goes directly to the government in Manila.

Southern and western Mindanao where the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) operates, is also home to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Jema’ah Islamiyah (JI), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM), Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines and al-Harakatul al-Islamiyyah (AHAI). Here is a summary of these groups.

ASG, which pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2001 and embraced Islamic State (IS) in 2014, is a relatively small yet potent group of between 200 and 400 members. Formed out of the Mujahideen Commando Freedom Fighters in the early 1990s, its main stock in trade today is kidnapping for ransom. Despite its allegiances, it is regarded as a criminal organisation rather than an ideological one. That said, it is extremely well-connected to the international terror network. Its main bases are on the Jolo and Basilan islands in the Sulu Archipelago.

AHAI, is an ASG spin-off, rebranded in 1994 to secure financial and material support by forging alliances with major overseas terrorist organisations across the Middle East and North Africa. An Qaeda affiliate, AHAI is plugged-in to Islamic terrorist groups globally, most notably in Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, Lebanon and Egypt.

Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines, a new group, is based and operational in South Cotabato and Sarangani provinces and General Santos City. In January, its leader, Tagalog-speaking Abu Sharifah, along with the battalion commanders of Katibat Ansar al-Shariah, Ma’rakah al-Ansar, and AHAI, swore allegiance to IS and its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

BIFF, another IS-affiliate, is even smaller than Abu Sayyaf, though ideologically committed. An MILF splinter group, the result of the latter’s rejection of the 2012 Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro – providing for autonomy rather than independence – it operates largely around Maguindana and Cotabato City in western and central Mindanao.

Jema’ah Islamiyah, is the most ideological of all the groups – it seeks to establish a Daulah Islamiyah, a regional caliphate from southern Thailand across maritime Southeast Asia to Mindanao and operates throughout the chain of states that make up that region. Linked to al-Qaeda, the MILF and the Taliban, this group, which carried out the October 2002 Bali bombings, is regarded as the biggest threat to regional stability of all the terrorist organisations.

MILF, formally established in 1984, though its roots go back to 1987 with its dissatisfaction of the MNLF’s signing of the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, an accord that delivered a measure of autonomy for the region’s Muslim population, but fell far short of the independence for which the MNLF had been fighting. The largest armed group, MILF denies having links with JI, though it has used JL’s training facilities. Similarly, it denies al-Qaeda links, though hundreds of its troops have trained at al-Qaeda camps in Aghanistan. It is also thought to have received funding from al-Qaeda. Based in Mindanoa’s Bangsamoro region, the Sulu Archipelago, Basilan and Palawan, MILF is well armed and well-resourced.

MNLF is the oldest of all the insurgent groups, forming in 1972 after taking the mantle from the short-lived Muslim Independence Movement. In 1996, after quarter of a century of fighting, it signed a peace agreement with the Philippine Government which ushered in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindnao (ARMM). Today, MNLF plays an administrative role. In 2012 it was given observer-member status at the Parliamentary Union of Islamic Cooperation.

RSM, also with ties to al-Qaeda, was founded in 1991 and is in the fold of Abu Sayyaf and JI. Named after the 16th century ruler of the Kingdom of Maynila (Manila), among its recruits are Filipino Christians, mostly Catholics, who have converted to Islam. Its goal is to re-establish an Islamic government in the Philippines. Though a relative newcomer and the smallest of the active groups, RSM is seen as a major threat and is known to have taught a number of suicide bombers and given jihad training at its camp in Pangasinan, a western province on the island of Luzon in the north of the country.