The sudden “revelation” that there are foreign fighters among the dead in Marawi – the city in Lanao del Sur province in Mindanao that’s currently under siege by the Maute terror group – is laughable; foreign fighters have been training with local groups in the Sulu region of Mindanao in the southern Philippines for more than a decade.
We’re covering these events again today because we believe they are of extreme importance to what’s happening in the Philippines right now. The point has passed where this problem can be nipped in the bud – the truth is that point came and went years ago. And given the severity of what the country now faces, President Rodrigo Duterte and his military commanders have no option but to confront the terror cells wherever they are and drive them from their lands. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.
This situation has been coming for a long time. Jemaah Islamiyah (JL), for example, the Indonesian group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings which extinguished more than 200 lives, helped establish a number of terrorist training camps in Mindanao in the 1990s. In the current climate of jihadism, that helped form the bedrock of what the Armed Forces of the Philippines are up against today.
JL is an ultra-conservative Salafist movement – in other words, it cannot be sidelined for political purposes as a “bunch of bandits”. Its mission is an ideological one and closely tied to the aspirations of constructing a continuous caliphate the length of maritime Southeast Asia. And as such it has had a huge influence on the development of the terrorist networks that presently exist in the Philippines’ southern region.
But so too has its sponsor, the Islamic-extremist network al-Qaeda – the group that gave birth to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) which now had a strong foothold in Mindanao and presents the biggest threat of all.
The largely home-grown terrorist organisation, Abu Sayyaf – regularly dismissed by the past two governments in Manila as little more than kidnappers and thieves – was nurtured by JL and, like JL, availed itself of financial backing from al-Qaeda. In fact it was al-Qaeda funding that got Abu Sayyaf off the ground. Meanwhile, JL has also long supplied Abu Sayyaf with logistical and material support.
Contact between Abu Sayyaf and al-Qaeda is well documented. Saudi Arabian businessman, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, brother-in-law of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, who provided Abu Sayyaf’s initial operating capital, lived in the Philippines for a number of years.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – a high ranking al-Qaeda operative and the “principal architect” of the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City – resided in the Philippines in 1994 and 1995 as a ‘Qatari plywood exporter’ going by the name of Salem Ali or Abdul Majid.
His nephew, Ramzi Yousef, trained Abu Sayyaf fighters in the Philippines in the mid 1990s. His specialty was bomb-making. In 1994 he planted an explosive device on a Philippine Airlines flight from Cebu to Tokyo. Exploding 31,000 feet above Okinawa, killing one passenger outright and injuring several others, it was a dress rehearsal for a later planned bombing that sought to blast apart 12 commercial airliners and kill up to 5,000 passengers and crew.
Another al-Qaeda bombmaker, Abdul Hakim Ali Hashim Murad, was a sometime visitor to the Philippines where he used the alias Ahmed Saeed and frequented Manila nightspots including the Firehouse on Roxas Boulevard in Pasay City.
These, and many more like them, weren’t just visiting celebrities; they were trainers and recruiters and serious investors in a terror infrastructure that one day would become a major component of their global ambition. That was always the plan and increasingly it’s been taking shape.
But jihadists from across Southeast Asia – Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore predominantly – have continually trained at terrorist camps in western Mindanao and islands in the Sulu Archipelago. And, more recently, ISIS has urged fighters who can’t get to Iraq and Syria to go and join groups in the Philippines There’s no revelation here; just more confirmation.
The main change – and what we’ve been witnessing for the past two years – is that there’s been a shift away from al-Qaeda towards ISIS. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters based in Maguindanao province – another Salafist Islamic fundamentalist group – also has formed an alliance with Islamic State. More worryingly, these groups are now openly embracing ISIS hardline ideology.
In the words of Singapore-based security expert, Rohan Gunaratna: “The Filipinos need to get their act together … They must understand the truth that IS ideology took hold in their country. The local groups have transformed”. He describes the Philippines as “the epicentre of IS activity in Southeast Asia”.
And that, too, was always a natural progression. Just as in Nigeria the jihadist group, Boko Haram, switched its allegiance from al-Qaeda to ISIS, exactly the same pattern has emerged with the Philippine terror groups, at least six of which have now sworn fealty to ISIS.
Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group – along with a number of others – allied themselves with this organisation in 2014 and 2015. It wasn’t a secret; ISIS publicised the fact. There were even photographs of the loyalty-swearing ceremony in a jungle clearing.
Isnilon Totoni Hapilon, Abu Sayyaf’s second in command – the man whom Philippine troops tried to apprehend in Marawi – was installed as the Emir of the Islamic State in the Philippines under the name of Abu Abdullah al-Filipini. He’s been working closely with the Maute and other small groups to build a unified Islamic State force.
In early April, two leading members of ISIS – a top field commander in Syria and the widow of ISIS’s second most senior military chief; both reputed bomb makers – were arrested in Manila. They’d made several trips to the Philippines and had work permits allowing them to come and go as they pleased. On their last visit they’d spent three months in the country and had travelled to various locations including Cebu and the Central Visayas.
In our article, Brotherhood of terror, posted 11 January this year we wrote this: “Since the early 1990s international Islamist terror groups have been courting Muslim separatist movements in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao … 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”.
The media, too, has done little to map the growth and strength of this threat; they cover incidents such as last Christmas’s night-market bombing in Davao City or the current battle for Marawi City – but they failed to explain how we were always going to get to this stage. They never joined up those dots. They never pursued the last administration over its denials of an ISIS threat; they accepted what they were told even though the evidence on the ground was stark and mounting.
We’re not blowing our own trumpet here but we are pointing out that negligence on behalf of the past two administrations played into the hands of these groups, emboldening them and allowing them to anchor their cause among the predominant Muslim population of the Philippine south. They provided a vacuum.
The problem we have today, however, is far more serious than many even in the present Philippine military would still care to admit. This threat is not isolated anymore to a few provinces fringing the Sulu Sea. It’s not confined to military operations in Marawi (photo). What’s spreading across this large island of Mindanao is an increasingly cohesive force of Islamist rebellion. And it won’t stop once it reaches the island’s northern shores. Then the two other island regions of the Visayas and Luzon will be in their sights.
Solicitor-General Jose Calida explains it like this: “What’s happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens. It has transmogrified into invasion by foreign terrorists, who heeded the call of the ISIS to go to the Philippines if they find difficulty in going to Iraq and Syria.”
And that is why this had to be stopped now. And if that means an extension of Duterte’s martial-law provisions to other parts of the country then that will be a small price to pay to ensure that the Philippines remains a sovereign state where the people can live in safety and enjoy all the freedoms which the Constitution promises – even though the latter might have to be marginally compromised to ensure the former. True liberty is always hard won.
Given the pace at which ISIS is scrambling for new territories as the war in Iraq and Syria goes against it, to ignore the threat to the Philippines would be one of the biggest travesties committed by any government in Manila. It would be nothing short of surrender. Duterte inherited this problem – it’s not of his making – but it’s now down to him to solve it. And thankfully he’s prepared and committed to do precisely that.
But he’ll need a great deal of help. We’re fairly sure that military equipment and munitions will quickly be made available to him – likely from China and Russia, both of whom have promised their support. But likely too, neighbours Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia will rally to this cause. After all, the last thing they want on their borders is a Salafist Islamic state.
The country also – and that certainly includes the reckless opposition and the less-than-attentive media – needs to get behind the president. This isn’t some political football to be kicked about by the press and opponents in Congress; this is building up to be a sizeable internal rebellion supported by serious external forces. It’s far reaching and it’s deadly. And it needs finally to be seen for what it is.