As recent as March last year, then president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino was denying any Islamic State presence in the Philippines. Echoing the denial, military spokesman at the time, Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, went even further. He said: “There is no direct, verifiable and credible presence of any international groups in the country”.
Really? What about Indonesia’s 2012 Bali bombers, terror group Jemaah Islamiyah – they operate at training camps there and have done for years? What about al-Qaeda’s financial presence? What about the people-to-people exchanges between the southern Philippines and the warzones of the Middle East? Etc.
It’s hard to believe that such an irresponsible appraisal of something that was not just possible but highly probable concerning IS could have been put out in the name of “intelligence”. Indeed, many of us had been warning of the likelihood of an IS territory grab in the southern region of Mindanao for some considerable time. And we’ve been vindicated.
In Singapore on Tuesday, the Milipol Asia-Pacific 2017 Conference on homeland security was told that Islamic State fighters returning to Southeast Asia from Iraq and Syria were expected to regroup in the southern Philippines – in other words on the western fringes of Mindanao – where bases are being prepared for them.
Counter-terrorism analyst, Rohan Gunaratna, told the conference that Islamic State has announced that they have “formally declared an East Asia division of IS in the southern Philippines”. Milipol believes that this development of “an IS nucleus” there has increased the regional threat posed by the terror organisation.
Instability in the southern Philippines, the availability of weapons and the internal displacement of people caused by the ongoing conflict, said Gunaratna, has created “the ripe conditions for foreign terrorists to come”.
But this has been in the works for some considerable time. Fund transfers to groups in the region from Islamic States’ birth mother, al-Qaeda, was one clue; the increased adoption of IS language by some groups was another. But Islamic States’ declared ambitions to establish a caliphate across Southeast Asia – though never taken seriously – was the biggest clue of all. And why wouldn’t they be believed? IS may be brutal butchers but they don’t lie when it comes to carrying out their threats. They’re very honest about that.
But there was plenty of other evidence anyway. One month before Aquino made his “reassuring” remarks, a number of small Mindanao-based terrorist units had already declared their allegiance to IS. There were even pictures of them doing so in jungle clearings on one of the islands in the Sulu Archipelego. IS release a video to that effect via its Al Furat Media.
It identified terror group Abu Sayyaf’s second in command, Isnilon Totoni Hapilon, as its key man. (Hapilon may have been killed in February in airstrikes ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte, though that’s not been confirmed). Abu Sayyaf, don’t let’s forget, have always been referred to as thieves and kidnappers – never jihadists. We were never meant to take them seriously.
The video showed the pledges being received by an IS official who’d travelled there especially for the ceremony. In the background, the Islamic State flag swayed in the breeze. Among the groups giving their oaths were Katibat Ansar al Sharia, Katibat Marakah al Ansar, and Ansar al Khilafah (Supporters of the Caliphate) in the Philippines, which first pledged allegiance to IS back in August 2014.
The Maute Group – also known as Islamic State of Lanao; one of its bombs killed 15 and injured 70 in a Davao City night market last September – and the Bangsamoro Freedom Fighters, though not present then, are also allied with IS. Other regional groups – Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid, an offshoot of the deadly Jemaah Islamiyah, and Mujahidin Indonesia Timor to name just two – made pledges of allegiance to IS also.
But there was strong evidence even before that. In December 2015, “Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Philippines” released a short video showing a training camp somewhere in Mindanao. Elsewhere, would-be jihadists from Malaysia, Indonesia and in the Philippines who couldn’t make the trip to Iraq or Syria were being told to go and join the fight in the Philippines.
In April of that year, Ansar al Khilafah in the Philippines released its own video in which it promised to make the Philippines a “graveyard for American soldiers” and would be deploying suicide bombers in its quest. More upscaling of Islamist ambitions; more IS-style rhetoric.
In March 2016, of course, when Aquino made his considered appraisal, elections for the Philippine presidency were just two months away and the last thing he would want would be to give the impression that the Islamic insurgency in the south of his country had taken a grave turn for the worse on his watch. That certainly wouldn’t help the prospects of his Liberal Party candidate, Mar Roxas, to succeed him and become the next occupant of the presidential palace of Malacañang.
So the message was; everything’s fine; no IS threat; terrorism in the south was contained; the small groups operating there were little more than bandits, motivated by greed rather than religion – though Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front which at the time was in talks with the government to establish an autonomous homeland for the Moro (Muslim) people – warned that Islamic States’ ambitions in Mindanao were real.
Hopefully, no one is still in any doubt and the dismissive macho talk of the previous administration and its army chiefs will not be revisited. Islamic State cannot be beaten by tough talk and posturing; this is an extremely experienced fighting force headed by serious time-served and battle-hardened generals. They know their craft.
These aren’t men who like to show off their medals and generals’ pips in front of the cameras. These are men – former Iraqi Republican Guard, Turkmenistan, Uzbek and mujahedeen fighters from across the Arab world – who are driven by an apocalyptic ideology. They don’t need to talk tough; the world knows by now what they’re capable of.
And the facts are now crystal clear: Islamic State is not only determined to create a Southeast Asian caliphate, its relocation of part of its force to the southern Philippines is becoming a matter of urgency as the IS army starts to lose control of its territory in Iraq. The basic terror infrastructure is already in place in Mindanao; all it needs is organising along strict and disciplined military lines – something else that IS knows how to do.
And so the Philippines’ military planners and politicians need to get up to speed with what’s happening right on their doorstep; first and foremost they need to get rid of any remaining notion that the problems in and around the Sulu Archipelago are being caused by a rabble of violent bandits and freelancers who are simply dollar-driven. They’re not anymore. They put their kidnap victims in Islamic State orange jumpsuits; their language is becoming increasingly more ideological. They carry the black flag with them into battles and skirmishes with the Philippine army – the “Crusader Filipino Army” as they call it. They’re ready to be forged into an effective unit; the radicalisation has already started.
Speaking at the Milipol Conference, Singaporean Home Affairs Minister, K. Shanmugam, said that the southern Philippines “is becoming an area that is difficult to control despite the best efforts of the Philippine Government”. It is an area, he added, that “can serve as a sanctuary for returning fighters from the Middle East. It can be a place where would-be terrorists can go”.
And we have no doubts that it will be. The question is, what can be done to prevent it? Can it be prevented; or have the years of underestimating this threat – years in which IS emissaries have travelled freely to the southern Philippines, building contacts and evolving their plan – made it now inevitable that it will become a province (a wilayat) of the Islamic State, and a jihadists’ haven?