Government News Analysis

The inevitable conflict

Government troops are seen during an assault on insurgents from the so-called Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi City, in Marawi City, southern Philippines May 25, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

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.

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    • Most are awake mate…a small albeit noisy minority is making it difficult. I wish they’d make martial law nationwide so we can send em to jail and finally have some peace and quiet. 🙂

  • Foreign fighters? Where are you getting your facts? From Biased Philippine media? AFP didn’t verify that there were foreign fighters.

    Ang problema sa Mindanao ey gawa ng mga tiga-Mindanao. Parang kalyo lang po yan tinubuan pa ng kulugo? Autonomous region of MUSLIM MINDANAO? AUTONOMY? BAHALA sila sa buhay nila? Buntot mo hila mo, sungay mo sunung mo?

    Then the American Intelligence network na PINUTANG-INA ng Mahal na Pangulo. APF is now reduced to a blind bat. The Maute group of terrorist looks like a normal MINDANAOAN, smells like a normal MINDANAOAN and in fact you can’t distinguish them from an MILF, MNLF or ABU SAYYAF. And they have AUTONOMY.

    • Totoo yan sir,di lahat ng mga kasali sa grupong iyan ay mga tga MINDANAO,ang ibah jan taga SABAH MALAYSIA..yan ang sabi ng uncle ko,kasi anjan syah sa AFP,private ARMY yang MAUTE,di yan kagaya ng mga MILF na mai pinag lalaban tlga..pang gugulo lang yang skanila,nasayo nakung maniwla ka sa hndi,tga ILIGAN angkan namin kaya alam namin mga yun!!

    • The Solicitor General and the afp spokesperson have confirmed recently that there are, indeed, foreign fighters who were killed in the marawi clash. Makinig po kasi sa mga press briefings ng gobyerno sir, wag masyado ipagyabang yang bias nyong opinyon…

  • As expected, the Philippine media wants to make a teleserye out of it. A poignant hostage background, invasion of foreign terrorists, intel breakdown, gunslinging president, scary martial law, what will unfold? It is important to establish a compelling narrative for them to get the public hooked, the ratings surge. It doesn’t matter if it’s the truth or if it’s well researched facts or not, the drama always comes first. Wait and see when one of the hostages loses their life (i pray not), witness how we all become blabbing idiots. we are suckers for our daily dose of emotional porn. The media knows it and feeds it, hence, the cycle. Until the time the collective Filipino intellect grows, we’ll get the brand of newscasting we deserve.

  • Terrorism is a scourge to civilization that must be nipped in the bud. It is not of religious, social nor economic sowing as some would like to believe, but rather is an animalistic adventurism that seem to explore the ‘survival of the fittest’ theory. Facing it can never be humane. The bottomline solution is political will.

    • nipped in the bud. It mostly started by the LP 40 years ago to eject a president through communism. Noynoy helped establish these terror groups including the NPA to go against Marcos and today the Philippines is still putting up with it.

  • as a civilian we should be more vigilant and cooperate with the authorities we cannot afford not to care of what is happening, for the longest time we live in a lawless society for me its not unusual that the Philippines became the breeding ground of this extremist. anyway who are the higher up of this IDIOTS? its has been documented that the war mongering AMERICA/CIA created this monster.

  • Even during my tour of duty way back on the mids of 80’s we are already fighting some foreigners (Malaysian n Arab looking individuals) I saw them face to face during our firefight at 15 to 20 meters distance. So it’s not surprising whether they are being aided by their co religious from other country.

  • Pure and simple (1) failure of intelligence even with the 4.5 billion budget (2) hubris by the president. Mautes already challenged him with razing Marawi to the ground last year. What has he done? Nothing. His military officials went on a junket to Russia even with a supposed military activity to capture Hapilon. MOREOVER, it is not the function of media to connect the dots in the bombings of Davao and elsewhere but rather the military’s. Media does not partake of the intelligence fund. What a mind this Volatillian has!

  • What is laughable is the persistent way of discrediting the government by this site through select and bias highlighting of facts or ignoring some of it to create a picture of inefficiency in our government.

  • Eh bakit lahat sinisisi Pangulong Duterte, Pulis , at kasundaluhan ngaun? Mgawalang utak, nd nagiisip. Buti nlang binigyan tayo ng pangulong my paninindiagan t handang ibigay ang buhay para mga kababayan niya

  • a lot of them come in as “missionaries” who set up madrasahs or religious schools that serve as cover for preaching islamist militancy

  • matagal na yan local at foreign news media alam na yan lalo na mga residente sa mindanao. Even the government of two previous administration knew that. The reason why the SAF 44 was sent there because of bounty terrorist head. The last admin is not keen yon solving that problem. They pretend to do their job but the main target was the reward. Unfornately a failure.

  • wow, more than a decade, that would include all on PNoy’s term in office. So I guess the problem, like drugs, expanded under the famous LP yellow regime, and now has to be taken care of by another.