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Very bad news for us: Islamic State could unify disparate Moro terrorists

ONE major reason why the Iraq and Syria-based “holy war” (jihad) movement called the “Islamic State” has become a real and present danger to the Philippines is that it has, or may already have, united the formerly small Moro terrorist groups that had been operating separately in Basilan, Sulu, and central Mindanao.

Mainly made up of sons or grandsons of killed or disillusioned aging fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front—the two major Muslim-based insurgencies in the country—these small groups, the most well-known being the notorious terrorist Abu Sayyaf, had before been acting independently, and had even degenerated into kidnap-for-ransom and illegal-drug gangs.

The Islamic State since 2004 though has inspired and recruited Muslims all over the world—even Russia and Europe—with its vision of recreating what Islam was when it first rose in the 7th century and throughout most of the Middle Ages: The religion of a theocracy ruling over empires—called caliphates—that imposed strict rules on society as these had existed in those times, but which mankind with its rationality has long rejected.

The MILF, which has few ties to global jihadism since its head Hashim Salamat died in 2003, has lost its sheen as a jihadist movement. If Filipino millennials are so enamoured by the fairy tale of globalism and fancy themselves global citizens, many young Muslims in the boondocks and slums of Muslim Mindanao now aspire to be global jihadists by professing allegiance to the Islamic State, and willing to give up their lives to the noblest aim of helping usher in the Kingdom of God—the Caliphate— on earth.

Juxtaposed with such virtuous ideals is money. The Islamic State has reportedly at least $3 billion in assets, amassed by ransacking the banks and wealth of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which it overrun in 2014, and by operating eight oil fields that they had captured, and through funding by wealthy Muslims, even reportedly by Saudi Arabian sheiks.

It would therefore be a drop in the bucket for the Islamic State to throw in just $10 million – P500 million – to finance its “Philippine province”. What is also worrying is that if the Islamic State fails to survive the combined assault of Russia and the US against its forces in Syria and Iraq, it could call on its mujahideen to fall back to Southeast Asia, particularly in the triangular area where Muslim Mindanao borders the predominantly Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia.

Because of the importance of this issue, I have decided to quote at length one of the best reports on this topic, a study done by the International Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) in October 2016, entitled “Pro-ISIS Groups in Mindanao and their Links to Indonesia and Malaysia”. While based in Indonesia, and having mostly Indonesians on its board, it is headed by American Sydney Jones, who is closely linked to the New York-based International Crisis Groups, which I am told have strong links with international intelligence services.

How a Damascus-based (apparently pro-IS) website reported what local media refer to as the “Maute group’s” attack on Marawi.

The report is well-documented, with a plethora of footnotes to back up its assertions. The IPAC explained that its report is based “on interviews in October 2016 in Manila, Davao, Zamboanga and Cotabato, as well as with Indonesians who once fought in the Philippines, and on a review of trial documents and other primary source material.”

The first part of the IPAC report follows; the second part will be published on Monday. (It uses the more well-known term “ISIS”, for Islamic State for Iraq and Syria, instead of “Islamic State,” in Arabic ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiya, which the organization started to call itself in 2014.)

Start of IPAC report
ISIS has deepened cooperation among extremist groups in Southeast Asia, but most law enforcement agencies retain a strongly national orientation, without in-house expertise on groups outside their own borders.

At a time when an accurate assessment of the security threat in Indonesia or Malaysia may depend in part on understanding developments in the Philippines, this gap needs to be filled. It is especially urgent because in the short term, ISIS losses in the Middle East could increase the incentive to undertake acts of violence at home.

The Philippines is important because as far as the ISIS leadership is concerned, it is the extension of the caliphate in the region. While it has not been formally declared as a province or wilayat, ISIS has endorsed an Abu Sayyaf leader, Isnilon Hapilon, as amir [leader]for Southeast Asia, and Southeast Asians in Syria have pledged their loyalty to him.

Support for ISIS in Mindanao has meant more than a repackaging of old kidnapping-for-ransom groups. It has facilitated cooperation across clan and ethnic lines, widened the extremist recruitment pool to include computer-savvy university students and opened new international communication and possibly funding channels.

It means that more deadly violence in the Philippines involving alliances of pro-ISIS groups is a matter of when, not if. It may also increase the possibility of cross-border extremist operations.

The 4 factions
These are the four pro-ISIS groups in Mindanao and their regional ties:

• The Basilan-based faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) led by Isnilon Hapilon. A small number of foreign fighters, mostly from Malaysia, have joined him.

• Ansarul Khilafah Philippines (AKP) led by Mohammad Jaafar Maguid alias Tokboy out of Sarangani and Sultan Kudarat provinces. Tokboy had an Indonesian helping with strategy, fighting and funding until late 2015, and ties to Indonesia and Syria are almost certainly ongoing.

• The Maute Group, also known as IS-Ranao, based in Lanao del Sur. One of the leaders, Omarkhayam Romato Maute, is married to an Indonesian whom he met when both were students at al-Azhar in Egypt.

• Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), based in the Liguasan Marsh, Maguindanao. BIFF emerged in 2010 as a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and has had close ties to Southeast Asian fugitives.

One question is how the threat from pro-ISIS groups will be affected by President Duterte’s various peace initiatives. In the past, the assumption has always been that failure to produce concrete deliverables on the peace front would discredit the moderate Moro leadership and lead to support for more militant splinters.

Now, thanks to ISIS, the danger is more from unification than splintering, as Philippine groups join forces for operations. The bombing of the night market in Davao City on September 2, 2016 is a case in point.

This ISIS-driven unity may well be only temporary, but it could leave behind a hard core of Mindanao-based jihadists who are more ideological than their predecessors and look to like-minded associates in the region for support.

A workable peace with the MILF remains an important barrier to the spread of extremism, but there is likely to be a less obvious correlation than in the past between the dynamics of negotiation and the risk of violence. For one thing, the Duterte government has put multiple options on the table in terms of proposals, parties and sequencing so that there is less likely to be a single trigger that could push dissidents toward armed violence, as happened, for example, after the sudden collapse of MILF-government talks in 2008. Second, if ideology is playing a more prominent role, then the motivation for attacks could also change.

Isnilon Hapilon and IS-Basilan
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Basilan is of particular importance because of Isnilon Hapilon’s new role as amir. ASG, however, is one of the most difficult of the Philippine groups to parse because of its many factions.

An Indonesian writing on the mobile phone messaging application Telegram in mid-2016 basically divided the ASG into two: all the ASG loyal to ISIS were now in Basilan; if they were still on Jolo, they were not ISIS. This appears to be crudely accurate, though Hapilon himself is said to travel back and forth, and boundaries among factions are fluid. There are also individuals, such as Malaysian national Amin Baco, who serve as a bridge between the two groups.

For the most part, however, the ASG groups involved in the high-profile kidnappings for ransom in 2016 belong or feed into Jolo-based subcommands that do not see themselves as part of ISIS.

Their use of ISIS flags may be a way of upping the ransom demands or simply attracting attention; their resort to beheadings is punishment for failure to pay by the appointed deadline, not for any religious or ideological transgression.

The Basilan ASG also used to survive by kidnapping and extortion, particularly in the years 2007 to 2014. More recently – throughout 2016 for example – it has avoided abductions, raising questions of how it is being financed. Its members are mostly ethnic Yakan, distinct from the Tausug of Sulu, and are bound together by ethnicity, family ties, loyalty to the leadership, and a strong desire for revenge— given the number of their relatives killed by the police and military. Many children of “martyrs,” referred to as ajang-ajang (children) or anakiluh (orphans), are reported to be among the most militant.

Both Basilan and Sulu are now the targets of massive military operations with troops freed up for action against the ASG by Duterte’s ceasefire with the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army. (It is worth recalling that it was then President Estrada’s “all-out war” against the MILF in 2000 that became the trigger for a bomb attack in Jakarta that nearly killed the Philippine ambassador.)

It remains unclear why ISIS selected Isnilon Hapilon as “the mujahid authorized to lead the soldiers of the Islamic State in the Philippines” and as amir for Southeast Asia.

He reportedly speaks neither Arabic nor English, and his religious knowledge is limited. His appointment may reflect his long ties to foreign jihadis; communication with Southeast Asians affiliated to ISIS in Syria; his perceived control of territory; or his own eagerness for the role.

On Monday: “The IS-Ranao”