By: Mei S. Lim, Columnist
Photo Credit: Stars and Stripes
In May this year, Islamic State (ISIS)-linked militants seized the city of Marawi on the Southern Philippines island of Mindanao. The move, coupled with ISIS’ announcement that militants should set up a wilayah, or province, in Southeast Asia, sparked fears in the region that the ISIS threat would migrate to Southeast Asia to begin anew just as it came under control in Syria and Iraq. Since then, the Filipino government appears to have addressed the threat by retaking Marawi and killing key militant leaders.
Experts warn that the terrorist threat in Mindanao will likely spread beyond Marawi, but have stopped short of predicting the exact nature of the threat. This vagueness stems from three key unanswered questions about the regional security situation: first, the quality of the surviving militants—particularly vis-à-vis their leadership and organizational capabilities; second, the closeness of the ISIS core network to local militant groups; and third, whether foreign fighters fleeing Syria and Iraq will opt to regroup in Mindanao.
The quality of the surviving regional leadership is currently unclear. Key tried-and-proven leaders were killed during the Philippine Armed Forces’ campaign to retake Marawi between May and October 2017. Abdullah and Omarkhayam Maute, more colloquially known as the Maute Brothers, and leaders of one of the two militant groups that had seized Marawi, were killed in September and October respectively. The leader of the IS-affiliated Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Isnilon Hapilon, was also killed in October. The current heir apparent, a Malaysian named Amin Baco, is a relatively untested leader. Although he has combat experience and links to the larger ASG network, it is unclear if he will be able to rally other militants around himself. Nonetheless, it would be unwise to dismiss him out of hand.
The surviving network’s closeness to the ISIS core has probably deteriorated in recent months (though it was strong enough at one point that ISIS provided them with tens of thousands of dollars).[i] The death of Malaysian militant Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi in Syria earlier this year probably dealt a heavy blow to Southeast Asian ISIS networks, as Wanndy, a keen ISIS recruiter, is suspected of serving as a middleman connecting many regional militants to ISIS.[ii] The Maute group’s links to ISIS are more tenuous. In their history of fraternizing with militants, the Maute brothers appeared to be more closely linked to the al Qa’ida-affiliated Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), responsible for some of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the region in the early 2000s. This may be the more worrying connection in the long run, as JI has exploited the government’s inattention in previous years to build its numbers back up to the same levels as their heyday.[iii][iv]
The foreign fighter story is more worrying. Most estimates only put around 1,000 Southeast Asians in Syria.[v] Despite accounting for a relatively small proportion of overall foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, there is still good reason to be concerned. The problem with returning foreign fighters is one of apprehension and detention. Due to the geography of archipelagic Southeast Asia, failure by any one country to properly police its borders creates an opening to the rest of the region. Indonesia presents a problem in this respect, as it has not criminalized travel to Syria, making it more difficult for Indonesian authorities to hold foreign fighters upon their return. Combined with Indonesia’s position as a major regional jihadist hub and large, under-policed coastline, the country’s limited detention capacity makes it relatively easy for returning fighters to travel covertly from Indonesia to other parts of the region by boat. The Marawi siege also shows that foreign fighters who have not yet travelled to Syria may be drawn to the Southern Philippines as an alternative destination for jihad. The Philippine Army estimated that of the 89 foreign fighters in Marawi, the bulk came from neighboring countries Indonesia and Malaysia. Future conflicts will probably retain some draw for fighters from further afield too; 26 Pakistanis, three Bangladeshis, and four Arabs were reportedly fighting in Marawi.[vi]
Because there are so many unknowns right now, it is difficult to predict whether jihadist unrest will erupt once again, or if the region will return to its baseline level of more run-of-the-mill thuggery. Poverty and decades of fighting by Islamist separatists to gain greater independence from the rest of the Philippines have left Mindanao impoverished and rife with criminal organizations. Jihadist groups, whether affiliated with IS or not, could exploit this environment of relative impunity, disenfranchisement, and anti-government sentiment to establish a base and recruit members of the local population. Whether Mindanao will become a sustained hotbed of jihadist activity, as it was during the Marawi siege, will depend a great deal on the quality of the jihadist leaders and local government’s ability to deal with the twin threats of returning fighters and existing terrorist movements within Southeast Asia.
The prospects for effectively addressing the latter threat are frankly worrying. There are signs that the Filipino government will not prioritize the policing of ideologically motivated militants. President Duterte has denied the role of radical religious ideology and the wider militant Islamist movement in the most recent Marawi conflict, claiming that local drug and crime interests are to blame instead. Locals have also expressed skepticism about the religiosity of the Maute brothers and questioned whether they were driven by ideological fervor or simply sought to make a power grab.[vii] However, ignoring the ideological dimension means ignoring the fact that groups like ASG and the Maute group have used such jihadist ideology and affiliation with ISIS to obtain funding and draw fighters to their cause. Any effort to degrade these groups that ignores their jihadist affiliations will only be a half measure.
There is good reason to suspect that terrorism in the Southern Philippines will surge again sooner rather than later. In Cotabato, a city approximately 96 miles from Marawi, ISIS sympathizers have paraded in the streets.[viii] Members of the ex-militant group Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is helping the Philippine Armed Forces hunt down the remaining militants from Marawi, have also raised concerns that the ISIS presence in the Philippines is growing and that militants are looking to stage another Marawi-style capture of a city in Mindanao.[ix]
[i] Jon Emont and Felipe Villamor, “ISIS’ Core Helps Fund Militants in Philippines, Report Says,” The New York Times, July 20, 2017.
[ii] Farik Zolkepli, “IGP: Malaysian IS militant Wanndy killed in Syria,” The Star, May 8, 2017.
[iii] Randy Fabi and Kanupriya Kapoor, “As Indonesia hunts down Islamic State, homegrown jihadis regroup,” Reuters, February 14, 2016.
[iv] Jeremy Au Yong, “‘JI, not ISIS, is bigger threat’ to South-east Asia,” The Straits Times, April 28, 2016.
[v] Bilveer Singh, “Southeast Asia Braces for the Post-Islamic State Era,” The Diplomat, July 17, 2017; Shashi Jayakumar, “The Islamic State Looks East: The Growing Threat in Southeast Asia,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, February 22, 2017.
[vi] Catherine S. Valente, “89 foreign terrorists in PH – intel report,” The Manila Times, June 24, 2017.
[vii] Ralph Jennings, “Philippine ISIS Allies Aren’t Motivated By Islamic Religion, Just Cash & Drugs,” Forbes, June 14, 2017.
[viii] Amy Chew, “Fears of another Marawi as Islamic State militants regroup, plan suicide bombings,” Channel NewsAsia, November 4, 2017.
[ix] Amy Chew, “Islamic State’s grip widening in southern Philippines, says MILF leader,” Channel NewsAsia, November 5, 2017.