ISSN 2330-717X

21 Years After 9/11: Political Islam And Persistent Threats Of Terrorism In The Philippines – Analysis

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In remembrance of the 21st anniversary of the September 11, 2001 (9/11) terrorist attacks, this paper describes the impact of political Islam on Philippine government and society by grappling with the concept and by describing the persistent threats of terrorism in a nation still suffering from the perennial Muslim rebellion despite existing peacebuilding efforts.  It is imperative to discuss first the meaning of political Islam as it is a highly contested concept.

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Political Islam is considered to be a modern concept that “seeks to use religion to shape the political system”. (1)  It is a conceptual framework that uses Islamic religious precepts as justifications for radical and revolutionary political actions.  It is often associated with the Islamic fundamentalist and revivalist thoughts of Sayyid Qutb, Maulana Maududi, and Ayatollah Khomeini, among others though scholarly discussions on political Islam transcend those thinkers.  Nonetheless, political Islam is akin to Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic conservatism, Islamic revivalism, and Islamic radicalism in the existing academic literature. Some even situates political Islam under the ideological rubric of Wahabism, Salafism,  Jihadism and other isms discussing the role of Islam in politics.  There is also a strand of political Islam articulating the voice of moderation and championing role of gender and ecology in Islamic government and society.

In the intelligence community political Islam is linked with the extremist ideas and violent actions of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS), and other terrorist groups organized by violent Muslim militants.  Hence, political Islam is arguably tied with violent extremism that encourages adherents to commit various acts of terrorism.  

In some scholarly discourses, political Islam is regarded as the crux of the modern-day ideology of Islamism that is largely anti-Western, anti-secular and anti-status quo leading to many violent activities.  In other academic studies, Islamism is viewed to be an alternative ideology of both peaceful dissent and violent resistance of some Muslims. 

In the Philippines, political Islam provides the narrative of resistance as it is connected with the ideologies and activities of Filipino Muslim resistant armed groups like the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and even terrorist groups like the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) as well as remnants of the Maute Group, Ansar Khalifa Philippines (AKP) and other pro-IS elements responsible for the Marawi Siege of 2017 and other violent activities in the Philippines before and after that violent incident, which was the most devastating in Philippine history.   Interestingly, political Islam is also being used by some traditional and even new Filipino Muslim politicians to justify their “platforms for change” during elections.   Even members of the MILF-led Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) are articulating various interpretations of political Islam as models of governance as they assert their right to self-determination, which I hope they are enjoying now as a result of two peace agreements: first with the MNLF in 1997 and with the MILF in 2014.

Indeed, there are many facets of political Islam.  There are various notions and understanding of political Islam. (2) There is no doubt that it is an ambiguous concept that is found at the complex nexus of society, state, religion, and nation. (3) It is a nebulous idea that requires deep rethinking to provide us a better understanding of our current situation. (4)  But how does the concept of political Islam resonate in the Philippines?

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To date, around six percent of the total Philippine population of 120 million are Muslims who, to emphasize, are largely secular rather than religious.  The majority of the Muslims in the Philippines, particularly those in the marginalized areas, do not have a clear understanding of political Islam and its many variants, particularly Islamism.  Only few Muslim intellectuals and some religious leaders have a grasp of political Islam and its impact on government and society.   In fact, the cultural identity of Muslims in the Philippines is a complex blend of Islam and primarily pre-Islamic indigenous practices.  Thus, the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA) regards Muslims in the Philippines as one of the cultural communities or cultural minorities in the country with 13 ethno-linguistic tribes rather than a religious construct. (5) Only few individuals associated with resistant and violent groups profess political Islam and regard Islam as a political and religious identity. (6)

Though Muslims in the Philippines belong to the so-called “minority population”, their impact on Philippine government and society is significant to the majority of the Filipinos because of the location that they call as their ancestral domain.  The vast majority of Muslims in the Philippines are found in highly resource-rich but conflict affected island of Mindanao, the country pioneer frontier where 40% of the Philippines’ food requirements and 30% of the country’s national food trade are found.  Thus, Mindanao is essential to the Philippines’ food security.  Small but currently growing Muslim communities are also established in the islands of Luzon and Visayas.  The dominant religion in the Philippines is Catholicism, but Islam came to the Philippine archipelago two centuries earlier. 

The coming of Islam to the Philippines was a function of the general expansion of Islam in Malaysia. (7) With Islam becoming a cherished faith in Malaysia, it expanded to the neighboring Philippines through the Island of Sulu where Islam obtained its original foothold.  An Arab trader/preacher known as Tuan Mashaika was believed to have founded the first Muslim community in Sulu in the early 14th century leading to eventual establishment of the Sulu Sultanate in 1405, Maguindanao Sultanate in 1520 and other Muslim kingdoms in Manila as well as other parts of Luzon and the Visayas.    These two sultanates  and Muslim kingdoms strongly demonstrated that Islam played a pivotal role in establishing strong political organizations in the pre-colonial Philippine society.  These political organization also manifested the great impact of Islam on the formation pre-colonial Philippine government and society.

But in 1521, Spain started to colonize the Philippines and propagated Christianity with its own model of government and society imposed on the inhabitants.  The rest is a long history of Spanish colonial rule of the Philippines that lasted 333 years.  But the Muslims of Mindanao, called Moros, were not totally controlled by the Spanish authorities during the colonial rule until Spain sold the Philippines to the United States through the Treaty of Paris in 1898.  When the U.S. granted the Philippines independence on 4 July 1946, there were already the resurgence of Islam and the rise of nationalism in the Muslim world.  This trend greatly influenced the politicization of Islam in the Philippines, the deepening of the Moro Islamic consciousness and the strengthening of Moro nationalist sentiment advocating for a Moro model of government and society through armed struggle locally known by Moros as Parang Sabil.  In 1951, for example some Muslims in the Philippines waged the Kamlong armed uprising, which lasted until 1955. The Kamlong uprising prompted the Philippine government to implement programs that aimed to promote the integration of Muslims in the mainstream Philippine government and society dominated by Christians.    

As part of its political integration programs, the Philippine government organized in 1957  the Commission on National Integration (CNI), which provided scholarships in the national capital to young Muslims.   The main intention of the program was to encourage the Moros to accept the authority of the government in Manila.  However, some were drawn into opposition politics.   

As a result, the Moro communities were divided into two major groups:  the integrationist or the assimilationist or integrationist group involved in mainstream political activities  and the secessionist or liberationist group engaged in armed activities. (8) The first group accepted Philippine sovereignty while the other group believes that Mindanao belongs to a separate Islamic State that also deserves independence.  Those who continue to defy the authority of the Christian-dominated Philippine government assert their separate identity as Moros and refuse to regard themselves as Filipinos. (9)

By the 1960s, Southern Philippines “had been virtually taken over by a Christian majority except areas like Lanao, Cotabato, Basilan and Sulu.”  (10) Thus, the Moro ‘had become a minority in many parts of their traditional homeland, with many losing their land to the immigrant settlers through dubious legal transactions or outright confiscation.’  (11) The massive influx of Christian Filipinos to Mindanao has terribly angered the Moros.   

But the spark that strongly lit the Muslim rebellion was the Jabidah Massacre in March 1968.  Otherwise known as the Corregidor massacre, it took place in the Corregidor Island of the Philippines involving Moro army recruits being trained for Operation Merdeka, a codename for the clandestine destabilization plan of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) aiming to infiltrate Sabah as part of the strategy of the Philippine government to strengthen its territorial claim.  Allegedly, their trainers summarily executed 28 and 64 Moro recruits undergoing military training. (12) The incident prompted Governor Udtog Matalam of Cotabato to form the Mindanao Independence Movement (MIM) declaring the establishment of an Islamic state in Mindanao. (13) However, Matalam abandoned his separatist stand when the Philippine government convinced him to abandon his cause.  Other Muslim leaders who resented the continuing oppression of the Moros continued their armed struggle for self-determination leading to the establishment underground Muslim resistant groups like the MNLF, the MILF, and the ASG, among others.  

With the global and regional trends in Islamic resurgence in the 1990s, particularly with the end of the cold war,  local conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Philippines further acquired an international dimension, particularly in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 (9/11) terrorist attacks. (14) Since 9/11, political Islam in the Philippines has been unfortunately associated with separatism and  terrorism.

Two decades after 9/11, terrorist threats have persisted in the Philippines even during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The face of terrorism in the Philippines during the pandemic has become more lethal, dangerous and devastating with the rise of suicide terrorism, a tactic strongly encouraged by ISIS.  With five incidents recorded since the Marawi liberation in 2017, suicide terrorism has become the most favored act of terrorism in the Philippines by pro-ISIS elements, though many remain engaged in roadside bombings, harassment, and ambuscades. Suicide terrorism has become the  most violent expression of political Islam in the Philippines.

Recent developments in Afghanistan with the take-over of the Taliban after the US military withdrawal can provide the fertile ground for terrorist threats in the Philippine to grow and persist.  While the Taliban government poses no threat to the Philippines because of its current preoccupation to domestically govern rather than to spread global terror, there are terrorist groups in Afghanistan posing clear and present danger to Philippine national security.   

One terrorist group that can seriously endanger Philippine security is the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), the main conduit of the Islamic State Central in order to fund the 2017 Marawi siege, the 2019 Jolo Cathedral bombing, and other terroristic activities in the Philippines like bomb training, combat training, and preaching of violent extremism.  The ISK used primarily their Malaysian and Indonesian operatives to fund these terror acts through their stealth networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The ISK remains to be clandestinely connected with ISIS followers in the Philippines, particularly those associated with the ASG operating in Sulu, remnants of the Maute Group operating in Lanao provinces, and the Turaipe faction of the BIFF operating in Central Mindanao, especially in Maguindanao.  The Hassan Salahuddin Group used to be in touch with ISK. But the ISK lost contact with the group with the death of Hassan Salahuddin on 29 October 2021.  But Hassan Salahuddin left behind a few followers who can reestablish contacts with the ISK, especially with the effective laundering of funds that they used to do. 

If not prevented, the ISK can fund and support acts of terror in the Philippines because of its enormous intention to do so.  The terror network established by the ISK to fund the Marawi siege and Jolo Cathedral bombing is still in place with their surviving sleeper cells still around waiting for mobilization.  Though strict quarantine measures against the pandemic may have slowed down terrorist activities in the Philippines, acts of terrorism continue to disturb the peace as demonstrated by recent suicide bombing attacks.  

Thus, terrorist threats, though declining,  have not actually disappeared despite some notable achievements in counterterrorism 20 years after 9/11 and almost five years after the Marawi liberation.  

Interestingly, many followers and supporters of the ASG have surrendered to Philippine authorities in order to walk away from terrorism and leave the use of violence.  Some members of the BIFF have also followed suit.  Furthermore, key leaders of the MNLF and the MILF are now sitting as officials in the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) under a parliamentary system that aims to uphold Islam in a peaceful democratic government and society.  The Philippine government, on the other hand, is now implementing the National Action Plan to Prevent and Counter Violent Extremism formulated in 2019 and the Anti-Terrorism Law passed in 2020.  These new developments can alter the landscape of political Islam in the Philippines. But there is a need to pay greater attention on the evolving narrative of political Islam that can pose new and emerging security challenges to existing Philippine government and society, especially under the administration of President Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos, Jr. 

Based on the lecture delivered during the International Webinar activity “Political Islam Impact on Government and Society” organized by The Apex Chronicles in collaboration with the Islamic Communication and Broadcasting Study Program, Faculty of Da’wah and Communication, State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga Yogyakarta on 7 September 2022.

Endnotes:

  1.  Shahram Akbarzadeh, “Political Islam under the spotlight” in Shahram Akbarzadeh, ed., Routledge Handbook on Political Islam, 2nd Edition (New York and London: Routledge, 2021), p. 1.
  2.  Mohammed Ayoob, The Many Facets of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World (Michigan:  The University of Michigan Press, 2008).
  3.  Jocelyne Cesari, What is Political Islam? (London:  Lynne Rienner Pubolishers, 2018), pp. 1-12.
  4.  Shadi Hamid and William McCants, eds., Rethinking Political Islam (London:  Oxford University Press, 2017).
  5.  National Commission on Culture and the Arts, “The History of Muslims in the Philippines” in https://ncca.gov.ph/about-ncca-3/subcommissions/subcommission-on-cultural-communities-and-traditional-arts-sccta/central-cultural-communities/the-history-of-the-muslim-in-the-philippines/ <accessed on 2 September 2022>.
  6.  Some portions of this paper is based on Rommel Banlaoi,  “Transnational Islam in the Philippines” in Ali Riaz, Alexander Horstmann, Farish A. Noor, Noorhaidi Hasan, Animesh Roul, Dietrich Reetz, Rommel C. Banlaoi, Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, Joseph Chinyong Liow, and Peter Mandaville. Transnational Islam in South and Southeast Asia:  Movements, Networks and Conflict Dynamics (Seattle:  National Bureau of Asian Research, 2009).
  7. Cesar Adib Majul, Muslims in the Philippines, New Edition (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1999). 
  8. For more detailed discussion, see Alunan C. Glang, Muslim Secession or Integration? (Quezon City:  RP Garcia Publishing Co., 1969). 
  9. See Abdurasad Asani, Moros Not Filipinos (Manila:  AIP Printshop, no date). 
  10. Majul,  Muslims in the Philippines, p. 29. 
  11. Andrew Tan, ‘The Indigenous Roots of Conflict in Southeast Asia:  The Case of Mindanao’ in Ramakrishna, Kumar, and Tan See Seng (eds.), After Bali:  The Threat of Terrorism in Southeast Asia, (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing / Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, 2003), p. 99. 
  12. See ‘Jabidah Massacre’  at http://www.moroinfo.com/hist8.html .  Also see Marites D Vitug,. and Gloria, Glenda M. Under the Crescent Moon:  Rebellion in Mindanao, (Quezon City:  Ateneo Center for Social Policy and Public Affairs and Institute for Popular Democracy, 2000), pp. 2-25. 
  13. Arnold M. Azurin, ‘The Jabidah Massacre Myth’ in his Beyond the Cult of Dissidence in Southern Philippines and Wartorn Zones in the Global Village, (Quezon City:  University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies, 1996), pp. 93-103.  
  14. Mehol K. Sadain, Global and Regional Trends in Islamic Resurgence:  Their Implications on the Southern Philippines (Pasay City:  Cente for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute, 1994). 

Rommel C. Banlaoi

Rommel C. Banlaoi, PhD is the Chairman of PIPVTR, President of the Philippine Society for Intelligence and Security Studies (PSISS) and Convenor of the Network for the Prevention of Violent Extremism in the Philippines (NPVEP). He sits as a member of the Board of Directors of the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC) and has served as the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and member of the Management Board of the World Association for Chinese Studies (WACS).

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