Since the implementation of the National Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (NAP/PCVE) in 2019 and the subsequent passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) in 2020, threats of terrorism and violent extremism in the Philippines have declined significantly, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Global Terrorism Index (GTI) released by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) in March 2023 reported the drastic improvement in the ranking of the Philippines in the list of countries in the world most impacted by terrorism. (1) From the GTI ranking of 9th in 2018 just a year after the Marawi Siege in 2017, the Philippines is now ranking 18th in the world 2023 GTI.
These enormously demonstrate the notable achievements of the Philippines in countering terrorism and violent extremism in a country deeply torn by a half century of internal armed conflicts since the end of the Second World War.
Global Terrorism Index 2023
However, security challenges arising from terrorism and violent extremism have not yet totally disappeared. Based on the 2023 GTI, the Philippines still ranks as the second most affected by terrorism in the Asia Pacific, next only to Myanmar. The Philippines outranked Indonesia, now viewed to be the new epicenter of militant Islam in Southeast Asia. Indonesia placed third in the 2023 GTI followed by Thailand and New Zealand where pockets of terrorist activities still occur.
Achievements in Countering Insurgency and Terrorism
In February 2023, the United States published its Country Reports on Terrorism covering the year 2021. In this report, the US State Department acknowledged the remarkable success of the Philippine government in countering insurgency, terrorism and violent extremism through legal actions arising primarily from the enactment of the 2020 ATA and through non-military counter measures with the pursuance of various PCVE programs. Emphasizing de-radicalization and counter-radicalization efforts of the government in partnership with local government authorities, the civil society, and the private sector, PCVE programs are being implemented not only in affected communities but also in influenced schools and jail facilities all over the country.
The US also stressed the accomplishment of the Philippine government in combating local communist insurgency through focused military operations against the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army (CPP/NPA), which is also currently experiencing a dramatic decline. At present, the strength of the CPP-NPA has noticeably reduced to less than 2,000 members in the remaining 22 guerilla fronts nationwide. This is a very outstanding drop compared in the 1980s where the CPP-NPA enjoyed the highest peak of its membership to more than 20,000 combatants.
At present, the CPP-NPA is suffering its weakest level as a result of the decisive dismantling of many guerilla fronts, neutralization of key leaders, and surrender of remaining followers. The National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) already declares the CPP/NPA as a dying threat in 2023 with the anticipation of a total victory by 2025.
ISIS as a Persistent Threat
But the US State Department strongly warns that armed groups associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) remains as the “deadliest threat” in the Philippines. (2) It also contends that the Philippines continues to be one of the major destinations of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) coming largely from Indonesia and Malaysia as well countries from the Middle East and Europe where so-called ISIS provinces continue to operate, especially in Afghanistan, the headquarters of ISIS Khorasan. (3) Remnants of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the Maute Group (MG), the Salahuddin Group (SG), Ansar al-Khalifa Philippines (AKP) or the Maguid Group, and the Suyuful Khilafa Fi Luzon (SKFL) have been identified to be active ISIS affiliates in the Philippines also known as Daula Islamiya Philippines (DIP). ISIS Khorasan, or the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) supported these ISIS groups in the Philippines to mount the 2017 Marawi Siege and the series of suicide terrorist attacks in Mindanao in the aftermath of the siege. (4)
Though the ISK attempts to revitalize its strong links with ISIS followers and sleeper cells in the Philippines, particularly in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), the 2020 ATA and the NAP/PCVE have enabled the Philippine government to effectively counter threats of terrorism and violent extremism in the country through the application not only of the whole-of-government approach but also the whole-of-society and the whole-of-nation approaches.
Links of ISIS Khorasan with ISIS Philippines
These are evidences that terrorist threats posed by ISIS in the Philippines are declining:
1) Diminished manpower, influence and firefighting capabilities;
2) Increased surrender of militants; and,
3) Decreased in violent activities.
Diminished Manpower, Influence and Firefighting Capabilities
The manpower, influence and firefighting capability of ISIS affiliated groups in the Philippines has steadily diminished since 2021. The ASG, for example, suffered tremendous setbacks in membership from 130 in 2021 to a mere 70 in 2022 representing a decrease of 46.15% in personnel strength. Many of its key leaders have been killed while those still alive are continuously on the run.
Mudzirmar “Mundi” Sawadjaan, the known ASG leader in Sulu, and Pasil Bayali, the known ASG leader in Basilan, are presently suffering difficulties in mounting violent activities because of the effective application of kinetic approaches through focused military operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and intensified law enforcement operations of the Philippine National Police (PNP). Moreover, local government authorities and civil society organizations are now deeply involved in non-military counter measures against the ASG. Because of the failure of the ASG to mount major violent incidents for the last two years, the provincial government of Sulu declared the whole of province as already “ASG free”.
In Central Mindanao, the BIFF faction led by Abu Turaipe only had 31 members at the end of 2022. Ground and intelligence sources reported that on 6 August 2023, Abu Turaipe and his five key followers have surrendered to military forces in Barangay Buayan, Datu Piang, Maguindanao. Media and academic reports inaccurately described Abu Turaipe as the new leader of ISIS in Southeast Asia, or the East Asia Wilayah (EAW). (5) Styling Turaipe as the new leader of EAW was in fact just a propaganda in the desperate attempt of ISIS to attract new followers from the Southern Philippines.
In Lanao provinces, intelligence authorities are monitoring at least 46 remnants of the Maute Group in 2022. But ground informants indicate that since the death of Abu Zakaria in June 2023, the MG has been practically deactivated with the surrender of most of its members. Those who have not surrendered are currently seeking refuge with their relatives in some camps of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
In SOCCSKSARGEN (South Cotabato, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and General Santos), remaining followers of the Salahuddin Group and the Ansar al-Khalifa Philippines or the Maguid Group are also suffering the same fate of eventual demise. The Suyuful Khilafa Fi Luzon has also failed to operate and mount violent activities.
All these ISIS groups have practically lost their capabilities to initiate violent incidents that they used to do prior and during the 2017 Marawi Siege. (6) The government’s intensified intelligence operations and greater due diligence in countering the financing of terrorism complimented by PCVE activities have immensely contributed to weakening of ISIS groups in the Philippines.
Increased Surrender: Leaving Terrorism Behind
Many personalities associated with the ASG, BIFF, AKP, MG and SKFL collectively known as Daulah Islamiya Philippines (DIP) have walked away from terrorism by surrendering to government authorities. As of August 2023, close to 2,000 individuals associated with DIP have left terrorism behind by surrendering in Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat provinces.
In Sulu Province alone, at least 773 persons linked with the ASG have surrendered from 2017 to 2022. News about militants in Mindanao surrendering to authorities continue to flood major dailies replacing news that used to cover bombings, kidnappings, and other violent activities. Those still active are on the run seeking refuge from trusted relatives and friends.
There are attempts to explain why terrorist fighters in the Southern Philippines are surrendering. But there are methodological and ontological issues with the existing studies due to the lack of strong analytical framework, challenges of validity and reliability of existing data, and serious examination of specific accounts. Existing literatures attribute the phenomenon of surrenders to fatigue or exhaustion, hunger or starvation, disillusionment and “loss of faith in the cause”, lack of financial and material supports, and “trust” in the government, among others. Further research is still needed in the Philippines to pay greater attention to the phenomenon of why terrorist fighters surrender, why terrorist threats have declined, and eventually why and how terrorism can end.
Decreased Violent Activities
The DIP failed to initiate major terrorist activities in 2021 and 2022. From January to August 2023, intelligence authorities have monitored no major ISIS-initiated violent incidents in the country, except for some minor shooting incidents, grenade throwing, and small firefights with local security forces. Remarkably, violent groups like the ASG and the BIFF have not conducted any major bombing and kidnapping operations, so far, in 2023.
This significant decrease of ISIS activities in the Philippines can be attributed to the increased capacity of Philippine law enforcement authorities to counter ISIS threats. Since the September 11, 2001 (9/11) terrorist attacks, several Philippine law enforcement agencies tasked to counter terrorism have undergone many capacity-building training programs emphasizing the value of comprehensive approaches, developmental efforts, disengagement and counter-radicalization measures, legal actions, intelligence and counter-intelligence operations, countering the financing of terrorism, and regional and international cooperation, among others. As a result, the government has become smarter than the ISIS groups.
The Need to Stay Vigilant and Alert
Nonetheless, there is no need to be complacent as terrorist threats in the Philippines are metamorphosing into different forms. It is still very imperative to stay vigilant and remain alert. While ISIS threats are declining, they are not yet disappearing as there are still remnants and sleeper cells willing to sow terror. To finally defeat ISIS threat in the Philippines, it is important to sustain efforts to counter the financing of terrorism, to intensify counter violent extremism programs, and to strengthen the intelligence and counter-intelligence operations against remaining leaders and followers.
Currently, terror threats in the Philippines are no longer confined with ISIS or the CPP-NPA. Private Armed Groups (PAGs) maintained by local politicians involved in various forms of violent activities have been identified as new sources of terror in the Philippines. The designation of Congressman Arnolfo Teves Jr as a terrorist, and his armed group as a terrorist group, indicates that the scope of terrorism can now include PAGs. If not prevented, PAGs can pose a more serious terrorist threat in the Philippines than ISIS and CPP-NPA.
Various PAGs in the Philippines persist, particularly in the BARMM areas. Before the May 2022 elections, the National Task Force for the Disbandment of Private Armed Groups (NTF-DPAGs) reported the neutralization of 20 private armed groups (PAGs) in Mindanao. But almost all municipalities in BARMM have clans maintaining their own private army.
Associated with PAGs is the proliferation of Private Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALWs) in the country. Most of the SALWs are found in the BARMM representing 80% and other places in the Philippines representing 20%. At least 600,000 loose firearms continue to proliferate in the country at present. In 2018, 1.7 million firearms were registered. But only 498,000 were renewed to date. Illegal firearms factories persist in conflict affected areas of the BARMM, not to mention presence of training camps manufacturing improvised explosive devices (IEDs). PAGs use SALWs and IEDs for terrorist activities.
Private Armed Groups in Lanao Del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi
Private Armed Groups in Maguindanao
Aside from PAGs, disgruntled elements of the MILF and lawless personalities associated with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) can also mount terror attacks. Though the Philippine government considers the MILF and MNLF as Peace Inclined Armed Groups (PIAGs) for supporting the Bangsamoro peace processes, unlawful actions of their disgruntled and lawless elements can disrupt the on-going peace-building efforts in the BARMM, particularly in the Normalization Process, which requires the decommissioning of 40,000 MILF combatants and their firearms.
However, not more than 50% or 19,495 combatants have been decommissioned as of August 2022. The planned transformation of MILF Base Commands to normal communities has not been fully realized.
In July 2023, the BARMM Governors’ Caucus (BGC) urged for the complete decommissioning of the MILF. Composed of governors Mamintal Alonto Adiong Jr. of Lanao del Sur, Bai Mariam Sangki-Mangudadatu of Maguindanao del Sur, Abdusakur M. Tan of Sulu, Hadjiman S. Hataman-Salliman of Basilan and Yshmael “Mang” I. Sali of Tawi-Tawi, the BGC demands for the greater credibility and proper execution of the decommissioning process. Otherwise, the BARMM can be held hostage again to various threats of terrorism and violent extremism.
Ensuring Peace and Security
To ensure peace and security in the Philippines, the Philippine government released the Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2023-2028. The PDP provides a comprehensive Strategy Framework that aims to pursue and integrated, transparent, people-centered, and human rights-based security policy. The National Security Policy (NSP) 2023-2028 aims to compliment and support the PDP through the nexus of development and security in order to advance Philippine national security interests and agenda. If implemented according to plan, the PDP and the NSP can effectively facilitate the continuing decline, if not the final disappearance, of terrorist threats in the Philippines.
Twenty two years after 9/11, threats of terrorism, insurgency and violent extremism in the Philippines have tremendously declined. ISIS groups in the country, particularly at the BARMM, and guerilla fronts of the CPP-NPA all over the country have reduced significantly showing signs of near conclusion.
However, there is still a need to remain vigilant as there are still remnants with strong intentions to wreak havoc. Moreover, terrorist threats in the Philippines are transforming into new forms to include PAGs and lawless elements of PIAGs.
To sustain the achievements of the Philippines in combating terrorism and violent extremism, it is imperative to continue the implementation not only of the whole-of-government approach but more so the whole-of-nation approach emphasized in the PDP and the NSP. Application of these approaches can really prevent threat groups to recover, regain strengths, and disturb the peace in the Philippines that remains to be fragile.
Rommel C. Banlaoi, PhD, is the Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR) while serving as the President of the Philippine Society for International Security Studies (PSISS) and the Convenor of the Network for the Prevention of Violent Extremism in the Philippines (NPVEP). He also served as the Chairman of the Council for Asian Terrorism Research (CATR) organized by the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) based in Washington DC and Non-Resident Fellow of the Center for Global Counterterrorism Cooperation (CGCC) based in New York City. He is the author of numerous books, journal articles and book chapters on terrorism issues in the Philippines and Southeast Asia.
- Institute for Economics and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2023 (Sydney: IEP, March 2023).
- US Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2021 (Washington DC: Bureau of Counterterrorism, February 2023).
- Rommel C. Banlaoi, ed, The Marawi Siege and Its Aftermath: The Continuing Terrorist Threat (London: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020).
- Zam Yusa, “A New Filipino Leader for Southeast Asia’s Islamic State”, The Diplomat, 9 August 2023 at https://thediplomat.com/2023/08/a-new-filipino-leader-for-southeast-asias-islamic-state/. Also see Kenneth Yeo, “Rebranding the East Asia Knights: A Reflection of Dawlah Islamiya’s Efforts to Learn”, Insights, 1 March 2023 at https://gnet-research.org/2023/03/01/rebranding-the-east-asia-knights-a-reflection-of-dawlah-islamiyahs-effort-to-learn/.
- Rommel C. Banlaoi, Al-Harakatul Al-Islamiyyah: Essays on the Abu Sayyaf Group, Terrorism in the Philippines from Al-Qaeda to ISIS (Quezon City: Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, 2019). Also see Rommel C. Banlaoi, Philippine Security in the Age of Terror: National, Regional and Global Challenges in the Post-9/11 World (London and New York: CRC Press, 2010).
- See for example Kenneth Yeo, “Hungry and Tired: The Decline of Militancy in Mindanao”, The Strategist, 11 June 2021. Also see Najwa Indanan Uñga, “The Surrender of Islamist Militants in Mindanao: Why they left the Abu Sayyaf, BIFF, and Dawlah Islamiyah”, NDCP Executive Policy Brief, 23 March 2023.
- See John Jorgan, Walking Away from Terrorism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements (London and New York: Routledge, 2009) and Maureen Chowdhury Pink and Ellie B,. Hearne, Beyond Terrorism: Deradicalization and Disengagement from Violent Extremism (New York: International Peace Institute, 2008). Also see Mary Beth Altier, Emma Leonard Boyle, Neil D. Shortland & John G. Horgan, “Why They Leave: An Analysis of Terrorist Disengagement Events from Eighty-seven Autobiographical Accounts”, Security Studies, 26:2, (2017), 305-332.