On 23 May 2020, Filipinos and the rest of the world will commemorate the third year of Marawi siege, a five-month long armed battle between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the soldiers of the Islamic State in East Asia (ISEA) or the Daula Islamiya Wilayatul Mashriq (DIWM). Three years after the siege, terrorism in the Philippines remains unabated with the COVID-19 pandemic making the threat more virulent and harder to confront.
Suicide Terrorism: Most Favored Attack After Marawi Siege
Despite the death of their key leaders (Isnilon Hapilon, Omarkayam Maute, Abdullah Maute and Human Abdul Romato Najid, more known as Abu Dar), remnants of ISEA in the Philippines have resumed their devastating terror attacks in the aftermath of the Marawi siege. Remaining followers of ISEA were responsible for the following four major suicide attacks in Mindanao three years after the siege:
• Lamitan (Basilan) Suicide bombing involving a German national with Moroccan ethnic origin, 31 July 2018
• Jolo (Sulu) Cathedral Suicide bombings involving an Indonesian couple, 27 January 2019
• Indanan (Sulu) Suicide bombing (involving a Filipino), 28 June 2019
• Indanan (Sulu) Female Suicide bombing, 8 September 2019
These four violent attacks demonstrated the sudden rise of suicide terrorism in the Philippines, a phenomenon considered to be impossible to happen in a country dominated by Christians. Yet, suicide terrorism became the most favored tool of violence by pro-IS elements in the Philippines three years after the Marawi siege.
Among these suicide attacks, the Jolo Cathedral twin suicide bombings were the most devastating attacks, so far. The suicide bombings led to the death of 23 persons and the wounding of more than 100 others. The Islamic State (IS) took responsibility for the bombings committed by what they called us “two knights of martyrdom against a crusader temple”. Philippine investigators identified the two suicide bombers as Indonesian couple: Rullie Rian Zeke, the husband, and Ulfah Handayani Saleh, the wife.
Foreign Terrorist Fighters
These suicide bombings strongly indicated that foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) continued to operate in Mindanao. Intelligence estimates in 2018 indicated close to 100 pro-IS FTFs in the Philippines. But intelligence estimates at the end of 2019 downgraded the figure to 59 “watch-listed” and 7 under hot-pursuit FTFs. During the Marawi liberation, the AFP identified 32 dead bodies of FTFs from the ground zero.
Most FTFs coming to the Philippines were from Indonesia and Malaysia while others came from the Arab World, particularly from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. From the 59 “watch-listed” FTFs, some are suspected to be coming from Europe, North Africa, and even from Xinjiang Province of China.
FTFs come to the Philippines to facilitate transfer of funds and weapons to local supporters, to conduct violent extremist propaganda activities, and to transfer skills in religious jihad. FTFS also regard the Philippines as an alternative home base, a new land of jihad, and a very excellent sanctuary or safe haven because of domestic Muslim resistance, weak law enforcement, and very porous borders. More importantly, their local counterparts welcome the entry of FTFs despite their recent setbacks in Iraq and Syria.
Terrorism During the Pandemic
Though lockdown measures against COVID-19 pandemic are enormously slowing down the entry of FTFs to the Philippines, pro-IS local terrorist fighters (LTFs) continue their violent activities with the support of FTFs. Sadly, LTFs are currently exploiting the COVID-19 situation to further justify their violent extremist activities. They use quarantine measures against the pandemic as rallying issues to recruit members and to propagate the idea of violent extremism, especially in depressed rural areas heavily affected by lockdowns.
Based on military sources, armed groups in Mindanao were involved in at least 50 violent incidents during the lockdown period from 16 March to 15 May 2020 in the form of armed clashes, shootings, harassments, hand grenade explosions, and roadside bombings using improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), for example, continued their kidnap-for-ransom operations, ambuscades, bomb making, and other violent extremist activities in Sulu during the pandemic. On 17 April 2020, the ASG killed eleven and wounded fourteen soldiers of the 21st Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army in a firefight in Patikul, Sulu. Thus far, this was the bloodiest encounter between the AFP and the ASG during the pandemic.
In Marawi, pro-ISIS individuals were sighted in April 2020 doing recruitment and propaganda activities in the Bubong-Kapai-Tagaloan II and Butig-Sultan Dumalondong-Marogong corridors of Lanao and Bukidnon provinces. They took advantage of the redeployment of government military forces performing quarantine missions during the pandemic. They also used the delay in the rehabilitation of Marawi as justification to recruit fighters.
Pro-IS Groups in the Philippines
Three years after Marawi siege, four major groups continue to operate in Mindanao on behalf of IS during the COVID-19 pandemic: the ASG, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), remnants of the Maute Group, and remnants of the Ansar Khilafa Philippines (AKP). Outside of Mindanao is the Suyuful Khilafa Fi-Luzon operating mostly in Luzon including Metro Manila. These pro-ISIS groups recognize Hajan Sawadjaan as their de-factor leader under an umbrella organization that they call Islamic State in the Philippines (ISP) or Daula Islamiya Alfalabin. They receive support from FTFs in the form of training, money and other logistical needs.
At present, there are two major factions of the ASG under two leaders who pledged allegiance to IS: 1) Hajan Sawadjaan, the ASG commander in Sulu; and, 2) Furuji Indama, the ASG commander in Basilan.
The Philippine military describes ASG members who pledged allegiance to IS as part of the Daula Islamiya-ASG (DI-ASG). This pro-IS group has urban terrorist fighters based in Zamboanga City whose members also operate in the provinces of Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, and Zamboanga Sibugay in communities not only of Muslims but also of Christians who have converted to Muslims called Balik Islam or Muslim Returnees (Muslim converts). Since its foundation, the ASG has been welcoming members from Muslim converts.
Military intelligence describes the ASG in Sulu under the leadership of Sawadjaan as Daula Islamiya Sawadjaan Group (DI-SG) while the ASG in Basilan under the leadership of Indama as Daula Islamiya Indama Group (DI-IG) to indicate that these groups operate in the Philippines on behalf of IS. Though the DI-SG is based largely in Sulu, it also operates in Tawi-Tawi and even in Sabah. The DI-SG has manpower of around 300 local fighters affecting 54 villages. The group has been responsible for the series of kidnapping activities in Sabah where it maintains supporters in coastal communities.
BIFF Turaipe Group
Next to the ASG is the BIFF, particularly the faction being led by Esmael Abdulmalik (Alias Commander Turaipe/Turaifie) who pledged allegiance to IS in April 2017. Commander Turaipe formed his own pro-IS group called Jama’ahtul Mujahirin Wal Ansar (JMWA) based largely in Datu Salibo town of Maguindanao. Commander Turaipe continued its armed activities in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato through ambuscades, roadside bombings, liquidations, and harassments on behalf of IS.
Commander Turaipe even renamed his group as Daulah Islamiya Majwyndanaw (DIM) or the Islamic State of Maguindanao responsible for most of the violent attacks in Maguindanao three years after the Marawi siege. The military calls his group as DI-Turaipe Group with more than 80 armed followers.
Remnants of the Maute Group are now part of the group led by Commander Ker Mimbantas also known as Commander Zacaria or Commander Omar. He was a member of the Maute Group, also known as the Daula Islamiya Ranao or the Islamic State of Lanao. Commander Zacaria has around 40 armed followers who used to work with the Maute brothers and Abu Dar. The military calls his group the Daula Islamiya Zacaria Group (DI-Zacaria Group) operating mostly in Lanao del Sur and Marawi City.
The last group refers to remnants of the AKP now being led by a certain Jeoffrey Nilong, alias Commander Momoy. He is believed to be holding his makeshift camp in Polomolok, South Cotabato with the intention to conduct bombing activities in the said province as well as in General Santos City and Cagayan de Oro City. The military calls this shadowy group as Daula Islamiya Nilong Group with only more than 10 followers operating mainly in the provinces of South Cotabato, Sarangani and General Santos of the Southern Philippines.
Aside from these four major groups, the group being led by Hassan Salahuddin has emerged to become the most active in conducting terrorist bombings in Mindanao. Salahuddin was the first leader who pledged allegiance to the new IS Caliph, Al-Qurashi, on 11 November 2019. He used to be a member of the Special Operation Group (SOG) of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the 1990s. He joined the Al Khobar Group (AKG) in 2006 to conduct extortion activities in cities of Tacurong, Kidapawan, Koronadal and General Santos using skills in bomb making. The military calls his group Hassan Salahuddin Group or Daula Islamiya Salahuddin Group (DI-SG) with around 10 followers trained in bomb making.
Salahuddin developed his skills in bomb making through his mentors, Basit Usman and Marwan (Zulkipli bin Hir) who were targets of Mamasapano clash on 25 January 2015. When Basit Usman organized the Al Khilafa Sarangani in 2012, Salahuddin joined him to conduct training on bomb making with pro-ISIS followers in Central Mindanao. When Basit Usman died on 3 May 2015 in a military encounter, Salahuddin joined the BIFF-Turaipe Group in order to establish the Daula Islamiya Maguindanao.
With the support of BIFF-Turaipe Group, Salahuddin masterminded the Isulan, Sultan Kudarat bombings on 28 August 2018 and 2 September 2018. DI-SG also coddles foreign terrorist fighters through the assistance of a long-time friend, Mauwiya, a Singaporean follower of Jemaah Islamiya. Mauwiya has been operating in Central Mindanao since the 1990s.
Suyuful Khilafa Fi Luzon
Aside from Mindanao, the IS also operates in Metro Manila and in the wider island of Luzon through the Suyuful Khilafa Fi Luzon (SKFL) or the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Luzon. SKFL evolved from Jamal Al Tawhid Wal Jihad (JTJ) Philippines whose members pledged allegiance to IS in 2014. Abu Musab Al Zarqawi founded JTJ in Iraq as the Al-Qaeda in Iraq. After the death of Osama bin Laden, Al Zargawi reorganized the JTJ as the Islamic State in Iraq, the forerunner of IS.
In cooperation with pro-IS groups operating in the National Capital Region (NCR), the SKFL was responsible for several bomb threats and foiled bombing activities in Metro Manila during the Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in November 2017 and the Summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in November 2016 as well as the visit to Manila of Pope Francis in January 2015. The SKFL was also responsible for several bomb threats in Northern Luzon in November 2019 threatening to attack Catholic churches. The SKFL also operates in Southern Visayas and Northern Mindanao by penetrating Muslim converts or Balik Islam communities in these areas. However, the military only identifies more than ten active operatives of the AKFL pursuing violent activities.
With the continuing presence of pro-IS groups, terrorist threats in the Philippines persist three years after the Marawi siege. These groups take advantage of quarantine measures against COVID-19 to recruit members, to intensify their propaganda activities, and to mount violent attacks during the pandemic.
Combatting terrorism in the period of pandemic is putting tremendous pressures to law enforcement authorities to consider new ways of confronting the threat. There is no doubt that the current pandemic is now changing our existing counterterrorism narratives. Unless authorities apply quick innovations to effectively combat terrorism during the pandemic, threat is bound to evolve to a higher form that is more cumbersome to defeat.
*Rommel C. Banlaoi is the Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism (www.pipvtr.org). He is also a Professorial Lecturer at the Department of International Studies at Miriam College (the Philippines) and a former Chairman of the Council for Asian Terrorism Research.