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Suicide bombs and foreign fighters are burgeoning jihadi threats for the Philippines

Over the past few years the Philippines has witnessed significant changes in terrorist modus operandi. Suicide bombings, a common tactic for terrorist groups, have been on the rise. However, while not unusual in the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia or even Indonesia, this form of modern violent jihad is still new to the Philippines. This shift has been compounded by the ongoing influx of foreign jihadists, encouraged by Islamic State leaders’ calls for supporters to migrate there.

The concept of suicide bombing has a controversial history in a country heavily influenced by long-time struggles of Muslims trying to separate from the Philippines. Following the establishment of ISIS in 2014, the majority of Filipino jihadist groups declared their loyalty to leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the difficult environment, in which blood ties, clans and tribalism are key, ideology-focused jihadists were a minority following the fall of multiple Abu Sayyaf Group leaders in late 1990s and after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

Yet, a few commanders like Isnilon Happilon remained consistent in their struggle on the violent path. Abu Sayyaf leaders have found it challenging to instill Salafist thinking in the mindset of their loyalists that could enable them to conduct more advanced attacks to harass Philippine authorities.

The first reported suicide bombing in the Philippines was carried out in 2002 in an open-air market in Zamboanga city where U.S. Green Berets were on patrol. One American and two Filipinos were killed in what was said to be the first suicide attack conducted by jihadists in the Philippines. However, following army and police statements, suspicions of deliberate suicide were dismissed in favor of a premature explosion.

Philippine authorities in the years that followed adhered to a strict propaganda code to undermine any possibility that successful jihadist operations would damage the reputation of the government and armed forces. This turned out to be irresponsible after the success of Isnilion Happilon in uniting jihadist forces in South East Asia and pledging allegiance to Islamic State in 2015.

The most important commanders included in building Islamic State forces in the Philippines were:

  • Isnilon Happilon, the long-time commander of ASG on Basilan island, later involved in the famous Islamic State East Asia campaign in Marawi City,
  • Maute clan residing in Mindanao with brothers Omar and Abdullah in the lead; they were also co-conspirators in the Marawi battle,
  • Ansar Khalifa Philippines leader Mohammad Jaafar Maguid (aka Tokboy),
  • Muammar Askari, Abu Sayyaf spokesperson and chief negotiator, often considered a Philippino counterpart of the ISIS spokesperson, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani.

Tokboy and Askar were involved the most in applying changes to the Philippine terror landscape that would fit Islamic State strategies for the future. Both were considered rising stars of jihad in the Philippines, advertising salafi teachings and recruiting foreign jihadists for the cause of Islamic State.

Tokboy was also a middleman in sending recruits to the war in Syria and Iraq. One of them was Reza Kiram, who would later appear in a few productions that announced the unification of Islamic State forces in the Philippines. AKP was the first affiliate group of ISEA to try recruiting suicide bombers, prematurely warning Philippino authorities of the upcoming threat.

Askari, who had become the face of ISEA in 2015-2017, actively pursued the idea of unification and blur the lines between clans and ethnic groups in order to build a core ground for future ISIS strategy.

In 2016-2017 ISEA emerged as a significant force challenging the state in battles on three major Muslim-majority islands – Basilan, Sulu and Mindanao. Financed by Islamic State via envoys traveling from Syria and Iraq, Isnilon Happilon was slowly building a force that would later fight the Philippine army in Marawi for nearly five months.

All important commanders put significant effort into applying official Islamic State ideology that included Sharia teaching, combat tactics and propaganda. The concept of self-sacrifice, however, would have an important value later on, started by the Marawi battle. The premature deaths of Tokboy and Askari at the beginning of 2017 didn’t diminish the potential of the rising jihadi forces: the death of Askari in April that year occurred just a month before Marawi attack began.

ISIS graffiti Marawi, the Philippines
Graffiti left by ISIS militants in Marawi, the Philippines. Image: @natashya_g/Twitter

The surprising operation on a tourist site in Bohol failed to alarm Philippine authorities against the incoming threat. What came after was probably the most important event that would influence the whole region in the years to come – the Marawi battle.

The Marawi campaign actually began a few days before the planned date, disrupted by police efforts to arrest Isnilon Happilon, who had been spotted in the city. A carefully planned invasion by the Maute clan and Happilon was meant to be the beginning of creating a new province affiliated to Islamic State – East Asia.

Islamic State leaders in Iraq and Syria were in need of a propaganda success followed by territorial losses, especially the city of Mosul. A new area of conflict thousands of kilometres away from the Middle East would be a potential piece of the puzzle supporting the image of famous Adnani quote “remaining and expanding.”

The difficult five-month battle that ended in the defeat of Islamic State was nevertheless a failure for the Philippine state as it was forced to call Western allies for support. Nearly 700 militants put up a tough fight in the urban environment, catching Philippino forces off guard.

Images and videos from jihadists in Marawi were carefully edited by Islamic State propagandists. Islamic State fighters were portrayed as martyrs fighting off Christian invaders. The “Inside the Caliphate” series, released at the time, included Australian, Singaporian and Filipino militants discussing ongoing Marawi battle, calling for martyrdom and encouraging islamists to come to the Philippines and support ISEA forces.

Following the Islamic State leaders’ calls and propaganda materials depicting the jihadist struggle in the Philippines, foreign jihadists started traveling to Mindanao, Sulu and Basilan in 2018. Philippine authorities again denied concerns over the growing and unprecedented numbers of foreigners in jihadist ranks, and on July 31, 2018 local media reported a large explosion in Lamitan city on Basilan island. Islamic State was quick to release a statement claiming a suicide bombing by a Moroccan militant. Later, the military was forced to acknowledge the event, marking the first suicide vehicle bomb attack in the Philippines. It was the first official ISEA operation after the announcement of its creation.

Social media accounts affiliated with ISEA posted images of explosives allegedly used in the SVBIED attack. Hugo Kamaan, an expert in suicide vehicle bombs, said the devices were similar to SVBIED payloads used by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. This attack and wave of suicide bombings in Indonesia suggested an ongoing sharing of technology between Islamic State affiliates, increasing the threat to Southeast Asian states.

Throughout 2019, three attacks that included suicide bombers were carried out in the Philippines effectively marking the permanent danger of Islamic State’s growing influence in the local area. Attacks on a Christian church in Jolo in January and in Indanan in September were said to be carried out by an Indonesian couple and a “Caucasian looking woman.” Jihadists of foreign origin are the most utilized assets in ISEA, involved in three of four successful attempts so far.

In line with the increase in the worldwide exploitation of women in Islamic State-inspired suicide attacks, the Philippines is one the most prominent examples of jihadist groups using women to spread terror. This is mirrored in Philippine social media, where women are shown in Islamic State propaganda more often than anything besides fighters themselves. On June 28, the Philippines witnessed the first suicide bombing conducted by native born muslims, another potential danger that might cause further changes in young Filipino Muslims’ mindsets.

In September the army prevented another suicide bombing allegedly planned by the nephew of Hatib Sawadjaan, Islamic State’s leader in the Philippines. The scale of ISEA preparations suggests an effective training camp, and authorities reported that there were additional potential volunteers that are actively targeted by the military.

The Philippines now faces a resurgent force that shouldn’t be underestimated. Further denial of Islamic State’s resurgence and the dual problem of suicide bombing and foreign jihadists might have enormous costs in the future. Undermining that threat, ignoring the rights of Muslim citizens, and corrupt policies are all easily exploited by Islamic State to increase the group’s power and influence, making a Marawi 2.0 or an even worse scenario extremely realistic.

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