ISIS in Philippines a threat to region

Training camps will lure South-east Asians and other nationalities; beheadings, mass killings and attacks likely

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is likely to create branches in the Philippines and Indonesia this year.

Although the Indonesian military pre-empted ISIS plans to declare a satellite state of the so-called caliphate in eastern Indonesia, ISIS is determined to declare at least one province in Asia in 2016. An ISIS foothold will present far-reaching security implications for the stability and prosperity of a rising Asia.

The risk is high in the Philippines, where after a year-long discussion between local groups that pledged allegiance to ISIS' self-appointed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Ahlus Shura (council) has appointed Isnilon Hapilon the overall leader of the so-called Islamic State in the Philippines. Hapilon is the leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Basilan.

Preparations to proclaim an ISIS branch in the southern Philippines reflect its growing influence in the region. In addition to enforcing the ISIS brand of Islam, ISIS-type beheadings and mass killings and attacks are likely. If it succeeds in creating a safe haven in Basilan and mounts operations from the Sulu archipelago into both the Philippines and Malaysia, the regional threat will increase.

The creation of training camps will lure not only South-east Asians but also other nationalities - from Australians to Chinese Uighurs - who cannot easily reach Syria. The nationalities trained in the new ISIS province, and seeking to carry out the ISIS vision, are likely to be a threat to their home countries.

Just this month, ISIS announced the unification of four battalions in the Philippines and the allegiance of their leaders to Baghdadi. At the oath-taking to Baghdadi, which was captured on video, the battalions were represented by Ansar Al-Shariah Battalion leader Abu Anas al-Muhajir, who goes by the alias Abraham. Abu Anas is Mohammad Najib Hussein from Malaysia and his battalion is in charge of laws and other matters pertaining to jurisprudence. An engineer and a sundry shop owner, Mohammad Najib's face was intentionally not covered in the video.

Philippine marines raiding the camp of a gang that had pledged allegiance to ISIS in Palimbang town, Sultan Kudarat province, Mindanao, last November. Weapons and ISIS flags were recovered following a firefight.
Philippine marines raiding the camp of a gang that had pledged allegiance to ISIS in Palimbang town, Sultan Kudarat province, Mindanao, last November. Weapons and ISIS flags were recovered following a firefight. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The other Malaysians in the video - Universiti Malaya comparative religion lecturer Mahmud Ahmad alias Abu Handzalah and former municipal council employee Muhammad Joraimee Awang Raimee - have been on the Malaysian police's wanted list since April 2014.

Considering the importance given to a Malaysian by Hapilon, Malaysians are likely to travel and join ISIS Mindanao in the southern Philippines. Although the leader of the Ma'rakah Al-Ansar Battalion could not attend the event, Abu Ammar sent a representative, Abu Harith. The war battalion led by Abu Harith is from Sulu, where the overall ASG group leader Radulan Sahiron is based. This demonstrated a split in ASG, where a small but important faction had defected to ISIS.

Ansarul Khilafah Philippines is the group that pledged allegiance to ISIS in August 2014. After it did so, it released a video threatening to deploy suicide bombers in the Philippines and make the country a "graveyard" for American soldiers. On two occasions, attempts by the group to transport weapons to Mujahidin Indonesia Timur were disrupted by the Philippine National Police working with their Indonesian counterparts.

Based in South Cotabato province, Sarangani province and General Santos City, Ansarul Khilafah Philippines is led by Abu Sharifah, who is also fluent in Tagalog.

The Philippines has been an important arena for domestic, regional and global terrorist groups for 20 years. Since 1994, when Jemaah Islamiah established its first training camp, Hudaibiyah, the Philippines emerged as the training ground for Indonesians, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Thai Muslims and Arabs. Most of the instructors were non-Filipinos: They were either Indonesians or Arabs trained by Al-Qaeda. In addition to the Sulu archipelago transforming into a base for training and operations, the area is a strategic bridge linking the Philippines and Malaysia.

With the rise of ISIS, the ASG kidnapped Malaysians, Taiwanese, Chinese and Filipinos from Sabah in Malaysia; and Dutch, Germans, Koreans and Filipinos from the Philippines; and a Swiss national from Tawi Tawi in the Sulu archipelago. While some hostages escaped, others were released after payment, and others were killed. Malaysian businessman and engineer Bernard Then Ted Fen was beheaded last November.

The latest kidnapping by ASG was in September last year, when a Canadian, a Norwegian and a Filipina were kidnapped in Samal Island and taken to Basilan.

In addition to moving ISIS ideologues to implement its brand of Islam, it is very likely that ISIS will dispatch its explosives experts, combat tacticians and other operatives. Its plan to declare a state in Mindanao presents a very real threat to the stability and security of South-east Asia, a region that has hitherto enjoyed political stability, social harmony and economic growth .

The ISIS-initiated merger of the fighting formations and unification of the leaders will present an unprecedented challenge to Manila. As the "soldiers of the caliphate" in the Philippines, they will mount operations that will increasingly mirror those of the ISIS core in Syria and Iraq. There is no better time for the government of the Philippines to act.

The Moro struggle for independence has been one of the world's oldest. The government of the Philippines made significant gains by engaging the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in a successful peace process. Nonetheless, the ASG and a few smaller groups continue to fight to create an independent Moro homeland. The Philippines lacks the political leadership, and its armed forces the operational capability, to dismantle the insurgent and terrorist infrastructure in Mindanao, especially in the Sulu archipelago.

The ISIS-initiated merger of the fighting formations and unification of the leaders will present an unprecedented challenge to Manila. As the "soldiers of the caliphate" in the Philippines, they will mount operations that will increasingly mirror those of the ISIS core in Syria and Iraq. There is no better time for the Philippine government to act. If the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, President Benigno Aquino, procrastinates, ISIS ideology will spread, gravely damaging the peace process. The four ISIS "battalions" will grow in strength, size and influence and present an enduring challenge to his successors.

Shortly, ISIS will declare a satellite of the caliphate in the Sulu archipelago. Ideally, Mr Aquino should pre-empt the declaration. To win Muslim hearts and minds and prevent Muslim support for ISIS, the armed forces of the Philippines should move not just to contain, isolate and eliminate the ASG, but also with a mandate to develop the region economically.

To pre-empt the declaration of an ISIS wilayat in the Philippines and ISIS branch shortly, the military should deploy in strength in Sulu, Basilan and Tawi Tawi. If the armed forces can dominate the Sulu archipelago, ISIS cannot successfully declare, operate and expand its satellite in the Philippines, with implications for Malaysia, the region and beyond.

  • The writer is professor of security studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at RSIS, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. This article is due to be published in RSIS Commentary.
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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2016, with the headline 'ISIS in Philippines a threat to region'. Print Edition | Subscribe