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Cells, Factions and Suicide Operatives: The Fragmentation of Militant Islamism in the Philippines Post-Marawi.

In a historic step forward in the peace process in the Southern Philippines, a plebiscite held on 21 January 2019 saw voters overwhelmingly ratify a law to create the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), providing for deeper and wider autonomy in the area than ever before. The law promises "genuine and meaningful self-governance" and financial autonomy through an automatic annual block grant from the national government equivalent to five per cent of the national internal revenue tax collection. (1) The success of BARMM, and the peace process as a whole, is central not only to uplifting Muslim Mindanao--one of the poorest areas of Southeast Asia--but also to countering violent extremist groups, many of which are now aligned with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Yet Bangsamoro autonomy comes at an awkward moment in the campaign against violent extremism in the Southern Philippines. The fallout from the battle of Marawi City between ISIS-aligned militants and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) from May to October 2017 continues to gather force. The destruction of the city centre by aerial bombardment, and the never-ending mismanagement of the reconstruction effort, plays into militant Islamist narratives. The failure of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)--the leading Moro rebel group--to intervene in Marawi out of concern for the fragile peace negotiations only serves to raise doubts about the MILF's independence and authority. Meanwhile, for the first time in Philippine history, suicide bombing has emerged as a tactic, most prominently in the mass casualty attack on 27 January 2019 against worshipers at Sunday mass in a cathedral in Jolo, Sulu province.

By analysing the post-Marawi situation in Muslim Mindanao, this article argues that the conflict is transitioning away from one of powerful insurgent groups that have the ability to control territory towards one of a decentralized terrorist network composed of small, autonomous groups and cells that are more likely to engage in tactics such as suicide bombing because of the greater power asymmetry between such groups and the Philippine state. As the insurgency draws to an end, and the MILF begins a process of demobilization and transition to a political party, violent extremism will enter a less predictable and more lethal phase, where there is a risk that terrorist tactics become more frequent.

As the unifying influence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq weakens, a distributed network of smaller groups may begin to more closely resemble the pattern of militant Islamism in neighbouring Indonesia, where clusters of autonomous factions and cells--some influenced by ISIS more than others--vie for prominence in the face of limited resources. Such a pattern can already be seen in the fragmentation of several pro-ISIS groups, such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, into multiple contending factions. It can also be seen in the inability of these groups since Marawi to appoint an emir, a centrally determined ISIS leader, to replace the late Isnilon Hapilon. Both Abu Dar, on the run in central Mindanao, and Hajan Sawadjaan, isolated in the mountains of Sulu, have emerged as rivals for local ISIS leadership. Given the fall of ISIS in the Middle East, and the diminishing of opportunities for central funding and recognition that the fall represents, local pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines have much less of an incentive to demonstrate unity under the banner of ISIS than they did prior to the Marawi siege.

In these circumstances, militant Islamists in the Philippines, as in Indonesia, represent a fragmented but enduring threat to the state, whether or not they continue to be influenced by aspects of ISIS ideology, including a utopian vision of creating a pure Islamic State. Such groups, although better armed than their Indonesian counterparts, may not be capable of executing another Marawi siege. But as part of an enduring decentralized clandestine network, they may be capable of disrupting the peace process, delivering unpredictable violent shocks to Philippine society, and provoking new cycles of conflict that test the resilience of the country's fragile democratic institutions.

The Trauma of Marawi

The siege of Marawi, a city with a population of around 200,000 people, over five months between May and October 2017 dramatically demonstrated that ISIS links to militants in the Philippines were more than mere branding. Although led by the Maute group, a powerful local clan, the fighters were an alliance of militant Islamists that transcended clan and ethnic boundaries, in an effort to demonstrate unity under the caliphate and receive recognition from ISIS central. (2) The Marawi attack appears to have been modelled on the ISIS takeover of Mosul, Iraq in 2014, and sought to carve out territory for ISIS in the form of an "East Asia Wilayah" or East Asia Province. It represents the longest urban battle in modern Philippine history and ISIS's greatest achievement in urban warfare outside of Syria and Iraq. Some 1,000 militants, representing a unique inter-island, inter-ethnic coalition of the ASG and Maute fighters led by ASG commander Isnilon Hapilon, stormed the city, freeing prisoners from the jails and capturing and executing Christian hostages, whom they dressed in orange uniforms. (3) Videos of the executions were distributed via ISIS media channels. The capture of Marawi itself served as an important propaganda victory for ISIS, which dedicated editions of its primary media products--its "Inside the Caliphate" video series and its glossy magazine Rumiyah--to the capture of the city.

Over a thousand people died in the fighting, including many civilians, although most of the casualties appear to have been ASG and Maute militants. Most of the civilian population fled the city early on in the fighting, with many displaced to nearby camps. Having trained in jungle counter-insurgency tactics, the AFP struggled to counter the militants in an urban warfare context in which the Mautes enjoyed the home ground advantage as well as the protection provided by the traditionally highly fortified homes in the city. Thus, the AFP relied on a heavy aerial bombardment campaign which ultimately dislodged the militants but destroyed the city centre. After five months of fighting, most of the militants had been killed, including Isnilon Hapilon and the Maute leaders Omarkhayyam and Abdullah.

On 17 October 2017, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi City "liberated" and announced the start of a process of "rehabilitation", even before the fighting had ended. (4) A year later, however, rehabilitation of the city had barely begun.

The mishandling of the Marawi reconstruction process has compounded the trauma of the local Maranao people recovering from an event described by one prominent Philippine non-governmental organisation (NGO) as "our own 9/11". (5) Neglect and incompetence have reinforced grievances against Manila that serve ISIS narratives. Although it is hard to gauge the post-conflict level of recruitment efforts by militants after Marawi, internally displaced youth in Marawi's surrounding Lanao del Sur province continue to be contacted by, and vulnerable to, ISIS recruiters. (6) One year after the conflict, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimated that 65,000 people remain displaced from their homes. (7)

Thus, it is the steady accumulation of anti-government grievances in Marawi and its hinterlands that presents the greatest risk of another large-scale violent extremist attack in the Philippines. The overlapping of the Marawi debacle with the complications of the autonomy process--a process that will inevitably fail to satisfy some, if not many, expectations--presents an opening for Islamist militants to continue their campaign for an alternative vision of governance based on the strict application of Islamic law under a caliphate.

The process to create the BARMM government, and to disarm and demobilize the MILF, also raises particular challenges for the fight against extremism. Undoubtedly, any large failures in the process would provide ammunition to the extremists. However, a successful process that nevertheless diverts attention from the organizations responsible for most of the recent violence in Muslim Mindanao carries its own risks that such extremist groups will exploit the opportunity to grow in the background. The creation of BARMM under MILF leadership will do little to appease ISIS-aligned groups such as the splinter groups of the ASG, remnants of the Maute Group, factions of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF], and what remains of Ansar Khilafa Philippines (AKP), based in Sultan Kudarat. The establishment of BARMM may even incite these groups to attempt to sabotage the peace process.

An enduring symbol of the mismanagement of the Marawi rehabilitation process was the groundbreaking ceremony held on 30 October 2018. The ceremony was postponed more than ten times throughout 2018, with various reasons given, including the need to schedule the attendance of President Duterte. But when the event finally took place, Duterte was on other business in Mindanao. (8) Moreover, the groundbreaking was widely criticized as an inconsequential event that occurred without a contractor having been appointed to lead the reconstruction.

Earlier, in May, it had emerged that two firms in a Chinese-led consortium poised to win the lucrative development contract had been blacklisted by the World Bank for corruption. (9) In June, the consortium was deemed ineligible for the contract for legal and financial reasons, further delaying the groundbreaking ceremony. (10) The current prospective developer, PowerChina, was criticized in a report by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism for its opaque business structure and lack of a track record in the Philippines. (11) The reconstruction of the city is budgeted to cost 86.5 billion pesos (US$1.6 billion) and is expected to be completed by the end of 2021. (12)

By contrast, the groundbreaking ceremony to open a second military camp in Marawi took place on schedule in January 2019, alarming locals when it was brought to light that a 1953 presidential proclamation had declared the majority of the land in the city a "military reservation". President Duterte, who attended the groundbreaking ceremony, remarked: "Whatever they [the military] take, we will pay to avoid trouble." (13)

In September 2018, the Sultan of Marawi, Hamidullah Atar, testified at an "International People's Tribunal" in Brussels as part of an effort by civil society to build a broad human rights case against the Duterte presidency. In his testimony, Atar criticized the imposition of martial law in Mindanao and connected it to the destruction of Marawi: "The state of martial law violated the principles of proportionality in international humanitarian law as it paved the way for the destruction of our cultural sites and worship areas with the bombing of at least 37 mosques, 44 madrasah facilities and 22 schools." (14)

Meanwhile, according to the ICRC, the 65,000 people displaced from their homes by the conflict remain either living with relatives or languishing in makeshift camps. (15) Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced during the siege in 2017. Frustrated at not being able to return to rebuild their homes, and at not being consulted in the rehabilitation process, some of the displaced have begun a social media campaign (#letmegohome) to protest incompetence and delays in the rebuilding process. (16) An ongoing local concern that will not easily be resolved is that the Duterte government, which seeks closer ties with China, will appoint a Chinese consortium to rebuild Marawi in a way that runs roughshod over local wishes. (17)

ISIS recruiters, including remnants of the Maute group, are well positioned to channel growing discontent over Marawi into support for their own agenda, especially if they are able to tap into external sources of funding, as prior to the Marawi siege. There is an urgent need for community-based reintegration and rehabilitation programmes targeting former ISIS-inspired militants and at-risk youth in Lanao del Sur province who are susceptible to pro-ISIS, anti-government, grievance narratives. The longer at-risk youth remain displaced from their homes, the greater the risk of their being recruited by militant groups.

AFP operations in remote and impoverished parts of the province continue to encounter pro-ISIS youth, some of whom had been recruited and radicalized when they were children. (18) The key remaining ISIS-aligned leader in Mindanao, Abu Dar, is also suspected of continuing to recruit among impoverished youth in Lanao del Sur province. According to the AFP, some of these recruits are young children orphaned when their parents died in the Battle of Marawi. (19)

Foreign Fighters and Sparse Intelligence

A recent series of international and local media reports has raised claims of up to one hundred foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) descending on Mindanao from former ISIS-held regions abroad. (20) Information from regional intelligence sources, however, supports the conclusion of Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana, who remarked in response to claims of "scores" of FTF arrivals, "I don't think there are more than 10." (21) Elsewhere, Lorenzana has repeated the quasi-official US assessment that there are some 40 foreign fighters in the Philippines, mostly Indonesians and Malaysians. (22) According to the Honolulu-based US Indo-Pacific Command, "there was no evidence of either an influx or exodus of foreign fighters" in the Philippines, based on recent intelligence. (23)

Small numbers of FTFs are likely to be dispersed across Mindanao, with a large consolidated grouping being precluded by the lack of an obvious convergence point--a safe base or training camp--as in previous decades. FTFs appear to be embedded with the ASG in Sulu's Pakitul mountains, where they regularly engage in lethal clashes with AFP patrols. (24) In late 2018, President Duterte expanded the Philippine military presence in Sulu with the creation of the 11th Infantry Division, to be based on the island specifically to target the ASG. (25)

It remains unclear why there is not more cross-border cooperation among terrorists in Southeast Asia than the evidence suggests. There is the fact of "porous borders" in the tri-border Sulu-Celebes Seas area, where the boundaries of eastern Indonesia, East Malaysia and the southern Philippines converge. Traditional and illicit trade across international lines in the tri-border area is a part of everyday life. (26) Yet, there seems to be several factors that partially explain why there is not more cross-border terrorist activity.

One factor is logistics. Distances and travel times between Indonesia and the Philippines are a barrier. Another factor is the trilateral maritime patrols conducted by the Philippine, Malaysian and Indonesian navies in the Sulu Sea. The costs of importing arms from the Philippines may be higher than is currently understood, and this would be an area for further research so that one might anticipate when or if there might be a change in the cost-benefit calculus. A third factor, and one that is complained about by jihadists themselves, is that their own communities are not immune to parochialism. Indonesian jihadists and Philippine jihadists rarely share online discussion spaces, and are typically immersed in the conflict dynamics of their home countries. When they are motivated by a foreign cause, as in the case of ISIS, it is a rare occurrence, and appears to be explained by the unique pull of ISIS's Utopian ideology, rooted in core Islamic concepts of "caliphate" and "apocalypse". (27)

Even during the height of the Marawi conflict, Indonesian ISIS militants on the social networking app Telegram complained about the lack of fighters travelling to the Philippines to support the siege. Despite the call by ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani for fighters to conduct attacks at home if they were unable to travel to Syria, the number of foreign Indonesian fighters travelling to Marawi was low. Towards the latter stages of the siege, messages in Indonesian circulated on ISIS Telegram chat groups urging people that if they were unable to hijrah (emigrate) to ISIS in Syria, they should join the fight in the Philippines instead. One such message read:
To those who are hesitant to emigrate, the land of Allah is indeed
wide, be honest in your intentions, so that Allah will be honest with
you. If you feel it is difficult to travel to the land of Syam [Syria
and Iraq] because of issue of cost and security, then why don't you try
to travel to the land of the Philippines. Truly brothers, our brothers
in the Philippines are also waiting for your arrival. What obstacle
delays you in heeding their call? (28)

The threat from foreign fighters in the southern Philippines is related to the quality of the foreign operatives--not the quantity--that serves to raise the capacity of local threat groups. Much more must be done to investigate and counter the crucial niche roles played by key foreign fighters. Policing and intelligence sharing failures, for example, led to the embarrassing collapse of the case against suspected ISIS commander Fehmi Lassoued. Lassoued was deported to his native Egypt in early October, having only served time for minor immigration violations, before a clear picture emerged of his role in Southeast Asia. (29)

Similarly, more intelligence is needed on the Lamitan bomber, Abu Kathir Al-Maghribi. Al-Maghribi appears to have been connected to a radical German preacher, Ibrahim Abou-Nagie, who is responsible for sending 140 recruits to fight with militant groups in Syria and Iraq. Recent reporting reveals Abou-Nagie has expanded his recruitment operations to Southeast Asia. (30) Consequently, there may be members of his network still embedded with militant groups in the region, including in the Philippines. It is imperative that authorities across the region improve intelligence sharing and collaboration in order to counter the operations of a small number of key international militants and foreign fighters.

In the same regard, Mohammad Reza Kiram, one of the few Filipinos known to have joined ISIS in Syria, is notable for having risen to a senior role in ISIS. Described as a senior recruiter, he was listed by the US government as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) in 2018, (31) along with two other Southeast Asian militants, after he appeared in an official ISIS beheading video titled "The Solid Edifice--The Philippines" in June 2016. His capture and detention by Syrian Democratic Forces in January 2019, along with his wife Ellen, marks a significant degradation in the connection between ISIS-Philippines and ISIS central. Yet it remains to be seen what Kiram's fate will be. A failure to bring him to justice, either in Syria or the Philippines, risks him keeping ISIS collaboration with Southeast Asia alive. In the Philippines he is suspected by the police of involvement in the bombing of a bus in Zamboanga. (32)

Suicide Bombing Comes to the Philippines

A small number of significant operatives also characterizes the emerging threat of suicide bombing in the Philippines. The tactical shift to suicide attacks is a further indicator of the transition from insurgency to fragmented and asymmetric terrorism in Mindanao. Yet, the shift, and how it forms part of a new pattern of militant Islamism in the Philippines, is underappreciated due to the confusion and lack of detail emerging from the key incidents.

On 31 July 2018, an apparent suicide bomber killed ten people in Lamitan City on Basilan Island. This was the first suicide attack in the Philippines using an improvised explosive device (IED). ISIS media claimed responsibility for the attack, reporting that it had been conducted by their operative Abu Kathir Al-Maghribi, a Moroccan national. (33) However, the foreign fighter appears to have relied on logistical support from local ASG leader Furuji Indama. (34)

Al-Maghribi, furthermore, appears to have travelled to Basilan from his base at the camp of ASG commander Hajan Sawadjaan in the Patikul mountains in Sulu. (35) According to information obtained by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, he was one of a group that had volunteered to drew straws to see who would take on the role of suicide operative. One of the group was a Filipino. (36) Although the prevailing narrative in Philippine society is that suicide bombing is against local culture, it may only be a matter of time before we see the first Filipino suicide operative.

The ISIS claim is hotly disputed by both the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP). The AFP and the PNP argue that the bomb was intended for a remotely controlled attack and was detonated unintentionally or otherwise only after the driver became panicked when his vehicle broke down at a security checkpoint. (37) Further, the AFP argues that the intended target of the attack was a military barracks, while other analysts believe the target was a school parade. Given that the security checkpoint was a recent installation, and thus would not have been a feature at the attack planning stage, it is likely that it was not the checkpoint itself but something beyond it that was the intended target. Although it is impossible to know what the real target was, it is plausible that the operative was seeking to kill school children, given that a high proportion of school children at the parade in Lamitan would have been Christian.

On 27 January 2019, two bombs targeted Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province, killing 22 people. Although key details about the attack remain unclear, the bombing revealed a high level of capability and sophistication. It also revealed coordination with ISIS central in terms of communications and messaging. The first bomb exploded inside the cathedral during Sunday morning mass and was timed to maximize causalities. The second bomb exploded at the front entrance of the cathedral and targeted first responders--a tandem attack approach that is a common terrorist tactic but rarely seen in the Philippines.

On the same day, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack with a communique" from its Amaq news agency, circulated on Telegram. The statement claimed that "Two martyrs from Islamic State conducted a bomb attack against a Christian church." (38) The ISIS-linked Nashir News Agency followed up with the following statement:
Putting their trust in Allah, two of the knights of Shahadah set out
towards a Christian temple in Jolo city in [sic] Mindanao island. The
first one detonated his explosive belt at the gate during the gathering
of the Crusaders to perform their polytheist rituals, while the other
detonated his explosive belt in the parking garage of the temple. The
attacks resulted in 40 Crusaders being killed, including 7 security
guards, and approximately 80 others being wounded, all praise is due to
Allah. (39)

According to the secretary of Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), Eduardo Ano, the attack was carried out by an Indonesian couple, at least one of whom was a suicide bomber, acting under the command of ISIS-inspired ASG leader Hajan Sawadjaan. Secretary Ano declared the case closed after the police arrested five ASG suspects who had turned themselves in to the police in Jolo. Without being able to identify the bombers, except for an alias of the male suspected suicide operative, Abu Huda, the case was declared closed. "We have determined that this was really perpetrated by suicide bombers", Ano told the public. (40) He added that the couple left behind a child, who they believed to remain on Jolo Island.

Although the identity of the attackers was never ascertained, one indication that they were foreigners is that their identity appears to be unknown to locals in Sulu. However, there remains a possibility that one of the bombs was remotely detonated using a cell phone, based on forensics from the scene. (41) Yet, efforts to make sense of the attack were hampered by a failure to protect the crime scene and prevent its contamination by a flurry of visitors and their entourages, from President Duterte down. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra complained that his National Bureau of Investigation officers had been hampered: "Our field operatives are encountering some difficulty because so many people have come in and out of the cathedral and may have accidentally moved the physical evidence." (42)

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we will ever know all the key details and understand the full significance of the attack, given the limited intelligence and investigative capabilities of Philippine authorities. Like the preceding Lamitan suicide attack, it will remain shrouded in mystery, and mistrust about the official version of events will dominate the public discourse in the Philippines.

A US Department of Defense (DoD) report published the week after the attack in Jolo--but not long enough after to have incorporated the event into its analysis--gave some hints as to the intelligence challenges facing the Philippines in its fight against ISIS. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on the US military's support mission to combat ISIS in the Southern Philippines, Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines (OPE-P), reveals that despite the programme, many deficiencies remain in the AFP's ability to collect intelligence and act on the findings. According to the report:
One of the primary objectives of OPE-P is to build the AFP's capability
to use ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] in
operations against ISIS-P[hilippines]. USSOCPAC [US Special Operations
Command Pacific] reported to the DoD OIG this quarter that the AFP had
limited ability to collect information on a target and provide that
intelligence to a unit on the ground to act on it. (43)

The deficiencies are due, the report claims, to the AFP's focus on using its limited resources for traditional combat operations against militants, as opposed to counter-terrorism operations based on analyses of the threats:
According to USSOCPAC, this inability to collect, process, and
disseminate intelligence was the result of several problems. First, the
AFP lacks ISR assets. Second, the AFP does not have a "Production,
Exploitation, and Dissemination cell" capable of synthesizing ISR
information and providing it to a decision-making entity. Third, the
AFP suffers from an institutional problem, using its limited ISR assets
for live tracking of active operations to "provide a semblance of
battle tracking for friendly and suspected enemy elements" rather than
strategic threat analysis. (44)

For nearly two decades, the Jolo cathedral had been an ASG target. According to one count by a media organization, since 2000, the cathedral, or its immediate vicinity, had been attacked ten times by grenades or IEDs, many of which were attributed to ASG. (45) It appears that prior to Christmas 2018, security had been tightened at the site, perhaps in anticipation of some kind of threat. According to the security plan of the Metro Jolo Inter-Agency Task Group, the area had been cordoned off since August 2018, with roadblocks and checkpoints on the surrounding roads guarded by the AFP's 35th Infantry Battalion. Following the blasts, Jolo Mayor Kherkar Tan remarked that "a big question to all of us here" was how a bomb got through the cordon: "No vehicle was allowed to pass in front of the cathedral. No vehicle, not even a motorbike, was allowed to park nearby", he observed. (46)

Although it may prove impossible to ascertain the precise nature of the Lamitan bombing, caution should be exercised when assessing Philippine officials' denials of ISIS involvement and suicide methods generally. While evidence of ISIS involvement in Mindanao is often considered politically inconvenient, suicide attacks are considered to be antithetical to Filipino culture.

Cultural resistance to suicide attacks may indeed explain why such methods have not been used in the recent past. However, the cultural argument is not clear-cut. There is in fact a historical record of self-sacrificing attacks in Muslim Mindanao conducted by warriors who were called Juramentado by the Spanish. Based on the Spanish verb "juramentar" (meaning to take an oath), the term became a stereotype of an irrational, crazed suicide attacker. (47)

In his history of Muslims in the Philippines, Salah Jubair (the nome de plume of senior MILF figure Mohager Iqbal) deconstructs the juramentado myth:
Actually this greatly maligned juramentado was a person who had chosen
to fight in the Way of Allah in his individual capacity since, as
stated above, the sultanate had ceased to put up an organized
resistance against the Spaniards. He was what in the Moro viewpoint was
called Sabilillah [in the way of God]. The juramentado, after some
initiation rituals and proper prayers and the resolve to die for the
cause, acted out his part as a sacred duty and when he died in the
course of his attack, he became shahid or "martyr" with paradise as his
ultimate reward. As with any real Muslim warrior, the juramentado loved
martyrdom more than life. (48)

Without reproducing colonial stereotypes, it is plausible to assume that the anti-colonial tradition of martyrdom could be exploited by ISIS sympathizers as a cultural foundation for contemporary suicide attacks. Cultures, including jihadist ones, are not immutable. Indeed, it was once assumed by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militants--who al-Qaeda wanted to collaborate with to conduct attacks in Southeast Asia--that suicide operatives had to be imported from outside the region because locals were resistant to blowing themselves up. For this reason, in an al-Qaeda-JI plot to bomb Western targets in Singapore in 2001, al-Qaeda sent its own operative, a Middle Eastern man who did not speak English named Ahmad Sahagi, to serve as the suicide bomber in an attack organized by JI. (49)

There are indications that suicide tactics may have crept into the repertoire of Filipino jihadists, even prior to the logistical support provided for the bombings in Lamitan and Jolo. According to interviews with former pro-ISIS militants in Lanao del Sur, from 2015 Omarkhayam Maute had been training a suicide bombing team known as "Seven Servants" (Sab'ata Khadam). The team rehearsed suicide operations using live explosive vests and backpacks, featuring a detonator in a side pocket. The vests had been assembled with the expert help of Malaysian and Indonesian militants. (50) The suicide operatives themselves were Filipino, drawn from a larger pool of local Maranao recruits in the Butig area of Lanao and Tausug recruits from the southern islands.

The suicide operatives were destined to be "frontliners" in a planned Maute-led attack on a nearby city, possibly Cotabato, the seat of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao government, or Marawi. But when the siege of Marawi eventually took place in 2017, it is not clear if the suicide operatives were used in battle. However, according to Philippine military sources, two unexploded suicide vests were found in Marawi, one of which had been left in the city's Grand Mosque, where the militants made their last stand. (51)

Although the bombings in Lamitan and Jolo indicate that there is now a network of support from which to launch suicide attacks in the Philippines, it is also notable that the bombers themselves thus far appear to be foreigners. This fact suggests that there might still be cultural resistance among Filipinos themselves to the new tactic. At the same time, ASG commanders in Basilan and Sulu would have been happy to let foreign fighters serve as "cannon fodder" if the foreign fighters had offered their lives in order to prove themselves to their host.

Yet it may only be a matter of time before, as in Indonesia in the early 2000s, skilful recruiters succeed in training and indoctrinating local suicide operatives. In Indonesia, suicide bombing emerged after a number of years during which key Indonesian terrorists like Hambali developed close relations with al-Qaeda operatives. JI had close relations with al-Qaeda, and JI saw Indonesia as its primary target. It is therefore not surprising that the tactic of suicide bombings emerged first in Indonesia as a result of al-Qaeda influence, whereas the tactic did not emerge in the Philippines where the relationship with al-Qaeda was weaker. In the ISIS era, by contrast, the primary relationship with the source of tactical influence is in the Philippines and thus we should expect the diffusion of ISIS norms to be strongest there. Now, however, such diffusion appears to be occurring at a much faster rate, facilitated by instantaneous connection through the Internet.

According to several former militants--who were also students of Omar Maute in Butig--the indoctrination process for the suicide trainees in 2015 was protracted and involved multiple methods. In the evenings, after prayers, they would gather at the house of the family patriarch Cayamora Maute and watch videos of ISIS suicide and vehicle bombings in Syria and Iraq. They would then be tested on what they had learned from the content. Omar Maute explained to them the concept of martyrdom in Islam. According to a militant who trained alongside the trainees but did not participate in the suicide training, the process culminated in Omar's students wanting to emulate the suicide attacks they saw in ISIS propaganda videos: "If people like them from Syria and Pakistan can do it [sacrifice themselves], then why can't we?", one of them said. (52)

The process of indoctrination described here is strikingly similar to the one described by Sidney Jones in her study of the Cotabato cell that conducted the Davao night market bombing in September 2016. The Davao bombing was the culmination of a process of recruitment and training in which discussion sessions centred on screenings of ISIS videos was a common method to inculcate ISIS ideology. (53)

Although suicide operatives were not used during the Marawi siege, it should be noted that ISIS fighters did use suicide-type tactics in Marawi. At the time, then Western Mindanao Commander Major-General Carlito Galvez Jr. told local media that the AFP had suffered high casualties due to apparent suicidal missions by fighters charging AFP positions as they detonated grenades. (54)

With the demobilization of the MILF as part of the peace process, the adoption of suicide IED attacks by jihadists in the Philippines may be a trend associated with a shift from a conflict centred on a well-resourced separatist army to one characterized by weaker terrorist actors. Suicide is often a desperate "weapon of the weak". As Martha Crenshaw observes in a review of the literature on suicide in terrorism, suicide attacks are an attractive strategy for weaker actors facing a conventional armed force. Crenshaw notes, "There is an emerging consensus that suicide attacks are instrumental or strategic from the perspective of a sponsoring organization that represents the weaker party in an asymmetrical conflict. They serve the political interests of identifiable actors, most of whom are non-states opposing well-armed states." (55)

If suicide attacks are to become routine in the Philippines, as they have in other ISIS-affected territories, such attacks will undermine the authority of both the MILF and the central government and, in a worst-case scenario, destabilize the peace process. To the extent that recent suicide attacks represent a tactical shift by militant Islamists in the Philippines, they also likely represent the twin drivers of transnational norm diffusion, via online videos of suicide attacks in Iraq and Syria, and organizational weakness. As an innovation, suicide attacks may serve to compensate for the power imbalance faced by violent jihadist groups in the Philippines, which are now characterized by disconnected factions of 40-50 men, or smaller cells and splinters. Such fragmented groups are likely to be defeated in full frontal engagements with the AFP, and thus may increasingly avoid such battles in favour of more ruthless tactics that include both suicide bombing and the targeting of civilians.

Gains in the Fragile Peace Process

The success of a plebiscite held on 21 January 2019 to create a BARMM improved the chances for peace and countering violent extremism in the region. Any major setback to the peace process in Muslim Mindanao--where BARMM is the culmination of more than two decades of negotiations--would almost certainly trigger discord in the Moro nationalist movement and strengthen the hand of violent extremist groups, some of which are aligned to ISIS.

Overwhelming majorities voted "Yes" to joining a new autonomous region intended to provide "meaningful self-governance", in the parlance of the enabling legislation. (56) The autonomous government will be led by MILF during a three-year transnational phase before elections. It will be funded by an annual block grant from the national government and take control of key sectors in the new territory, including the administration of justice, based on local, national and Islamic law (for Muslims). It will face formidable challenges in service delivery and managing expectations in an area that is one of the poorest in Southeast Asia and where the rule of law is weak. (57) It may also face opposition from a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that is estranged from the peace process.

Although the plebiscite was largely peaceful, in Cotabato City, the prospective capital of the autonomous region, campaigning was marred by the bombing of a mall on 31 December 2018 which killed two people and wounded dozens. Although no groups claimed responsibility for the attack, and official ISIS media ignored the bombing, it is suspected to have been carried out by an ISIS-aligned faction of BIFF led by Esmail Abdulmalik, better known as Abu Turaifie. On the eve of the autonomy plebiscite, police arrested a suspect in the bombing who had joined the ranks of the MILF at a pro-autonomy rally at the ARMM headquarters in Cotabato. Police alleged the suspect was a member of the Turaifie faction. (58)

Aside from ISIS-inspired extremists, a faction of the MNLF led by Nur Misuari poses the primary risk of disruption to the peace process and the transitional Bangsamoro government. MNLF-Misuari represent ethnic Tausug interests, based on the island of Sulu, which have been sidelined in the new regime by ethnic Maguindanaons in the MILF. Sulu was the only province in Muslim Mindanao where the majority voted against the new autonomous region--yet under the rules they will be subsumed into BARMM territory regardless.

Just prior to the plebiscite, on 18 January 2019, 3,000 MNLF members opposed to the BARMM mobilized at City Hall in Cotabato to coincide with President Duterte's visit to the city. (59) If Duterte, the MILF and other parties in the transitional regime fail to find a way to include the faction in the new system, MNLF elements--some of which have close ties to the ASG--may seek to undermine the peace process. The same faction was responsible for the Zamboanga siege of September 2013 that left over 200 dead.

Grievances against the MILF and the Problem of "Moro Convergence"

The formation of the BARMM under the leadership of the MILF marks the transition of the rebel group from an armed insurgency into a political party, with all the challenges and responsibilities of holding office. The history of Muslim Mindanao, and peace processes in other parts of the world, suggest that the greatest challenge will not be the initial peace deal, but in maintaining the peace beyond a honeymoon period. Here, the problem of "next generation" Moro leaders is at the forefront. While in the past, drivers of terrorism have been associated with grievances towards the central government, in the future it may be grievances against the MILF old guard that are just as, if not more, relevant.

Already, the MILF is the target of grievances held by alienated youths who are liable to consider them as having betrayed the Moro cause and collaborated with Manila. Indeed, two of the most dangerous violent extremist groups in the Philippines, BIFF and the Maute Group, are disaffected splinter groups that emerged from the MILF. The father of the two Maute leaders, Cayamora Maute, was an organic member of the MILF but provided funding and support to his extremist sons. (60) Indeed, memes circulating on the Facebook account of Filipino ISIS sympathizers cast the MILF as kafir (infidel). Some memes depict MILF fighters side-by-side with the AFP and PNP, labelling them as collaborators. (61)

The extent of fragmented Moro allegiances at the level of the family is a major challenge to Moro leaders, in a context in which people may have multiple affiliations. Armed groups typically have fuzzy borders such that their membership can fluctuate quickly. Some families are fragmented to the extent that the parents might be aligned to MILF or MNLF, while the children support BIFF. (62)

Any sense of setback or betrayal in the peace process could serve as a new grievance that fuels splintering among rebel groups and violent extremism. As academic Francisco Lara observes about the outbreak of all-out-war in 2000, it was splintering and the loss of command and control by leader Nur Misuari that prepared the ground for renewed conflict. (63) The same could be said today, but instead the risk centres on the MILF and its leader Haji Murad Ebrahim. As the incoming governor of BARMM, in charge of demobilizing his troops, he will be in an invidious position vis-a-vis any new grievances. Already, youthful violent extremists such as those of the Maute Group cast the aging leadership of the MILF as traitors to the Muslim cause who have collaborated with the infidel occupier from Manila. (64) Thus addressing the challenge of so-called "Moro convergence"--unity among different factions and ethnic groups in Muslim Mindanao--has been a priority for the Bangsamoro Transition Commission and the Office of the Presidential Peace Advisor. (65)

Besides the issue of next generation MILF leaders, the other challenge to Moro convergence is rivalry between some of the 13 ethnolinguistic groups that constitute the Moro people. "Moro" itself is an increasingly contested term of identity that has always been highly fragmented culturally. "Moro nationalism" represents a rare case of a nationalist movement whose constituent groups do not share a common language. This is in a context in which under the Bangsamoro Organic Law--the legislation providing the basis for the new autonomous region--Article II on "Bangsamoro Identity" widens previous definitions of what it means to be Bangsamoro, making the identity inclusive and areligious. Section 1 under the article asserts:
Those who, at the advent of the Spanish colonization, were considered
natives or original inhabitants of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago
and its adjacent islands, whether of mixed or full blood, shall have
the right to identify themselves, their spouses and descendants, as
Bangsamoro. (66)

It remains to be seen whether this optimistically inclusive collective identity cohere through the inevitable trials of the BARMM transitional phase leading to elections. If, on the whole, Bangsamoro unity does not prevail, there remain a myriad of bad actors, with or without the banner of ISIS, who are well-positioned to exploit the situation.


The siege of Marawi taught militant Islamists in the Philippines how much they could achieve if they collaborated across clan and ethnic lines. With the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, however, it is difficult to imagine another foreign-sponsored Marawi-style attack in the Philippines. Yet, just as ISIS central enters a post-territorial phase, so do pro-ISIS elements in the Philippines. The end of decades of insurgency in the Philippines, and the successful creation of the MILF-led BARMM, means that the broad pattern of militant Islamism in the Philippines will shift from insurgency to networked and decentralized terrorism. Militant Islamists will continue to have the intent and capability to conduct attacks in the Philippines. Any major setback in the peace process and the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Government will be exploited by such extremists. But even without such a setback, heavily armed militants will continue to enjoy the under-governed spaces of Muslim Mindanao. This remains the same as before, even if the pattern of the conflict is characterized more by unconventional terrorist tactics such as suicide bombings, and less by frontal battle against the Philippine military.

Indeed, a shift away from insurgency will be one measure of success of the BARMM. Representing a peaceful and inclusive unifying identity, the Bangsamoro project cannot afford to lose to the competing identities of separatists and militant pan-Islamists. Fully demobilizing former insurgents and meeting expectations for good governance and service delivery will be at the top of the challenges faced by the new regime. But the potential for unanticipated terrorist attacks by small and isolated factions and cells to derail the peace process should not be underestimated. Small but Internet-enabled groups may in fact pose a new challenge in their ability to shift tactics and norms quickly. As ever, the problem of gathering and analysing reliable information on such changes in violent extremism in the Philippines will persist, in large part due to a lack of capability in the security services. As such, the course of militant Islamism in the Philippines is even less predictable than it is elsewhere in Southeast Asia.


(1) "R.A. 11054 Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region", Republic of the Philippines, Congress of the Philippines, 23 July 2018, pp. 2, 63.

(2) Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), "The Jolo Bombing and the Legacy of ISIS in the Philippines", IPAC Report 54 (5 March 2019), p. 2, available at <>.

(3) For background and the transnational dimension, see IPAC, "Marawi, the 'East Asia Wilayah' and Indonesia", IPAC Report 38 (21 July 2017), available at <>.

(4) "Marawi City Liberated-Duterte", Rappler, 17 October 2017, available at <>.

(5) International Alert Philippines, "War and Identity: Conflict Alert 2018", p. 54, available at <>.

(6) Author interview with NGO officer, Iligan, September 2018.

(7) International Committee of the Red Cross, "Uncertainty Looms Large Over Thousands Still Displaced in Marawi", 22 October 2018, available at <>.

(8) "With Groundbreaking, Marawi Begins Journey to Recovery", Rappler, 30 October 2013, available at <>.

(9) "China Firms in Marawi Rehab Once Blacklisted by World Bank", Rappler, 14 May 2018, available at <>.

(10) "Bagong Marawi Consortium is Out, Chinese Firm Engaged in Hydropower is in", GMA, 26 June 2018, available at <>.

(11) "The PowerChina Puzzle: Newly Registered 'Domestic Firm' Bids for P17-B Marawi Deal", Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, 23 August 2018, available at <>.

(12) "Government Sets Pledging Session for Marawi", Philippine Star, 23 November 2018, available at <>.

(13) "Moros Oppose New AFP Camp in Marawi", Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2 February 2018, available at <>.

(14) "Legal Case Builds for Trying Duterte at the ICC", Asia Times, 20 September 2018, available at <>.

(15) "One Year after Marawi Siege: Thousands of Displaced Residents Still Live in Tents", Benar News, 16 October 2018, available at <>.

(16) "STATEMENT: Mr. President, We Are Your People Too. Please, Let Us Go Home!", MindaNews, 17 October 2018, available at <>.

(17) "Philippines: Maranao People Oppose Marawi Rehabilitation Plan", Al Jazeera, 27 June 2018, available at <>.

(18) "Young Pro-ISIS Fighter Yields", Mindanao Examiner, 30 October 2018, available at <>.

(19) "ISIS Leader Recruiting Child Warriors in Lanao del Sur", Manila Bulletin, 16 February 2019, available at <>.

(20) "Philippines: Scores of Islamic State Fighters on Mindanao Island", The Guardian, 11 November 2018, available at <>; "Philippines: 100 Foreign Fighters Joined ISIS in Mindanao since the Marawi Battle", Defense Post, 5 November 2018, available at <>.

(21) "Philippines: Scores of Islamic State Fighters on Mindanao Island", The Guardian, 11 November 2018, available at <>.

(22) Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, live streamed press conference, CNN, 30 January 2019.

(23) U.S. Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, "Lead Inspector General for Operation Pacific Eagle--Philippines, Quarterly Report to the United States Congress, October 1, 2018-December 31, 2018", p. 6, available at <>.

(24) See, for example, "Southern Philippines: At Least 5 Troops Die in Clash with Abu Sayyaf", Benar News, 17 November 2018, available at <>.

(25) "New Infantry Division to Help Beat Abu Sayyaf in Sulu", Philippine Star, 18 December 2018, available at <>.

(26) Quinton Temby, "Terrorist Arbitrage in Southeast Asia", New Mandala, 19 January 2018, available at <>.

(27) See Greg Fealy, "Apocalyptic Thought, Conspiracism and Jihad in Indonesia", Contemporary Southeast Asia 41, no. 1 (April 2019): 63-85.

(28) "Labbun-Nidaa", anonymous message to pro-ISIS groups in Indonesia, Telegram, 30 November 2017.

(29) "Philippines Deports Alleged ISIS Commander", Rappler, 16 October 2018, available at <>.

(30) "The German Preacher Who Heads Global Islamist Network", The Local, 16 November 2018, available at <>.

(31) U.S. Department of the Treasury, "Treasury Sanctions Three ISIS Recruiters from Southeast Asia", 24 August 2018, available at <>.

(32) "Filipino ISIS Fighter, Recruiter Sanctioned by UN and U.S.", CNN, 25 August 2018, available at <>.

(33) "Philippine Military Dismisses Islamic State Claim it was behind Basilan Van Bombing", Channel NewsAsia, 1 August 2018, available at <>.

(34) "Basilan Car Blast: Furuji Indama Unleashes Terror even in Hiding", Rappler, 1 August 2018, available at <>.

(35) IPAC, "The Jolo Bombing", op. cit, p. 6.

(36) Ibid., p. 7.

(37) Author interviews with counter-terrorism officials, Manila, January 2019.

(38) Amaq, "Dua serangan Oprasi Syahid di Semuah gerejah Kristen di Filipina", Telegram, 28 January 2019.

(39) Nashir News Agency, "120 Christian Crusaders are Killed and Wounded in 2 Istishhadi Attacks on a Temple in Mindanao", Telegram, 28 January 2019.

(40) "DILG Chief Eduardo Ano on Jolo Bombing: 'Case Closed'", Philippine Star, 7 February 2019, available at <>.

(41) IPAC, "The Jolo Bombing", op. cit., pp. 7-8.

(42) "Jolo Mayor Tan Fears Whitewash in Probe of Twin Blasts",, 3 February 2019, available at <>.

(43) U.S. Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, "Lead Inspector General for Operation Pacific Eagle", op. cit.

(44) Ibid.

(45) "List: Jolo Cathedral Attacks Since 2000", Rappler, 27 January 2019, available at <>.

(46) "Jolo Mayor Tan Fears Whitewash in Probe of Twin Blasts", op, cit.

(47) J. Franklin Ewing, "Juramentado: Institutionalized Suicide Among the Moros of the Philippines", Anthropological Quarterly 28 (1955): 148-55.

(48) Salah Jubair, "Onrush of Juramentados", in Bangsamoro: A Nation Under Endless Tyranny, 2002, available at <https://web.archive.Org/web/20080915124135/>.

(49) "Information Derived from Mohammed Monsour Jabarah", Federal Bureau of Investigation, 14 March 2003, p. 6, document in possession of the author.

(50) Author interviews conducted with former pro-Islamic State militants, Iligan, September 2018. The foreign experts not identified may refer to the Indonesian Ibnu Qoyyim alias Abu Nida and the Malaysians Amin Baco and Dr Mahmud Ahmad.

(51) Information provided to the author by an AFP source in Marawi, March 2019.

(52) Author interviews conducted with former pro-Islamic State militants, Iligan, September 2018.

(53) Sidney Jones, "Radicalisation in the Philippines: The Cotabato Cell of the 'East Asia Wilayah'", Terrorism and Political Violence 30 (6 July 2018): 933-43, available at <>.

(54) "AFP: Marawi Terrorists Becoming Suicidal", Philippine Daily Inquirer, 23 July 2017, available at <>; "AFP: Plans of Suicide Bombings Inside and Outside of Marawi City", CNN, 24 July 2017, available at <>.

(55) Martha Crenshaw, "Explaining Suicide Terrorism: A Review Essay", Security Studies 16, no. 1 (April 2007): 141.

(56) "R.A. 11054 Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region", Republic of the Philippines, Congress of the Philippines, 23 July 2018, p. 3.

(57) Malcom Cook, "Three Challenges Facing the Bangsamoro Organic Law", ISEAS Perspective #2018/82 (26 December 2018), available at <>.

(58) "Bombing Suspect Nabbed at BOL Event",, 20 January 2019, available at <>.

(59) "Red-wearing MNLF-Misuari Members Oppose Duterte's BOL",, 18 January 2019, available at <>.

(60) Author interview with Agakhan "Bin Laden" Sharief, Marawi, November 2018.

(61) Confidential Facebook posting, 10 September 2017.

(62) Author interview with Bangsamoro Transition Commissioner, Cotabato, January 2019.

(63) Francisco J. Lara, Jr., Insurgents, Clans, and States Political Legitimacy and Resurgent Conflict in Muslim Mindanao, Philippines (Quezon City, The Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2014), p. 250.

(64) Author interviews with Bangsamoro Transition Commissioners, Cotabato, January 2019.

(65) Chetan Kumar, "Track-Two Initiatives of Nationally-Led Peace Processes: The Case of the Philippines", UNDP, Issue Brief, no. 5, 2017, available at <>.

(66) Republic of the Philippines, "Republic Act No. 11054 Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region", 23 July 2018.

QUINTON TEMBY is a Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS--Yusof Ishak Institute. Postal address: 30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace, Singapore, 119614;

DOI: 10.1355/cs41-1f
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Author:Temby, Quinton
Publication:Contemporary Southeast Asia
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2019
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