Mindanao: A New Hub for Islamic State?
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In May 2017, a band of militants connected to the Maute group (MG) attacked and laid siege to the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines after security forces attempted to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of one of two factions of the Abu Sayyaf group (ASG). The assault and subsequent occupation, which took several weeks to end, has once again raised national, regional and international concern that Mindanao and its surrounding islands are rapidly emerging as a beachhead of religious violence.
A particular fear is that the so-called Islamic State (IS) will seek to ‘hijack’ this wider region in order to establish a new province or wilayah from which to launch attacks across the country and throughout Southeast Asia. However, it’s too early to conclude that the southern Philippines is devolving into a centre for transnational jihadist fanaticism or, indeed, that IS is even looking to operate from that part of the country.
Islamist extremism in the southern Philippines revolves around three principal clusters. The first is the ASG, which is primarily based in Basilan and Sulu and which for the past few years has been actively trying to find a new religious identity to define its struggle in Mindanao. In 2014, a dozen ASG cadres uploaded a video on YouTube in which they read out an Arabic statement that pledged ‘loyalty and obedience’ to IS—a bayat that Hapilon reiterated in 2016.
Second is the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)—a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front led by Ismael Abu Bakar (aka ‘Bonmgos’). It has expressed affinity for the ideological tenets of IS and in 2014 affirmed that, if requested, it would provide local support to the logistical demands of al-Baghdadi’s movement.
The third cluster is MG, which is based on the outskirts of Butig in Lanao del Sur. The organisation has close ties with the Hapilon faction of the ASG as well as BIFF and has vowed to support a combined jihadist struggle in the southern Philippines under the banner of Ansar Al-Khilafah Philippines (AKP). It swore allegiance to al-Baghdadi in 2015 and in 2017 declared Hapilon as IS’s overall emir in Southeast Asia.
Despite the attention that has been given to these groups as potentially spearheading a new transnational Islamist front in Mindanao, the reality is that they’re all relatively small and lack the capacity to operate beyond purely localised theaters. While the raid against Marawi was audacious and captured national and international headlines, it needs to be remembered that the city lies just north of Butig, which is well within the operational orbit of the group. The assault on Marawi is perhaps more a reflection of the incompetency of the Philippine security forces to execute a professional ‘takedown’ operation and then manage a crisis situation (something that has occurred several times in the past) than a proven example of MG’s capacity to capture and hold territory.
The three extremist groups also suffer from internal schisms that have degraded their organisational and ideological unity. The ASG is now split between two rival factions: one led by Hapilon and based in Basilan, the other under the command of Radullan Sahiron in Sulu. While Hapilon is clearly interested in solidifying ASG’s jihadist bona fides and linking the group with external Islamist movements such as IS, Sahiron is much more internally oriented, largely lacks religious conviction, and is opposed to working with foreigners in Mindanao (as he sees them merely serving as a magnet for US drone strikes). In the opinion of most regional commentators, the Sahiron cohort effectively acts as an autonomous kidnap-for-ransom syndicate that is currently preoccupied with hijacking ships in the Sulu and Celebes Sea.
BIFF is similarly divided, with the nominal emir of the group, Abu Bakar, facing a concerted challenge to his leadership from Sheik Mohidin Animbang, the former vice chairman for military affairs and chief of staff. Animbang is stronger in terms of numbers (300 compared to 100) and weapons (many of which are stolen or manufactured ‘in-house’), is more interested in pursuing the cause of Bangsamoro Moro Muslim independence, and has not exhibited any great interest in establishing operational ties with IS. It’s highly questionable whether BIFF, at least in its current configuration, could serve as a viable vehicle for furthering attacks across Mindanao, much less to the rest of the Philippines and more broadly throughout Southeast Asia.
Splits have also surfaced in MG. According to military authorities, rifts first became apparent in the latter stages of the assault on Marawi and primarily revolved around money and issues of logistical support. Those same sources believe that the execution of several cadres who had fallen out with the leadership has since set in train an internal purge that has compounded tensions and driven growing numbers to leave the group.
It’s not apparent to what extent al-Baghdadi is prepared to actively support jihadist groups in the southern Philippines. He has yet to fully endorse MG’s declaration of Hapilon as emir in Southeast Asia and he appears to have been deliberately vague about establishing a wilayah in Mindanao. That would seem to reflect a tacit recognition within the IS leadership that Islamist movements such as the ASG and MG lack the infrastructure, territorial depth and organisational control required for creating a formal regional governorate to further the central designs of a caliphate based in the Middle East (unlike Islamist movements in Nigeria, Libya, Yemen and Somalia).
The real danger in Mindanao is not that it will morph into an operational IS beachhead, but rather that it could serve as an important halfway house for returning Malaysians and Indonesians who fought in Syria under the banner of Katibah Nusuntara (KN). With IS’s core under heightened pressure from coalition forces, these Islamist volunteers will no doubt increasingly look at departing the Middle East for Southeast Asia.
Given porous borders, numerous ungoverned spaces, rampant corruption and a thriving black market in illicit weapons transfers, the southern Philippines could act as a useful logistical hub for KN militants seeking to hone their combat skills before re-entering their countries of origin. President Duterte’s emphasis on the war against drugs has compounded that possibility—not least by depriving the police, military and intelligence agencies of the necessary resources to monitor and track the movement of people entering the Philippines by irregular channels.