Last Saturday’s banner headline of the Philippine Star, quoting Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary (PCOOS) Herminio Coloma Jr., proclaimed, “Palace: No credible ISIS threat in Phl (Philippines).”
The headline faithfully reflected the quote attributed to PCOOS Coloma. But in proclaiming the absence of an ISIS threat, the non-story pushed an open door–it denied an allegation which no one has ever made. This was not just incompetent spokesmanship or incompetent journalism, but both.
The recent rush of terrorist attacks in Ankara, the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, Paris, Bamako, and Syrian-Turkish border airspace has brought the world face to face with the most virulent side of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or the Levant) as it seeks to spread the Islamic caliphate from Africa and the Middle East to our part of the world.
Inept and dangerous
Without a violent incident like the one in Paris, where 130 persons were killed and 368 were wounded, or even the one in Bamako, with much fewer casualty, it would not serve the public interest to announce that ISIS has penetrated our national territory, assuming it has. But nothing could be more inept and dangerous than to announce with alacrity that no “credible ISIS threat exists.” To do so is to provoke the ISIS into “correcting an unnecessary omission or mistake.”
To begin with, the threat need not, and does not always, manifest itself before it explodes. It becomes clear and unmistakable after the violence has occurred. This is what we have seen in all the recent incidents.
Was there a “credible threat” to Ankara before a spate of terrorist activities killed 95 persons and wounded 250 others last October?
A “credible threat” to the Russian commercial airline before it was knocked off the air with all its 224 passengers and crew above the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula?
A “credible threat” to Paris and Saint-Denis before the Nov. 13 barbaric bloodletting at the Bataclan concert hall, Le Petit Cambodge Restaurant and the Stade de France?
A “credible threat” to the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali before the jihadists started shooting innocent guests while shouting “Allahu Akbar”?
A “credible threat” from a supposed anti-ISIS ally before two US-made F16s, reportedly flown by Turkish pilots, decided to swat off the air a Russian warplane returning to home base from a bombing run against ISIS, with probably some videos of the illegal oil traffic between Turkey and the ISIS-controlled territories across the border?
Not even 9/11
In fact, was there a “credible threat” to the USA before the infamous 9/11 al Qaeda attack at the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon headquarters in Washington, DC, which instantly launched America’s Global War on Terror?
The “absence” of a “credible threat” did not prevent any of the terrorist attacks from happening. Now, the government boasts, in its accustomed style of patting itself on the back, that there is no “credible ISIS threat” to the country, despite a recent clash in Mindanao in which eight members of a group that claims to be affiliated with the ISIS, including one Indonesian, were killed. This was an unmitigated mistake.
The more prudent course
It would have been more prudent for the government to say that despite the existence of rogue Islamist groups like the Abu Sayaff, no links to the ISIS have been established, or that there is no evidence that any such links exist. But just because the Aquino government has bragged that no credible ISIS threat exists, the extremist group might be tempted to show this is not the case. As of yesterday, a post on social media showed a so-called “ISIS flag” flying above the tree-line in some Mindanao forest. Was this for real, or was someone just playing a prank on the government?
Even if ISIS has not yet gained any foothold in the country, our national security planners must be prepared to recognize that the Philippines is a possible, probable, if not actual, ISIS target. The agenda of the Islamic caliphate is well-known, and in all of Southeast Asia, southern Philippines appears to be the only place where rogue Islamist groups have found a formidable sanctuary even before the world started talking of ISIS. The Mamasapano massacre, in which 44 Special Action Forces were killed after acquiring three high-value al Qaeda-related targets, was the latest proof of this.
Copycat terrorist acts
The danger is real that in order to attract greater attention from the government and the general public, local jihadists could perform “copycat” terrorist acts and attribute them to ISIS. And ISIS could very well claim them as its own. This may have been what was shaping up in the case of the 39-year-old Malaysian engineer whom the Abu Sayaff beheaded in Mindanao at the start of the APEC Economic Leaders’ Summit, after having been held in captivity since May 15. The Aquino government has not recovered from this incident, and aside from the outrage expressed by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, the Malaysian government may have demanded a price for it.
This could explain the attempt to revive congressional enthusiasm over the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, which has been effectively shot down by the proposed Senate amendments from Sen. Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos Jr., who is now running for vice-president. Senate President Franklin Drilon has intimidated that between now and the 2016 election, Congress could yet find the time to consider the proposed legislation, despite the busy campaign schedule of the senators and congressmen, and despite the serious implications of creating an autonomous Islamic territory for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is hardly immune from the ISIS virus.
One of two things could explain this renewed enthusiasm: the irresistible force of money, or an insinuated threat from Malaysia, which has supported the Muslim insurgency against the Philippines from the very beginning. Either one is sufficient to induce the members of Congress to reconsider a legislation they had previously abandoned, but the pressure becomes irresistible when both factors are simultaneously at play.
Many of our politicians have become eminently bribable, and the need to build a war chest during an election year increases their vulnerability considerably. Certain other political developments further complicate the issues. Unconfirmed reports claim that Founding Chairman Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front and Chairman Haji Murad of the MILF have now agreed to work together for the independence of Mindanao, instead of the latter simply pushing for the proposed Babala (or BBL).
This could be pure acoustics–one way of pressuring Congress to work post-haste on the proposed BBL–but it looks like PNoy’s peace negotiators are ready to swallow the rumor hook, line and sinker, without examining the wider Islamist framework in which all this is taking place. This deserves a cautious rather than hasty response.
At the same time, there are intervening non-Islamist security threats that seem to be gaining ground in Mindanao, but which appear to elicit little or no public concern. The Center for People’s Rights and Participation (CPRP) calls attention to an ongoing “political mobilization” of the Left in Eastern Mindanao, particularly in Caraga and Surigao del Sur, in the guise of evacuating Lumad from their domain because of alleged militarization.
Armed conflict between the military and the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army/National Democratic Front in the area has intensified partly because of the CPP-NPA-NDF bid to stave off the effort of the military to wrest control of Andap Valley in Surigao del Sur from them.
Using the Lumad
Hundreds of Lumad have been killed, especially after they have rebelled against the NPA and organized themselves into “Lumad bagani” (warriors) against the NPA “pulahang bagani” (red warriors). On Oct. 19, the NPA killed the highly regarded Lumad Mayor of Loreto, Agusan del Sur Dario Otaza, and his son Daryl, provoking so much anger among his people. Otaza was a former NPA member who was responsible for the surrender of 200 NPA members and the liberation of 21 rural barangays from NPA control.
Through its skillful use of the media the Left has been successful in demonizing the military in the area. In its march called Manilakbayan ng Mindanao from Oct. 19 to Nov. 11, the NDF called on the public to “stop the attacks on our schools, communities and people” and “support the people’s resistance to militarization and plunder in MindaNOW!” The position of the military has not been given adequate hearing.
The CPRP believes one other objective of the Lumad mobilization is to build up support for the KATRIBU party-list in the 2016 election, by means of which the NDF hopes to increase its presence in the House of Representatives, where it is now represented by Bayan Muna, Anak Pawis, Gabriela, ACT and Kabataan. The threats to national security do not stop here.
The most serious threat
A far more serious security threat, not limited to Mindanao or to the activities of anti-government forces, is the almost certain failure of the 2016 presidential elections, which those in control of the automated voting machine are trying to manipulate, and where there is absolutely zero effort on the part of the political parties and the announced candidates to denounce, mitigate, or prevent. This is a much stronger threat to peace than most of the dangers we have seen before, and points to the inevitable collapse of our republican democratic system.
To this, we shall return later.