WHETHER or not the Islamic State (IS) actually staged the June 2 attack on Resorts World Manila, the upscale hotel-casino- shopping mall complex next to Terminal 3 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, where 38 people died and 54 others were injured in a fire during the attack, the fact is that, against the Philippine National Police denial, backed now by President Rodrigo Duterte’s own statement, and the “identity” of the dead assailant, the jihadist militant organization has claimed official responsibility for it. And many people tend to believe they did. A message in Arabic, distributed on Telegram, said “IS fighters (plural) carried out the attack” and that a Filipino IS operative who had provided daily updates on the ongoing armed clashes in Marawi City—which had prompted President Duterte to proclaim martial law in Mindanao—had identified the group fighter behind the attack.
“With guidance from Allah and his granting of success, the brother Abu Khayr al-Arkabili—may Allah accept him—was able to immerse with his machine gun amidst a gathering of Christian combatants in the resort “Resorts World” in the city of Manila in the Philippines. He took action inside it, inflicting death and causing harm, until he dismounted as a martyr, as we consider him and Allah is his advocate. The outcome of the attack amounted to nearly one hundred killed and wounded among the Christians, and unto Allah is all praise and gratitude,” the statement said.
The IS claim
I do not necessarily put more value to this statement than to that of the PNP, and the President’s. All terrorist actions try to derive as much propaganda advantage from the media space and public recognition they are able to create. In this case, the IS must have decided it could advance its cause if it claimed authorship of the Resorts World carnage. And so it did. On the other hand, this claim seems to make better sense than the police narrative. The claim was put out by Amaq, the IS news agency, and quoted in her blog by Rukmini Maria Callimachi, a fairly well-known Romanian-American journalist on The New York Times.
Amaq speaks for itself, while Callimachi is a 47-year- old journalist, educated at Dartmouth College and Exeter College in Oxford, and specializing in Islamic extremism for the NYT. She has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for international reportng, and for the Emmy Award for outstanding TV interview. She seems credentialed enough.
Although Amaq says it was a terrorist attack, while the police and the President claim it was a botched robbery attempt, both theories seem agreed on the alleged facts, except for the news agency’s suggestion that more than one gunman were involved. In any case, at least one hooded gunman entered the casino hotel carrying a long weapon, shot at the gaming tables and set fire to the VIP gaming room without shooting at any player—all the fatalities died from smoke inhalation—grabbed gambling chips worth P113 million and put them inside his backpack, then moved to a room on a higher floor which he set on fire, sat on a bed and then shot himself to death.
If it was a robbery, as the police claimed, why did the gunman kill himself after getting all the chips he could lay his hands on, instead of trying to make a clean getaway from the crime scene? The reports did not suggest he had been cornered and was about to be overwhelmed by the security force. On the other hand, if it was a terrorist strike, as Amaq says, why did he not use his weapon to fire at people indiscriminately as other jihadists elsewhere have done? If he was an IS fighter, loyal to Allah, why didn’t anyone hear him shout “Allahu Akbar!” (Allah is the greatest!) before the carnage? Wasn’t that the standard mantra for such occasions? Somehow, it doesn’t quite add up.
Despite the seeming inconsistency, if the Amaq post is to be believed, the IS has officially claimed credit for the attack. It will not be easy for the PNP or PDU30 to dispute or ignore that. However, DU30 has declared categorically the attack was “not the handiwork of IS,” but merely that of a “crazy guy who was after plastic chips.” The National Capital Region police chief has identified the dead attacker as a former government employee who had become a gambling addict. This allows us to conclude that DU30 will not use the incident as a basis for proclaiming martial law all over the Philippines.
Why police think differently
But the public seems divided. Some tend to believe DU30, others the IS. In the long history of terrorism, no terrorist claim of responsibility for any incident has ever been contradicted by the police, nor has any police claim of terrorist involvement ever been denied by the terrorists. There’s hardly any disagreement between the two parties. In the Resorts World attack, there is obvious disagreement. Why is this?
There are two possible explanations. One, the IS claimed credit for the attack, even if it had nothing to do with it, because it was to its advantage to be known as having hit the capital of the Philippines. Two, the PNP and the President had to describe it as a botched robbery because an admission of IS terrorist strike could wreck the multi-billion-dollar gaming industry, which is run by some of DU30’s biggest financial supporters, not to say the rest of the economy. The casinos are among the country’s biggest moneymakers, even if they are suspected to be money-laundering machines for drug lords and crime lords. They attract high rollers from China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and other parts of Asia, and have helped their Filipino owners to hold their places in the Forbes magazine’s annual listing of the world’s dollar billionaires.
Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez has surmised that the incident could adversely affect tourist arrivals, but not foreign investments. What else could he say? But it seems like whistling in the dark. It would not be easy to predict the full impact of the incident. This is why the police have been extremely cautious in their diagnosis of the unexplained and unsolved bombing incidents in Quiapo, close to where the informal Muslim settlers are concentrated. But the Resorts World incident has changed all this. To many Filipinos, despite the President’s statement, the IS has now penetrated Manila, although maybe not in the same way it has penetrated Brussels, London, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Manchester and other world capitals.
Not from Syria but from Marawi
Many seem to believe that Manila has been penetrated not directly from Syria or Iraq, but from Marawi, where unconfirmed reports say Filipino Islamic extremists and some foreigners who have trained with IS in Syria or Iraq have already laid the groundwork for the creation of an “eastern province” of the Islamic Caliphate. They even identify their leader as one Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf Group. The apparent objective is to render obsolete the insurgency of all previously known Moro insurgent groups, and to bring the conflict to an entirely new level. The IS is at war not only with Christian infidels but also with Muslims who have the “wrong” interpretation of the Qu’ran and Islam’s fundamental practices.
We do not know enough of the IS, and no one in the DU30 government may know much more either. In 2004, as Wikipedia records, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria emerged from the radical Sunni jihadists who fought under the banner of al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, on whose head the US State Department had placed a bounty of $25 million, disowned it for being excessively hardline. In April 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the leader of IS; on his head, the State Department placed a bounty of $10 million.
In April 2013, the group created the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, the historic Arabic name for Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, known in English as the Levant—(ISIL).
In June 2014, the group announced it would be known simply as the Islamic State (IS), and declared itself a Caliphate, a state governed in accordance with Islamic law by a Caliph, seen as the successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. IS demanded that all Muslims swear allegiance to its leader al-Baghdadi, defend the Muslim community (umma) against apostates and infidels, and migrate to the territory under its control. The Caliphate erased all state borders, making al-Baghdadi the self-declared authority over 1.5 billion Muslims. In reality, IS controlled 34,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq, from the Mediterranean coast to south of Baghdad in 2014. By 2016, the territory had shrunk to 23,320 square miles.
For the IS, one of the most important places, if not the most important, is Dabiq, Syria, where Muhammad reportedly predicted the Christian and Muslim armies would meet for the final battle to usher in the end of time and the triumph of true Islam. IS has conducted a hundred or so terrorist attacks in more than 20 countries. And it has grown in strength; according to a 2014 CIA estimate, IS fighters have grown thrice its original number. In 2015, as the Caliphate announced its expansion to Western Africa, the State Department described it as a far greater threat than al-Qaida, and then President Obama asked Congress to formally authorize the use of force against IS.
The US has bombed some IS military targets in Iraq, but its disdain for the government of Bashar al-Assad has restrained its involvement in Syria. Russia, Iran and Turkey on the other hand have had no such inhibitions in supporting Assad’s war against the IS.
For DU30, the most important question now is, will his martial law proclamation be an adequate response to the IS presence and violent regime in Mindanao? While many Filipinos may be prepared to support martial law as a possible solution to the violence, DU30 himself and the entire Congress have shown no desire to comply with the constitutional requirement that such proclamation, which includes the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, should have the approval of a majority of all the members of Congress, within 48 hours from its issuance, otherwise it is null and void, ab initio.
The entire govt vs the Constitution
Without Congress approving or rejecting the proclamation, it is at best half-baked, incomplete and unenforceable. It is a patent violation of the Constitution, which says “a state of martial law does not suspend the operation of the Constitution,” and both the Executive and Congress, except the Supreme Court, would be trampling upon the Constitution.
Any attempt to expand this half-baked proclamation to cover the entire country for any reason whatsoever would simply enlarge the constitutional violation. DU30 would then become a much bigger problem for the nation, probably much bigger than the IS, even if DU30 refuses to recognize its presence outside of Mindanao. The people would then be facing two fronts—martial law which seeks to give DU30 absolute and unaccountable political power, and the Caliphate, which could bring in foreign fighters to help it Islamize this predominantly Catholic Christian nation.
This is the worst possible fix for the nation. We must now think together and act as one, summon the best reserves of our moral strength and patriotism, and the vitality of what remains of our institutions. This crisis will not solve itself. Neither will an unconstitutional martial law, backed by fake news from the front, using images of the Honduras police and Vietnamese soldiers, solve it for us. We must find our own way out, as a people.