How serious is the threat to the Philippines posed by the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” — IS, ISIL or ISIS, by its various acronyms? (We will call them ISIS, although U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon rightly labeled it “Un-Islamic Nonstate.”)
From the current flurry of news and intelligence, the ISIS danger to the Philippines is now small, but it can quickly grow, both in the country and especially in the Middle East.
First, the home front. There have been several reports in recent weeks about ISIS elements or sympathizers recruiting followers in Mindanao universities and schools. Some 200 Filipinos are said to have left the country and joined the self-proclaimed Sunni Muslim “caliphate” occupying vast northern swathes of Iraq and Syria, and committing atrocities against other faiths and ethnic groups, including crucifixions of Christians and beheadings of American and British citizens.
Former president, defense secretary and armed forces chief Fidel Ramos said recently that “at least 100 of our young Filipino Muslims have already infiltrated Iraq to undergo training to return and be jihadists or militants.” Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, who has fought criminal and terrorist groups for decades, added that the fighters left in July.
American and Philippine officials are also concerned about ISIS activities. Ambassador Philip Goldberg said last month that the US had to “watch very closely.” Immigration Commissioner Siegfried Mison said travellers from war-torn Middle East countries “would be thoroughly checked.”
Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Maj. Gen.Domingo Tutaan Jr. downplayed ISIS links with Mindanao extremists as “unverified.” National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia also discounts direct ties, although local extremists may express public support.
But Department of National Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said at the DND’s recent budget hearing in the Senate that it was taking the matter “very seriously.” And AFP Chief General Gregorio Catapang told senators: “We added an additional brigade [around 1,500 soldiers]in Mindanao. . .scattered across Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi.” Their mission: to gather intelligence on reported ISIS recruitment.
‘We have an alliance with ISIS’
In a YouTube video in August, the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), pledged support for the Middle East rebels. “We have an alliance with the Islamic State and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” declared BIFF spokesperson Abu Misry Mama.
Misry denied that BIFF sent fighters to ISIS or was recruiting for it. “But,” he added, “if they need our help, why not?” And reported on Monday in this paper, a Lanao del Sur militant group called Ghuraba (strangers or foreigners in Arabic) said a “Khilafah Islamiyah” or Islamic caliphate has been established in the country.
MILF chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal warned that failing to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law implementing the peace agreement with the rebel group, could boost ISIS influence in Mindanao: “The danger of ISIS is . . .the ideology of radicalism, which is infectious.”
Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma agreed: “This is the reason why the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are working hand in hand in gathering wide support for the passage of the BBL.”
However, two pro-administration party-list congressmen, Samuel Pagdilao of ACT-CIS and Sherwin Tugna of CIBAC, stressed that Congress should ensure that the Bangsamoro statute abides by the Constitution.
“The ISIS issue,” argues former police general Pagdilao, “should not be a threat to prevent Congress from crafting a BBL that will stand the constitutionality test, promote self-determination among the Bangsamoro people, preserve Philippine territorial integrity, and promote the greatest good.”
Meanwhile, Indonesian and Malaysian counter-terrorism experts are quoted saying that ISIS is recruiting in their countries, including 16 provinces in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, with activities centered in formerly rebellion-racked Aceh.
Even in prosperous, highly educated Singapore, at least two citizens have joined the extremist army, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean told Parliament, adding: “If this group expands in Southeast Asia, it will pose a regional threat like the [terrorist Jemayah Islamiya]network, which had aimed to set up a Southeast Asian Islamic archipelago encompassing Singapore.”
Overseas Filipinos at risk
As counter-terrorism intelligence efforts yield more information, reality can be sifted from rumor, and the true contours of the ISIS threat will begin to emerge. Even at this early stage, however, one potential risk can be assessed and addressed.
The immediate danger posed to Filipinos by the self-styled jihadist movement is not in the Philippines, but in the Middle East. There are an estimated 2.5 million of our nationals in the region as of 2012, including 1.2 million in Saudi Arabia; 930,000 in the United Arab Emirates; and about 200,000 each in Kuwait and Qatar.
If ISIS or any other extremists want to target or pressure the Philippines, they don’t have to strike halfway across the world. They can threaten, kidnap, hostage and kill Filipinos in their region, most of whom are in nations like the four cited above, where the majority faith is Sunni Islam, the religion espoused by ISIS. And the Angelo de la Cruz hostage crisis in 2004 painfully demonstrated how vulnerable the Philippines is.
To counter this threat, the government should review, revitalize, improve and intensify security measures for Filipinos in the Middle East. Embassies and consulates should go over protocols for danger situations, and firm up security arrangements with police and intelligence agencies in host countries. And citizens should be reminded of basic do’s and don’ts for safety, especially seeking help and sharing and verifying vital information.
Most of all, the national government must avoid any pronouncements and actions likely to provoke ISIS attack on Filipinos in the Middle East, whom the Philippines has nil capability to secure. That includes President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s ill-advised offer in New York last month to help the U.S. in its war against ISIS.
To avoid another hostage crisis like the de la Cruz abduction — or worse, a Filipino decapitated online — Aquino should pull back from this provocative move. His aid offer would contribute nothing that America sorely needs to fight the extremists, but would put countless countrymen in the Middle East at grave risk. Aquino cannot secure them and should not spur reprisals against them.
As for ISIS recruitment and possible attacks in the country, these threats demand renewed intelligence and security action in coordination with allies, plus programs and initiatives to address grievances fueling extremism. We’ll talk about that next week.