Mindanao has become an increasingly larger black hole, a viable breeding ground for radicalization, and terror groups both foreign and domestic that have realized that they can do everything but conduct operations, but for how long? . . . disaffected MILF members provide a ripe recruiting ground for terror groups operating in the country.
— The ISIS Study Group of retired US military officers
Our column last Thursday, “How grave is the ISIS threat to the Philippines?”, cautioned against danger to overseas Filipinos in the Middle East from the murderous horde calling itself “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” and occupying territory and committing atrocities in those two countries.
In this follow-up article, we look at the likely impact of ISIS in the Philippines. It can’t be good, of course, given the extremist aspirations and violence of the so-called jihadists, including decapitation videos posted online. Moreover, developments abroad and at home, including certain provisions of the Bangsamoro agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), may worsen violence down south.
The security assessment quoted above was published a month ago by The ISIS Study Group of retired American military officers and analysts. Posted at http://isisstudygroup.com/?tag=milf, the note urges the US to defer its plan to “transition” or transfer its counter-terrorism (CT) force out of Mindanao.
The experts monitor security threats linked to ISIS. They fear terrorists in Southeast Asia would turn to the Philippines, where security forces are less capable than those in nearby states. And “particularly in Mindanao,” the ex-analysts add, “not only for safe haven, but for operations as well.”
Hence, the American security website argues, “Combined with an ineffective [counter-terrorism] apparatus, little to no organic collection capability, and the reported expansion and growth of new/subordinate threat groups in regions we have not seen in reporting for years, now may not be the time to decrease the number of US troops . . . in the Southern Philippines, but quite the opposite.”
ISIS imparts legitimacy, glamor and destiny
This writer and other peace-loving Filipinos wish the ISIS watchers are wrong. Indeed, in the same September 5 online report, the experts noted: “Recent operations conducted by Philippine security forces have disrupted the reported plans by multiple terror groups to incite violence in the Mindanao.” But several developments cannot but raise grave concern, if not alarm.
First, ISIS’s rise, prominence and victories have imparted legitimacy, glamor, and a sense of global destiny to extremists like Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). While Islam, whose very name means peace, has never advocated wanton violence, radicals have used it to justify their atrocities and subjugation of others.
ISIS’s battlefield success and world prominence have convinced Muslims even from advanced nations to support or join it. And if the group can lure educated, affluent Westerners, it can very well capture the minds and hearts of poor, unschooled Mindanao youth.
Having seen beheadings and war purportedly done for Islam broadcast and celebrated online, terrorists cannot but feel energized, justified, and destined for eventual triumph. Much the same feeling filled socialists worldwide when communists took power in Russia in 1917.
And today’s pseudo-Islamic radicals see their attacks as part of the ISIS goal to establish caliphates in West and Central Asia, India, the northern half of Africa, and former Muslim domains in Europe (Iberia and the old Ottoman Empire), as seen in the map below from the ISIS Study Group website. Similarly, Mindanao separatists want Bangsamoro to include all of Mindanao, Palawan and Sabah (see http://www.polgeonow.com/2013/09/bangsamoro-republik-philippines-rebellion.html).
The war on ISIS feeds Muslim grievances
A second ISIS factor fueling extremism in the country is, ironically, the US-led war on the forces espousing Sunni Islam. Many Muslims, even moderate ones, see America as advancing Zionist supremacy, expansion, and oppression of Arabs. Washington’s campaign against ISIS is portrayed as just another anti-Islam war like others waged over the centuries, from medieval crusades to modern-day Israeli assaults.
Even Sunni-majority nations joining the US-led bombings is seen as signs of geopolitical domination by the Christian West, and extremists seek the eventual ouster of Washington-friendly Arab autocrats as part of the struggle against Islam’s enemies.
In that context, ASG, BIFF and other attacks against the US-allied Philippines are blows against anti-Islam forces. And regaining former Muslim-majority lands, including all of Mindanao, Palawan and Sabah, becomes part and parcel of global Islam’s struggle to right past wrongs and reestablish historic domains.
The ISIS conflict is also seen as demonstrating Muslim power, which American precision bombing, plus Arab and European ordnance, cannot seem to stop. The Kurdish-held Syrian town of Khobane looks set to fall soon. Moreover, burgeoning ISIS resources from Arab donations and war booty, stir hopes of more money and weaponry among Mindanao radicals.
Bangsamoro must not protect terrorists
Will passing the Bangsamoro law retard ISIS influence in Mindanao, as claimed by MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal? Three things to ponder.
Radicals have never been satisfied with anything short of full independence. When the Moro National Liberation Front made peace, the MILF broke away. Now, BIFF has split from MILF. Plainly, die-hard separatists fight on despite peace pacts.
What’s worse, with several dubious provisions, the Bangsamoro accord could become a no-win one. If unconstitutional parts are watered down in Congress or struck down in court, the 11,000-strong MILF could feel betrayed and resume conflict.
If Bangsamoro is created, radicals might just flourish under a regional government dominated by the MILF, with whom they have long ties and share age-old aspirations to regain former Muslim lands. Rather than a crackdown on terrorists, the opposite could happen: Bangsamoro seeking independence and more territory.
To stop extremism, development, peace and counter-terrorism efforts must all be redoubled, including the 18-point CT program adopted after 9/11 attacks in 2001. If Bangsamoro is to be part of those initiatives, the MILF should accept a Basic Law that allows the national government and armed forces to go after terrorists, rebels and outlaws in the region if, for whatever reason, its authorities and police don’t.
Then peace can come to Mindanao.