THE Islamic State (IS), like communism, is an idea of a society built on different values and principles than our democratic, capitalist type of society. Referring to the followers of these ideologies as terrorists or bandits may aptly describe them if we define them by their violent acts alone. However, if we ignore the appeal that these ideas have we may fail to remove permanently the threat of violent extremism.
Both the communist New People’s Army and terror groups like the Abu Sayyaf have been raising billions of pesos through extortion and kidnapping. Money may indeed be the greatest motivator for some of the thousands of mostly young men who join. After all, majority of them have nothing else to look forward to in life, and one still has to eat. For the leaders, money buys arms, ammunition, bomb parts; it buys mobility and communication and everything else needed to support an insurgent or terror group.
However, an idea or ideology by itself can be a powerful motivator, especially in our fast-paced, materialistic world where many feel left out—isolated by poverty or because they just don’t fit in mainstream society. Of course, it is hard to think how anybody could be inspired by the carnage in Syria and Iraq, but it happens.
A 17-year-old Danish girl recently received a jail sentence of six years for planning to bomb two schools. At 15, the girl converted to Islam after a trip to Turkey. She bought ingredients to make a TATP bomb, and had exchanges about bomb-making with jihadists through social media. She twitted with a man she thought was the leader of IS, and told him that she planned to bomb the schools. The girl has been described as a normal Danish teenager but lonely and with low self-esteem. During the trial she explained that she longed to belong to a community, and that being part of Islamic State made her life more exciting.
Back in our shores, the Maute Group—or IS-Ranao—has grown more deadly from its beginnings as Khilafah Islamiyah Mindanao (around 2012). The Indonesia-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), in a report from October 2016, observed: “The Maute Group based in Lanao del Sur has the smartest, best-educated and most sophisticated members of all of the pro-IS groups in the Philippines.”
The officially anointed IS leader in the Philippines, however, is Abu Sayyaf (Basilan) leader Isnilon Hapilon with Indonesian, Malaysian and Filipino IS fighters in Syria pledging their allegiance to him as amir of the Southeast Asian fighters. IPAC sees this recognition as a “preliminary step to declaring a Southeast Asian province (wilayat) of Islamic State”. Has Marawi City become the center of gravity as far as this wilayat is concerned?
Malaysia’s Star newspaper reported on May 27 that Dr. Mahmud Ahmad, formerly a senior lecturer at a renowned state university in Kuala Lumpur, led the attack on Marawi City to rescue Isnilon Hapilon. If the latter is killed, Mahmud will replace him as the head of IS in Southeast Asia. Mahmud, who trained in an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan in the 1990s, joined Isnilon Hapilon’s group in April 2014 when he fled Malaysia to avoid arrest. According to the Star, Mahmud was responsible for recruiting, training and sending Malaysians to Syria and Iraq to join IS. In 2015, military operations in Basilan forced Mahmud to relocate to Lanao del Sur. Around this time he started to form an official “IS faction” in Southeast Asia.
Last March, Malaysian police arrested two Filipinos with permanent resident status for having helped three pro-IS Indonesians travel to the Philippines. A third Filipino was arrested on suspicion that he was securing funds for Mahmud and another Malaysian fugitive (The Star, March 13, 2017).
Mahmud reportedly paid a Filipino for every fighter the latter was able to get to Mindanao. Even Bangladeshis who are “looking for jihad” seek to reach Mindanao though it seems that no one has made it so far. As of late 2016, less than 10 foreigners were estimated to have entered the Philippines. However, more could have joined since then. IPAC devoted an entire report to “Pro-ISIS Groups in Mindanao and their Links to Indonesia and Malaysia” (October 2016) and reminds us that there is nothing new about foreign terrorists on Philippine soil.
IPAC concludes that because of social media, “the Mautes or others can easily reach across national boundaries, seeking inspiration, instruction or funding. Ethnic and clan ties remain strong, but it is probably a mistake to underestimate the power of ideology in the age of IS—or at least the appeal of the IS brand and the trappings that go with it—especially among younger militants.” Meaning, violent extremism is unlikely to be defeated with bombs and bullets alone.