The Islamic State name will draw more aspiring jihadists to join militant groups in Mindanao.
Islamic State affiliates in Mindanao will keep orchestrating the same kinds of attacks that they have been conducting for decades.
Until the Moro nationalist insurgency in Mindanao is resolved, jihadist groups will continue to find a haven in the region.
In the Philippines, concerns are mounting over the proliferation of Islamic State affiliates on the southern islands of Mindanao. Jihadist groups in the region have been coalescing under the extremist group’s flag since the head of Abu Sayyaf, Isnilon Hapilon, declared his allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014. Less than a decade earlier, Mindanao’s various Islamic State affiliates were a jumble of local gangs engaged in criminal activity under the dubious banner of jihad.
By adopting the Islamic State’s moniker and mimicking some of its tactics, Hapilon and other jihadist leaders in the Philippines have gained legitimacy, along with notoriety, as part of a well-known, transnational movement. But beyond that, the benefits of taking up the Islamic State banner have been marginal. Al-Baghdadi, in fact, has yet to grant official “wilayat” (province) status to Abu Sayyaf, even though Hapilon has a large following among Southeast Asian fighters in Syria. (The Islamic State leader has allegedly indicated that Hapilon’s base on the island of Basilan is too small to be a wilayat and that he should pick a better location.) For groups such as Abu Sayyaf, declaring allegiance to the Islamic State is little more than a branding move. And despite its growing number of affiliates in the region, the Islamic State’s influence still pales in comparison with that of the Moro nationalist movements.
Mindanao was a hub for transnational jihadist groups well before the Islamic State got there, in large part because of its location. Its islands are positioned along the maritime boundaries between the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, making them an attractive destination for Indonesian and Malaysian jihadists on the run from security forces in their home countries. Before Indonesia’s counterterrorism squad liquidated the group in 2016, the East Indonesia Mujahideen operated on Sulawesi, south of Mindanao. The archipelago’s isolated geography and rugged terrain, moreover, make it difficult to govern — another selling point for foreign jihadists. Smuggling operations route international fighters to jihadist camps in the southern Philippines by way of the Malaysian city of Kota Kinabalu.
The profusion of Islamic State affiliates in Mindanao has added to its appeal. By pledging allegiance to the extremist organization, jihadist groups in the southern Philippines have increased their visibility, enabling them to attract militants from even farther afield. (Abu Sayyaf similarly drew in members from around the world in the 1990s and early 2000s when it was operating under al Qaeda’s banner.) The smuggling operation through Kota Kinabalu has helped individuals from as far away as Bangladesh and Myanmar’s Rakhine state reach Mindanao. In April 2016, Philippine security forces killed a Moroccan bombmaker who had reportedly come to Mindanao to try to recruit and train suicide bombers. Then in January of this year, police in the United Kingdom arrested a British man for trying to travel to the Philippines to join Islamic State affiliates there.
But beyond their declarations of allegiance, the groups’ ties to the Islamic State are tenuous. Mindanao’s jihadist groups are self-sufficient and function without support from the Islamic State core. Fighters acquire weapons by raiding Philippine military posts or taking them from slain Philippine soldiers. Political figures in Mindanao have even been caught diverting weapons and materiel from the military to supply jihadist fighters in the region. The local Islamic State affiliate groups do well for themselves financially, too. Until its leader’s death in January, Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines engaged in extortion, reportedly killing villagers who didn’t pay the group for protection. Abu Sayyaf militants on the island of Jolo likewise conduct a brisk kidnapping-for-ransom trade in the Sulu and Celebes seas that raked in an estimated $7 million in 2015 alone. To increase their leverage in negotiations, the kidnapping gangs brandish Islamic State flags in their proof-of-life videos and sometimes execute hostages. Association with the Islamic State has apparently proved profitable enough on its own that its affiliates in Mindanao don’t need to take money from the group.
New name, same strategy
They don’t seem to take many operational cues from the Islamic State, either. The vast majority of attacks by affiliate groups in Mindanao still target Philippine security forces and local communities that object to their hard-line brand of Islam. Furthermore, the strikes exhibit the same level of terrorist tradecraft that has long characterized jihadist attacks in the region. For example, in September 2016, Abu Sayyaf bombed a market in Davao City. Though the attack was the group’s most notable operation as an Islamic State affiliate, it was conducted against a soft target and yielded only a modest number of casualties. Bombings in Leyte and Cotabato City in December employed artillery shells detonated remotely with a cellphone — a tactic jihadist groups in the Philippines have been using since long before they took up the Islamic State banner. Philippine police suspect that the Maute group, an Islamic State affiliate in Lanao, was responsible for planting an improvised artillery round found in a trashcan in central Manila in November. If their suspicions are correct, then the group may be trying to expand its operations to the Philippine capital or pursue a new strategy. Regardless, the device failed to detonate — a sign of southern Philippine jihadists’ limitations.
A few recent attacks in Mindanao, however, have revealed the Islamic State’s influence there. In March 2016, a gunman in Zamboanga City shot and wounded a Saudi preacher who had been singled out for assassination in the Islamic State’s Dabiq magazine, though no group claimed the attack. The Maute group, meanwhile, replicated Islamic State beheading videos last year with the recorded execution of two sawmill workers accused of spying.
Mindanao’s bigger problem
Nonetheless, after two years of affiliation with the Islamic State, Mindanao’s jihadist groups are still focused more on everyday criminal activity than on coordinating spectacular terrorist attacks. The Moro nationalist movement, moreover, still poses a much greater security risk in Mindanao than does the Islamic State. Ethnic Moro militant groups in the region such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front have been waging an insurgency against Manila for more than four decades. Compared with jihadist groups, the Moro movement is much larger, with forces numbering in the tens of thousands. The influence of the Moro nationalist groups extends even into the Islamic State affiliates; the leaders of Islamic State Maguindanao, Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines and the Maute group all hail from Moro militant groups.
So long as the Moro separatist conflict endures, jihadist groups will find a haven in Mindanao. The Philippine government took a big step toward ending the insurgency in 2014 when it heeded the militants’ demands to devolve power to the mostly Muslim region by agreeing to establish the Bangsamoro Administrative Region.
Progress has since stalled, however. As the peace process has foundered, Moro leaders have had more and more difficulty keeping their fighters committed to it. At the same time, the movement’s more militant factions have increased their calls for violence, fueling defections and driving fighters into more radical hands. And since the continued conflict has undermined the separatists’ ability to police the region, prevented Manila from disbursing development funding and deterred international investment, militancy and crime are still an attractive economic option in Mindanao. Until the situation in Mindanao stabilizes, jihadist groups — whatever their affiliation — will be able to exploit the weak local government while continuing their criminal activities and terrorist attacks.