Angelica Mangahas, ADRi Deputy Executive Director and Mark Davis M. Pablo, ADRi Research Analyst
Filipino extremists pledging allegiance to ISIS. (Source: http://www.rappler.com/nation/122649-jihadist-groups-allegiance-isis)
The specter of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is creeping on the shores of southern Philippines. On 17 February 2016, ISIS officially recognized certain jihadist groups in Mindanao—a step closer to declaring a wilayat or province in the country and across Southeast Asia.1 This recognition follows an earlier video released by the ISIS-linked, Russian-language outlet Al Furat Media, where Filipino jihadist leaders Isnilon Hapilon (Abu Sayyaf Group), Abu Anas al Muhajir (Katibat Ansar al Sharia), and Abu Harith al Filipini (Katibat Marakah al Ansar) were seen pledging to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.2
For the Philippines, a mutual reinforcement of domestic and transnational terrorist forces could increase the prospects of sporadic terror attacks. Notwithstanding the ongoing coordination between the Philippine and MILF peace panels3, the non-passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) and the absence of any viable alternative to it risk fomenting mass discontent not only within the MILF ranks but also among segments of the Bangsamoro population. ISIS could exploit this resurgence of discontent to advance a foothold in Southeast Asia, just as Filipino extremists with no direct links to ISIS may seek to promote themselves as ISIS affiliates to raise their profiles.
Analysts in the region such as Ahmad Hashim, military studies program head of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) have confirmed that a growing number of Muslims in Mindanao and in Southeast Asia adhere to ISIS-like ideology4. Some of these views have translated into action: on 18 February 2016, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) issued a public warning against possible escalation of attacks on non-military targets by the ISIS-inspired Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) following a bombing in Datu Salibo that killed five civilians5
When does an ISIS wali (area of operations) become a wilayat (official province)? Citing Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, Dr. Helene Lavoix, Director of the Red (Team) Analysis Society enumerates two general cases: first, the “appointment or recognition of leadership by the Khalifah (Caliph) for those lands where multiple groups have given bay’at (pledge of allegiance) and merged”; and second, the “establishment of a direct line of communication between the Khilafah (political organization) and the emir (mujahid leadership) of lands who have yet to contact the Islamic State and thus receive information and directives from the Khalifah”6. Dr. Lavoix explains that it is important for the extremist groups to demonstrate three elements akin to state-building: military strength, administrative control over a given population and territory, and media control.7
The combination of Mindanaoan discontent and the presence of less-governed spaces in Mindanao provide an opportunity for Filipino groups to build themselves up to wilayat status. In this situation, it is imperative for the Philippine government to act prudently in prevention. A three-pronged approach is worth considering: first, working to dismantle (rather than merely contain) the existing terror threat through military and law enforcement operations; second, strengthening international counter-terror cooperation; and, most importantly, supporting moderate forces within the Bangsamoro leadership, who still represent a majority of residents, to design and implement a viable alternative to the BBL that will provide a more democratic, inclusive, and equitable political and economic order for Muslim Mindanao.
1 According to international terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, ISIS follows the 5-step process in expanding its influence beyond Iraq and Syria: a.) raising awareness of the Islamic Caliphate through propaganda; b.) a series of groups pledging their allegiance to the Caliph; c.) selection of groups to form a province; d.) selection of a leader to lead the ISIS branch; and e.) ISIS proclamation of a designated area as a province of the Caliphate. Source: KD Suarez, “ISIS recognizes Philippine-based extremist groups”, Rappler, 17 February 2016, accessed 19 February 2016, http://www.rappler.com/nation/122649-jihadist-groups-allegiance-isis.
3 Jose Rodel Clapano, “BBL non-passage may stall MILF decommissioning process”, Philippine Star, 19 February 2016, accessed 19 February 2016, http://www.philstar.com/nation/2016/02/19/1554452/bbl-non-passage-may-stall-milf-decommissioning-process.
4 Amina Rasul, “Interconnectedness and hope”, Business World, 21 May 2015, accessed 29 February 2016, http://www.bworldonline.com/content.php?section=opinion=&titleInterconnectedness-and-hope&id=108365.
5 John Unson, “Military warns of more BIFF attacks in Maguindanao”, Philippine Star, 18 February 2016, accessed 22 February 2016, http://www.philstar.com/nation/2016/02/18/1554390/military-warns-more-biff-attacks-maguindanao.
6 Dr. Helene Lavoix, “Understanding the Islamic State’s System—Structure and Wilayat”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 04 May 2015, accessed 24 February 2016, https://www.redanalysis.org/2015/05/04/understanding-the-islamic-states-system-structure-and-wilayat/.