During the last year, the Islamic State’s (ISIS) presence in the Philippines has fallen into the emerging narrative of the group’s defeat. Filipino forces ended ISIS’ months-long siege on the city of Marawi in October of 2017, just three months after the group’s loss of Mosul and roughly a week after its loss of Raqqah. From here, the comforting narrative sold itself: the mess of ISIS in the Philippines, like in other countries, was finally being cleaned up.
But perhaps not.
On Tuesday, July 31, ISIS’ East Asia Division announced that a militant "Abu Kathir al-Maghribi [the Moroccan]” carried out a suicide operation on a Philippine army post in Lamitan city on the island of Basilan. The operation, which ISIS reported to have killed 15 (news outlets have reported 11), shows that ISIS is anything but defeated in the region. Rather, it appears to be expanding its aims and capabilities there.
This is ISIS’ First Ever Suicide Operation in the Philippines
Before Tuesday, ISIS’ activity in the country before was limited to conventional armed clashes with Philippine forces in addition to projectile strikes and IED blasts. After being ousted from Marawi in October of 2017, ISIS continued to carry out such attacks in places like Sulu, where the group claimed nine attacks since January alone.
Despite this activity, the group would still never perform a suicide operation—let alone a VBIED attack—in the country until this past Tuesday, which brings me to my next point.
The Use of a VBIED Showcases a New Tactic
Tuesday’s suicide operation took place when Filipino troops stopped a van with a lone driver who then detonated the explosives inside, confirming ISIS’ report of a VBIED.
...this first suicide operation, let alone one made via a VBIED, may very well have opened a Pandora’s box for similar attacks in the future.
VBIEDs, an acronym for Vehicle-Born Improvised Explosive Devices, are staples of high-profile suicide operations in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, where ISIS maintains operational sites, materials, and weapons experts at hand. Constructing these weapons—which of course vary in degrees of sophistication (from armor-plated trucks in Iraq to the van used on Basilian)—require a baseline level of experience not before seen in the Philippines.
With that, this first suicide operation, let alone one made via a VBIED, may very well have opened a Pandora’s box for similar attacks in the future.
First Attack by Non-Regional Migrant
Abu Kathir al-Maghribi is the first non-regional ISIS fighter to be attributed to an attack in the Philippines. Though fighters from neighboring countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have been identified as fighters with ISIS in the Philippines, the group’s promoted migrant membership there has been limited to Southeast Asia.
Abu Kathir’s Moroccan nationality is all the more surprising considering the local-focus of ISIS’ migration calls to the Philippines during the past two years in its videos, magazines, and other media.
For example, a June 21, 2016 official ISIS video dedicated to the Philippines features Malaysian fighter Abu ‘Awn al-Malizi. From Syria, he calls for fighters across East Asia unable to join the battles in the Philippines:
To those who are unable to immigrate to the land of Sham [Syria]: Mobilize and join the mujahideen in the Philippines. If you have an excuse, then send your sons to the land of jihad in the Philippines.
Likewise, an August 2017 video from ISIS’ al-Hayat Media Center features an Australian fighter, identified as “Abu Adam,” calling for Australians to take advantage of their country’s proximity to the Philippines, stating in English:
As for those of you who can't make it to this battle, the Battle of al-Ahzab [Raqqah], in particular, to the muwahhidin [monotheists] in Australia, then you should go aid your brothers in the fight against the Crusader government of the Philippines. The Australian government has already pledged to help and assist the taghut [tyrant] there. So where is your pledge to Allah, O Muslim?
Even those non-regionally focused calls to the Philippines have been open-ended at best. For instance, Issue 10 of ISIS’ Rumiyah magazine, released in June of 2017, features an interview with Abu ‘Abdillah al-Muhajir, whom the article identifies as “the amir [leader] of the soldiers of the Khilafah in East Asia.” In the interview, Abu ‘Abdillah is asked, “Do you continue to receive muhajirin [migrants] up until now? And is there a way open for those who wish to join you?” He answers generally:
Yes – and all praise is due to Allah – we continue to receive muhajirin, and we welcome them. There are several safe paths and ways to achieve that…
However, Tuesday’s attack—and ISIS’ subsequent glorification of him—sends a very new and very intentional signal to the group’s supporters: The Philippines is your battlefront, regardless of which corner of the Earth you’re from.
We still don’t know how Abu Kathir reached the Philippines, or if he did so from his home country or battlefronts in Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere. However, reports out of the Philippines have described incoming militants from other battlegrounds. Ebrahim Murad, leader of the Philippines Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), even claimed early this year: “Based on our own intelligence information, foreign fighters who were displaced from the Middle East continued to enter into our porous borders…”
Such reports are not far-fetched; ISIS has very openly sought new territorial hubs after its losses in Iraq and Syria, and the Philippines, a country with a proven body of supporters, would be a fitting place for ISIS to invest resources.
ISIS Central’s Newfound Coordination in Attacks
Further suggesting the prospect that ISIS is increasing its investment in the Philippines is that the group claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack on the same day it happened. This timing is notable considering the group’s lack of communication with those on the ground in the Philippines.
Since ISIS established a presence in the Philippines, the organization’s central command previously appeared to have very limited coordination and communication with its members there. During the peak of ISIS militants’ notorious siege on Marawi, the most up-to-date reports of activity came not from ISIS communiques, but rather messages from Filipino operatives on Telegram channels and chat groups.
In late March, ISIS resumed operations in Jolo, Sulu. It was during this time that communications between fighters and ISIS’ central command improved, resulting in the group's first of six formal communiques issued on April 7, along with a dozen statements by ISIS’ ‘Amaq News Agency regarding clashes against Philippine forces.
For Tuesday’s attack, ISIS claimed responsibility just hours after it took place via a formal communique, which was translated into several languages. The communique provided various details about the attack that were not published anywhere else, including the name of the attacker, stating:
15 Filipino Soldiers Are Killed in an Istishhadi Operation on the Island of Basilan
With success granted by Allah, the istishhadi, Abu Kathir al-Maghribi (may Allah accept him) managed to reach a gathering of Crusader Filipino soldiers in the village of Bajanda near the city of Lamitan on the island of Basilan, where he detonated his explosive vehicle, killing 15 of them and injuring a number of others, and all praise is due to Allah.
ISIS even provided a photograph of Abu Kathir just a few minutes later, suggesting that the group was prepared for his operation.
The factors surrounding Tuesday’s attack are telltale red flags that ISIS is looking to establish a more substantial base in the Philippines.
...the troubling facts cannot be changed: ISIS claimed its first suicide operation in the Philippines by a Moroccan man with unignorable speed, showing a direct line between the group and militants there.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines has rejected various tenants of ISIS’ attack claim, casting doubt that the attacker was a foreigner. Regarding the attack itself, a military spokesman stated, “Our initial investigations show that it is not a suicide bombing as the driver stopped his van some 60 metres from the security checkpoint and asked people to help push the vehicle.”
Of course, an attack like Tuesday’s deserves the upmost objective investigating and attention to details, and officials would be wise not to jump to conclusions or take a terrorist group’s claims at face-value. But the troubling facts cannot be changed: ISIS claimed its first suicide operation in the Philippines by a Moroccan man with unignorable speed, showing a direct line between the group and militants there.
It's also critical to add that since ISIS was ousted from Marawi, it didn't stop exploiting the Philippines, but rather relocated its operations to Sulu, where its membership is comprised largely of former Abu Sayaf fighters. The situation is similar to those of Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, and other conflict zones, in that ISIS has been able to bring fighters from local factions under its so-called "caliphate" and establish firm footings. Thus, ISIS’s exploitation of the Philippines should not be seen as a solely local problem; it is one piece of a global operation to exploit conflict regions by first recruiting from the local groups.
Looking forward, the Philippines government and neighboring countries must increase stability efforts and resolve longstanding tensions that feed into the recruitment narratives of groups like ISIS. Failure to do so will only play into the terrorist group’s hands.