IS Expansion in the Philippines After the Marawi Seige

Introduction

Three years after the Islamic State (IS) sieged the Philippine city of Marawi, the terrorist threat to the Philippines and the wider Southeast Asian region has grown. IS central has asserted its reach, influence, and authority over diverse groups. This thereby signaled the beginning of a more extreme IS presence in Mindanao and IS’ East Asia Province (ISEAP) taking control of the propaganda machine. The siege in Marawi served as a dramatic rallying point for IS cells across the region to send support. The Armed Forces of Philippines (AFP) was able to retake the city after five months of intense urban warfare. Despite the victory, at least four IS groups remain in Mindanao. These are: Hajan Sawadjaan-led IS Sulu, Furuji Indama-led IS Basilan, Abu Turaife, Salahuddin Hasaan and Bungos-led IS Maguindanao, and a leaderless IS Lanao. These groups continue to conduct widespread and increasingly sophisticated attacks, even using tactics previously confined to Afghanistan and Iraq. This indicates that the longstanding localized conflict in Mindanao is expanding to a wider regional conflict. 

 President Duterte recognizes this threat and has intensified military efforts against IS elements particularly in the Sulu province. However, the battle remains unfinished as the Philippine military lacks the specialist capabilities to contain, isolate, and eliminate the threat, especially with the impending discontinuance of US military presence in the Philippines. It is indicative that the severity of IS attacks in Mindanao did not reduce after the Siege of Marawi.

Rising Levels of Operational Skill and Radicalization

IS central appears to have recognized both the weakness of the AFP and the capabilities of the local IS groups. IS released its first six formal communiques on April 7, 2018, along with statements by the Amaq News Agency which reported the clash against the AFP in detail. This demonstrates IS’ interests in the Philippines as incidents are often promptly claimed.

 IS Expansion in the Philippines After the Marawi Seige

Overview of IS Attacks in Mindanao Over Three Years (May 1, 2017 to May 13, 2020)

 

The local groups have increased their operations and sophistication of attacks. The use of suicide attacks indicates an increasing radicalization. The arrival of foreign fighters in Mindanao, such as “Abu Kathir al-Maghribi,” the Moroccan fighter, can explain some of the racialization. 

Abu Kathir al-Maghribi, conducted IS first suicide in the Philippines in Lamitan on July 31, 2018, killing 11 people using a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED). IS claimed responsibility through its official media only hours after the attack. SITE Intelligence Group Director Rita Katz shared that the use of VBIED are staples of high-profile suicide operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. This demonstrates a new strategy in the Philippines as this had not been seen before in the country.  The adoption of this tactic indicates an increasing radicalization in the pro-IS community as, traditionally, suicide attacks are rejected in Southeast. The use of a non-local fighter to conduct the operation may suggest there is still a reluctance amongst local IS fighters to conduct operations. However, the fact that IS utilized the tactic indicates the prohibition has fallen.  IS has then tried to launch at least five suicide bombing attacks in the country since July 2018.

The Changing Nature of the Southern Philippines Conflict

Prior to the Battle of Marawi, regional groups used the Southern Philippines as a rear area, offering safe haven and training opportunities. The various local groups were able to keep their conflicts localized. With the influence of IS, that appears to have changed. While IS in the Philippines is only supported by a small segment of the Muslim community, recruiters often rely on a range of longstanding local grievances, and the tribal nature of Mindanao for critical sympathizer and support networks. Furthermore, it provides a wider base to spread its ideology and propaganda. One key grievance is the weakness of the former Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and the wider peace process in the country.

Foreign Fighters in Mindanao

IS had been recruiting fighters from local communities under its “wilayah” and has made Sulu a conflict zone no different from Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, and Nigeria. As with these other conflicts, the introduction of foreign fighters is a critical step in radicalization.

As reports from SITE noted, the introduction of foreign fighters intensifies radicalization. Local and cultural assumptions, as well as taboos, are not shared by these fighters. The foreign fighters in Mindanao heightens the threat in the region, but also the currently limited nature of local support for IS. As such, foreign fighters are disproportionately represented as suicide bombers in the Philippines. The Philippines continued to report an influx of foreign fighters after the Marawi Siege, signaling a persistent interest in IS operations in Mindanao. An example is the January 27, 2019, bombing of Lady of Mt. Carmel Cathedral in Jolo. IS claimed the attack that was executed by two Indonesians recruited by the leader of IS Sulu, Hajan Sawadjaan. This signals the increased levels of extremism and growing interests of regional militants in the Mindanao conflict.

Still, IS appears to view the conflict in the Southern Philippines as a key global front. On August 16, 2018, an IS report entitled “Diaries of a Mujahid in East Asia Province (ISEAP)” shows the daily routines of fighters. In their ranks, an Egyptian fighter and a child who is being groomed to be a militant. 

 IS Expansion in the Philippines After the Marawi Siege 2

Overview of IS Attacks in Mindanao Over Three Years (May 1, 2017 to May 13, 2020)

Conclusion

 IS actions demonstrate the importance it places on Mindanao and the groups wider strategy in Southeast Asia. IS has established a ‘province’ and taken control of the region’s propaganda. It has encouraged, if not deployed, foreign fighters from the region and beyond.  The effects of this commitment can be seen in the increasing number and sophistication of attacks across Mindanao since IS took factions of established local groups, such as the BIFF and the ASG, under their wing. All covered through an increasing focus from IS media. The increasing threat is clear, and it calls for a more coordinated regional response.