The recent counterterrorism operation conducted in the Lanao del Sur province of the Philippines has brought terrorism to the forefront in this Asian nation. This operation has highlighted the ongoing threat posed by jihadist groups and the challenges faced by the Philippine authorities in combating them.
As the dissemination of extremist propaganda continues and the possibility of increased violent attacks looms, the proliferation of these jihadist organisations not only endangers the local population but also affects foreigners working or visiting the Philippines.
Counter-terrorism operations in the Lanao del Sur province of the Philippines resulted in the successful neutralisation of four fighters affiliated with the Islamic State (IS). The operation occurred on May 31st, 2023, after receiving intelligence on the group’s location.
A special forces unit engaged in a firefight with the jihadists, who escaped but left behind one deceased comrade. A member of the Philippine Armed Forces lost their life during the exchange of fire.
Later that evening, security forces pursued the terrorists and clashed with them once again, this time eliminating three of them. The special unit seized the weapons belonging to the terrorists at the scene of the firefight.
In late May, because of threats from Islamic State militants who had pledged to launch attacks on populated areas similar to the city of Marawi, a significant number of security personnel were deployed to Lanao del Sur. As a result, over two thousand individuals were evacuated from several settlements.
Terrorism and Islamic State in the Philippines
Terrorism is a major security threat in the Philippines, particularly in the southern region. Groups affiliated with the Islamic State pose the deadliest terrorist threat, engaging in recruitment, fundraising, and conducting attacks against both security forces and civilians. These attacks have even involved the use of female relatives of previous attackers in suicide bombings.
The Philippine government has allocated substantial resources to combat these terrorist groups, primarily operating in the southern regions. To enhance their capabilities, the Philippine military, law enforcement, and judicial authorities have actively taken part in various capacity-building programs. They receive training and equipment from the United States to prevent and respond to terrorist incidents effectively.
The presence and influence of the Islamic State have extended beyond the Middle East, reaching Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. In the southern region of Mindanao, a long-standing conflict known as the Moro conflict has been ongoing since 1968. Islamist militant groups emerged in their pursuit of independence and self-determination for the Muslim minority in the area.
In 2014, around twenty of these groups united under the banner of the Islamic State, aiming to achieve their objectives. Although the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Mindanao was a step towards peace, it did not satisfy the Islamists in the region.
The ideology of the Islamic State is rooted in Islamic fundamentalism, jihadism, and Salafism. Adherents seek strict adherence to what they perceive as the original teachings of Islam, with the goal of establishing an Islamic state under Sharia law.
Islamist terrorist groups, including the Islamic State in the Philippines (ISEAP), aim to defend specific religious communities, promote Islam, and justify their violent actions through selective interpretations of the Quran.
The ISEAP presents its violent actions as self-defence against assimilation, oppression by authorities, and discrimination. They demand control over territory with a predominantly Muslim population and envision establishing a caliphate or self-governing unit. These demands challenge the sovereignty of the Philippines and are a threat to the authorities. However, the ISEAP portrays its fight as a quest for freedom and self-determination for the minority Muslim population.
The Islamic State in the Philippines comprises diverse organisations with different structures but shares common elements, such as using terrorist tactics, engaging in criminal activities, and taking advantage of Mindanao’s terrain. The Maute Group is one of the most influential groups, followed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), even though only one faction of the latest support the ISEAP.
The Islamic State in the Philippines achieved significant success in 2017 when it besieged Marawi, resulting in a five-month urban battle that showcased the group’s unity and territorial control. Although the siege led to substantial losses for the ISAP, it was considered a strategic success, enabling the recruitment of new members and further terrorist actions. The Philippine Army’s response during the siege also contributed to the organisation’s propaganda.
Peace negotiations between the authorities and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) led to the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) in 2019. However, many non-governmental armed groups, including the Islamic State in the Philippines, remain dissatisfied with the peace process, believing it does not represent the interests of the entire Muslim population. The ISEAP continues to attract support because of poor living conditions, limited political representation, discrimination, and exclusivism within the BARMM.
The Philippines also attracts foreign fighters, particularly those affiliated with Islamic State, which contributes to the ISEAP’s propaganda and recruitment efforts. The lack of comprehensive counterterrorism strategies and distractions caused by various crises further aids the spread of Islamic ideology within Mindanao.
There are several potential risk scenarios that need to be considered:
- Increased recruitment efforts by terrorist organisations: Extremist groups operating in the Philippines could intensify their recruitment activities, particularly in areas affected by violent attacks and social unrest. These groups may take advantage of existing grievances and vulnerabilities to attract new members.
- Urban attacks targeting crowded places: Terrorist groups may plan and execute attacks in densely populated areas, such as cities or major urban centres. The aim of these attacks would be to instil fear and create instability, potentially resulting in casualties and significant disruption.
- Collaboration between local and international terrorist networks: There is a possibility of collaboration between local extremist groups and international terrorist networks. This partnership could involve the exchange of resources, knowledge, and tactics, amplifying the capabilities and reach of these organisations. Such cooperation poses a greater threat to security in the Philippines.
In conclusion, we might stress that the Moro conflict has deep-rooted causes that span across various aspects of society, including social, religious, cultural, ethnic, economic, environmental, political, and historical factors.
Recent events such as the economic problems generated by the pandemic, the fall of Kabul to the Taliban after the US troops’ withdrawal in August 2021, and the evolving geopolitical landscape can have a psychological impact, potentially motivating Muslims to join the struggle or continue their jihad in pursuit of greater freedom for their people and nations.
This combination of circumstances and influences contributes to a fertile ground for instability and jihadist propaganda promoted by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi
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