The extremists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State have one foot in Southeast Asia, with the Philippines was the first country to suffer a strong attack Daesh. But what are their goals in the area?
The island of Mindanao in the south of the country has been under martial law since May 23, when a group of Philippine army entered the city of Marawi in search of Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of Daesh in the Philippines and main man of the terrorist faction Abu Sayyaf. When they arrived, the city was seized by about 100 extremists, and the fighting began. Of the approximately 200,000 inhabitants of the city, about 85,000 have already been taken to protection centers. The government has been in permanent confrontation with the insurgents and, in less than a week, at least 103 people have died.
Already this Friday, 37 people were killed in an attack on a Manila casino. Police deny that the shooting was a terrorist attack but Daesh nevertheless claimed the incident as the work of the “soldiers of the Islamic State.”
The extremists have taken over the city, burned down a cathedral and a hospital, captured a Catholic priest and killed about 15 people, who were found in a common grave on Thursday, after they, according to reports from local residents, Succeeded in reciting color passages from the Koran.
These are three examples of how the Philippine archipelago can become a major center of the activity of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (Daesh) in Southeast Asia, if not its first “territory,” refer to terrorism experts.
How and why does Daesh have a presence in the Philippines?
The Philippines is a largely Catholic country – the third most Catholic in the world. About 90% of the population said, in the last Census, to be practicing this religion. However, Muslims are concentrated mostly in Mindanao, Palawan, and the Sulu archipelago, an area known as Bangsmoro and represent about 11% of the population, more than 10 million Filipinos.
The Muslim insurgency is ancient in this area. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has long called for an independent territory for the Muslim minority. Already since the Spanish occupation that this zone is known for the resistance to any type of government that is not one done by the Moors for the Moors. Recently, after the election of Rodrigo Duterte a year ago, a hope appeared on the horizon, since the President had promised to bring peace to the region.
While this is not happening, the region has been seized by several guerrillas, not all linked to the Islamic state. Many are just groups of robbers or murderers on the job who have long made the area one of the most violent in the country. When Duterte was Mayor of Davao, also on the island of Mindanao, things were ‘in order’, but he did not impose it without resorting to violence. Even today they are suspicious that Duterte himself has been linked to “death squads,” groups of “self-rightists” who “cleansed” the cities of criminals, traffickers and thieves.
In addition, Mindanao has close links with Indonesia and Malaysia, home to other equally extremist terrorist groups and equally loyal to the self-declared Islamic state.
The international conflict analysis group Soufan Group estimates that about 900 extremist soldiers have left Southeast Asia bound for Syria and Iraq. The Diplomat magazine has compiled numbers from various news agencies and talks on a contingent that can hold up to 1,800 people. As Daesh loses ground in its main strongholds, it is normal for combatants to try to return home, either to forget the war and move on, or to continue jihad in their home countries. And it is in the extremist groups that already existed in the Philippines that they are finding support.
Philippine Attorney General Jose Calida said the aim of the two largest groups, Maute and Abu Sayyaf, was “to create a province of the Islamic State in Mindanao.” In statements to the Reuters news agency, Calida said that “everyone was in danger, Muslims and Christians” and that the danger was precisely that they had already managed to radicalize “many young Filipinos.” The same said President Duterte: “The Islamic State is already here,” he said.
Does the problem extend to the rest of Southeast Asia?
To some countries, yes. Indonesia is the country with the largest number of Muslims in the world: 203 million people. And the country has more than 30 terrorist organizations that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic state. British television broadcaster BBC speaks in several videos where Islamic state soldiers are urging their supporters to attack the sites where they are if they can not travel to the Middle East. Taufik Andrie, director of the Yayasan Prasasti Perdamaian group, who helps men radicalized by Daesh, also said in statements to the BBC that 40% of the 400 militants released by the authorities since their return from Syria will have rejoined their radical networks.
Indonesia was the scene of one of the most shocking terrorist attacks of the first decade of the 21st century: the bombing of Bali in 2002 that killed 202 people. Soon the following year, in 2003, an attack on the Marriott hotel in Jakarta kills 12 people. In the same year, a booby-trapped car exploded ahead of the Australian embassy and killed 10 Indonesians. As early as 2016, a series of explosions near the Sarinah commercial center killed eight people. It was the first attempt claimed by Daesh. Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the group behind the Bali bombings, withdrew its support of the Daesh after offering it, but its ranks began to thicken again. JI will now have close to 2,000 militants, a figure close to that recorded at the time of the Bali bombings, at the height of extremist recruitment in that country.
Malaysia, which has 25 million Muslims, is also on alert. Since 2013, 122 people have been arrested in the country for links to the self-proclaimed Islamic state and another 200 have been identified for their support of radical jihadists. According to data released last April, between 60 and 150 Malays are active members of Daesh in the Middle East. Daesh also launched a Malaysian news service in 2016, an extra effort to try to increase its base of support in the country. Daesh’s first attack happened in the country last summer when two men threw a grenade into a nightclub in Kuala Lumpur. Although no one died, the country was in shock.
Some Southeast Asian governance issues, the large numbers of unemployed youth and the relative lack of strong laws in some of the most isolated areas of these countries are three reasons that can contribute to radicalization. For example, Muslim minorities in the Philippines have been ostracized for centuries, just as in Burma, where they are persecuted with violence. If governments authorize – or at least do not vehemently oppose such discrimination – the environment is created for desires of revenge and self-determination.
The Sulu archipelago in the Philippines, where extremist activity is concentrated, is bordered by the state of Sabah in Malaysia and the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia and the waters of the seas of Sulu and Celebes – where weapons, militants And goods sold on the black market to finance these groups.
The formation and expansion of Katibah Nusantara, a Daesh-affiliated group that describes itself as an army of soldiers from Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore, is also disturbing since the more united the militants are, , As Thomas Kortuh Samuel analyzes, who wrote an extensive thesis on the permeability of Southeast Asia to extremist ideologies. According to Otso Iho, analyst for the Center for Analysis of Terrorism and Insurgency, JANE, “ever closer cooperation between the different countries is a sure step in building a united front, especially in the southern Philippines.”
What is Abu Sayyaf?
It is one of the most well-known terrorist groups in the Philippines. Created in 1991, and with links to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, it operated for many years almost exclusively from the southwest on the islands of Sulu and Basilan. They were known for the violence of their actions, including beheadings, torture and abduction of foreigners, methods that have become the Daesh brand image in their Middle Eastern strongholds.
In 2002, the United States sent military forces to help the Philippine army radiate Abu Sayyaf. The casualties were significant but in 2014 the group declared their loyalty to the “caliphate” of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and its leader, Isnilon Hapilon, the man the army wanted to capture last Tuesday, declared The official representative of the Southeast Asian group. Main responsibility: build a “caliphate” in the Philippines.
And the Maute group?
The group is based in Lanao del Sur, Mindanao, and was created in 2012 by Abdullah Maute (aka Abu Hasan) and his brother Omar. Despite having only a hundred identified militants, the first meeting with the Philippine authorities happened in 2013, when they attacked a security post in Mindanao. In 2015 they allied themselves with Daesh, but in early 2016, official Philippine troops destroyed their command center, killing more than 40 rebels. Despite this, authorities identify the Maute group as one of the most radical, part of the Khilafah Islamiya network, one of the most violent groups linked to Islamic extremism. The group attempted to detonate a bomb in 2016, near the US Embassy in Manila, and declared themselves the perpetrators of another attack on a night market in Davao where 15 people died.
Their personal and family connections are directly associated with the MILF, the group of “Moors” who want an autonomous state.
Their last and most successful attempt to convert a city into a “caliphate” happened precisely on Tuesday when they tried to take Marawi.