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In the jungle of the southern Philippines

Image credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Within the first 100 days under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reportedly launched 571 military operations against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the southern Philippines, resulting in the neutralisation of 94 ASG militants.

The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) has identified the southern Philippines as a potential location for the establishment of an Islamic State (IS) branch in the near future. These threats are credible, particularly as Islamist terrorist presence and activity has been concentrated in the southern Philippines in the past decades. There are, however, significant factors to consider when assessing the national and regional security threat of the terrorist groups operating within the southern Philippines, particularly the ASG.

Islamisation of the Philippines

For over 500 years, Islam has existed in the Philippines, largely concentrated in the southern areas such as Mindanao, Basilan, Jolo, Zamboanga and Sulu. Islam spread through the southern Philippines due to the influence of Arab traders from Malaysia and Indonesia. It is believed that the Philippine archipelago would have been Islamic were it not for the arrival of Spanish colonisers.

The Spanish arrival in the early to mid-1500s led to the Christianisation of the Philippines, which faced fierce resistance in the southern Philippines due to strong institutional governance and extensive trade links with Muslim nations. The Filipino-Muslims’ (known as the ‘Moro’) bloody resistance against colonial subjugation is known as the ‘Bangsamoro Struggle’, resulting in conflicts with the Spanish and the Americans that lasted until the early 1900s.

Contemporary manifestation of the Bangsamoro Struggle

Today Filipino Islamist terrorist groups draw upon the history of the Bangsamoro Struggle in their pursuit for an independent Islamic state. There have been numerous groups pursuing this goal since the 1960s such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), BIFF and the ASG.

The ASG was originally established as an Islamist terrorist organisation in 1991 by Filipino Islamic scholar Abdurajak Janjalani. The ASG wanted to create an Islamic state under Sharia law, drawing upon its legitimacy through the Bangsamoro narrative and the social inequality suffered by Filipino Muslims.

Since its birth in the 1990s, the ASG has evolved largely due to the loss of ideological direction after the death of Janjalani and his brother Khadaffy Janjalani, in 1998 and 2006 respectively. The United States Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines also exerted massive pressure on the ASG, devastating its operational capabilities and fragmenting it into loose factions of armed militants.

In early 2016, several ASG battalions pledged allegiance to IS under the leadership of Isnilon Hapilon. This signals a potential unification of Filipino Islamist terrorist groups under IS. However, it remains unclear as to whether it’s possible for these terrorist groups to unite under IS. Indeed, many seasoned observers remain sceptical about the unification of Filipino terrorist groups.

Firstly, the historic evolution of the ASG suggests the ethno-linguistic divisions, and tribal politics and rivalries that remain at the heart of Filipino militancy undermine the prospect of unity. Secondly, the southern Philippines remains one of the country’s poorest regions and ASG primarily recruits young impoverished Muslims. Many believe that most of the ASG militants are not motivated by the establishment of an Islamic state, but simply ‘by the allure of money and power that comes from the barrel of a gun’. Thirdly, power and influence within the ASG largely remains decentralised and spread around in different territories. The death of Janjalani in 1998 resulted in the fragmentation of the ASG, which has since operated as independent factions rather than as a unified terrorist organisation.

Securing a foothold in Southeast Asia?

The threat of Philippine Islamist terrorism remains an internal security challenge for the Philippines Government. There is undoubtedly a growing fear over IS’ spread of influence within the southern Philippines. With this in mind, there are encouraging signs that the Philippines is committed to denying any IS influence in its southern region.

The Philippines government under the Duterte administration has fast-tracked peace negotiations with the MNLF/ MILF and Communists for the cessation of armed conflict and development of long-term peace in the Philippines. This is a welcome development, as it progresses the attainment of overall peace in the Philippines in an attempt to end the armed insurgencies that have existed for more than 50 years.

In the southern Philippines, the AFP has sustained an intensifying military offensive on ASG militants and other terrorist groups. Duterte has also deployed 10,000 soldiers in the region to strengthen military presence against insurgencies. This has brought about promising developments such as the seizure of key ASG territory, strongholds and the surrendering of an ASG battalion last month. Malaysia is reportedly on ‘high alert’ as officials have estimated that 400 Filipinos are expected to breach the Malaysian border, including ASG militants.

The war against Islamist terrorism rages on in the jungles of the southern Philippines, but it’s notable that the government is committed to denying the influence of IS through a combination of diplomacy and military action. Although we should not disregard the threat of terrorism in the Philippines or the broader Southeast Asian region, it remains unclear as to whether Filipino terrorists can come together under the brand of IS and pose a serious threat to the Philippines’ national security.

Reginald Ramos holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and History.

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