ISIS Looks to Rebound in the Philippines—And Spread

Photo: Jes Aznar/Getty

Bottom Line: Although the Philippine army managed to suppress an ISIS-affiliated rebellion in the country’s southern island of Mindanao last summer, ISIS fighters fleeing Syria and Iraq continue to trickle into the country and pose a growing jihadist threat throughout Southeast Asia. The U.S. and the Philippines have further bolstered their defense cooperation in light of these developments, yet the Philippines’ disparate geography, combined with the central government’s failure to provide key services to remote areas of the country, has permitted jihadists to mark the Philippines as a long-term launching pad for their operations across the region.

Background: Last May, Philippine forces encountered an unprecedented jihadist uprising as hardcore ISIS fighters managed to seize the city of Marawi located in the southern island of Mindanao for a five-month period.

  • The battle for Marawi began after Philippine forces raided the house of Isnilon Hapilon, the head of a terrorist organization known as the Abu Sayyaf, which had pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in July 2014. However, the Philippine army encountered fiercer-than-expected resistance as Hapilon’s supporters, aligned with another pro-ISIS brigade called the Maute Group, managed to overrun the city and free prisoners from local jails.
  • After five months and 1,100 deaths, Philippine forces finally defeated pro-ISIS militants in Marawi. In October, the Philippine army announced that it had killed Hapilon and Omar Maute, the leader of the Maute group, effectively ending the uprising.
  • Abu Sayyaf, which has been active in the Philippines since the 1990s, was designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization in 1997 and was responsible for carrying out the country’s largest terrorist attack in February 2004 when it bombed the passenger ferry, Superferry 14, shortly after it departed the Philippine capital of Manila, killing 116 people.
  • Abu Bakar Bashir, the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), another prominent U.S-designated terrorist that has maintained roots in the Philippines dating back to the 1990s, also pledged allegiance to ISIS in July 2014. JI was allegedly responsible for orchestrating several attacks in the region, including the October 2002 twin bombings at two nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia, which killed 202 people.

Alasdair Gordon, former senior national security officer, Australian Government

“The battle for Marawi demonstrated all too tragically both ISIS’s well-developed influence and support in the Southern Philippines, and worryingly, how underprepared the Filipino military was to respond to a terrorist attack in that region. For it to take five months to finally clear out the city is indicative of how much work still needs to be done by the Philippines in enhancing the country’s capability to combat the terrorist threat. It also underlines the importance for the U.S. and Australia in particular to provide much needed help.”

Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South and Southeast Asia, Woodrow Wilson Center

“Philippine authorities confronted what amounted to an unprecedented threat. The state has faced Islamist insurgents in Mindanao for decades, but both the composition and location of the enemy was very different this time around. This was not a rag-tag group of local rebels rising up against the state; these are well-armed and well-trained militants aligned with ISIS and well-versed in its tactics. Also, these fighters were not launching an uprising in the jungles of Mindanao or other rural areas well-known to Philippine counterinsurgency forces; they were taking over a major urban space. All of this is, for the most part, unprecedented and therefore a very difficult policy challenge for the Philippine state.”

Issue: Despite being ousted from the city of Marawi, ISIS aims to regroup in Mindanao and has its amplified its force size in recent months as militants have arrived from Syria and Iraq. In addition, the country’s island geography has complicated Manila’s centralized authority, particularly over Mindanao, affording jihadist groups the opportunity to establish save havens in inadequately governed territory.

  • In Mindanao, mounting tensions between the Catholic majority and Muslim minority, which comprises around 20 percent of the population, have generated religious strife and enabled the rise of several insurgent groups who ascribe to Maoist or militant Islamist ideologies and who have grown increasingly bold in recent years.
  • ISIS fighters fleeing Syria and Iraq have targeted the Philippines as a potential next caliphate. Ebrahim Murad, the head of the Philippines’ main Muslim rebel group known as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a peace treaty with Manila in 2014, claimed that ISIS fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East have entered the Philippines, and the group is planning to launch attacks against two cities in Mindanao. “Based on our own intelligence information, foreign fighters who were displaced from the Middle East continued to enter into our porous borders and may be planning to take two southern cities – Iligan and Cotabato,” Murad said.
  • Earlier this week, Philippine military officials warned that ISIS has reconstructed a force of approximately 200 fighters in Mindanao and still aims to establish a caliphate in southeast Asia, which it can use as a staging point to launch attacks throughout the region.

Carol Rollie Flynn, former Associate Deputy Director, National Counterterrorism Center

“ISIS fighters are fleeing to Mindanao because this region offers relative safe haven in its ungoverned areas. The population in parts of Mindanao, particularly the Moros, have for decades been hostile to the central government of the Philippines, which they perceive as inept, corrupt, and the reason for the region’s continuing poverty and poor governance. Given this attitude, segments of the Muslim population are loathe to cooperate with the Philippine authorities and military for whom they have deep distrust.”

Alasdair Gordon, former senior national security officer, Australian Government

“There has been growing concern for some time that ISIS was hoping to establish a caliphate in Asia. And the southern Philippines is an obvious location. Extremist Islamic elements, including JI and its affiliates, have been present amongst the Muslim minority population in the area for some years. It’s ungoverned and often remote environment make it ideal as a training and staging ground, as well as a place to undertake attacks. And long-standing maritime routes established by smugglers and pirates have previously been utilized by JI and others to move groups amongst the southern Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.”

Rohan Gunaratna, professor and Head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore

“The very presence of ISIS in Mindanao threatens not only the Philippines but its neighbors. ISIS created its East Asia division with the intention of expanding from the Philippines to parts of Northeast and Southeast Asia. If ISIS spreads to Sabah in Malaysia and Eastern Indonesia, it will pose a significant challenge to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the entire region.”

Response: As Philippine security forces battled throughout the summer to retake the city of Marawi from ISIS-linked militants, the U.S. provided the Philippine army with military equipment as well as technical assistance, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. To further combat the alarming jihadist threat in the Philippines, the U.S. has also doubled down its security assistance to Manila particularly in the midst of positive relations between U.S. President Donald Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

  • Throughout the battle in Marawi, the U.S. supplied the Philippine military with critical weapons and ammunition, advanced radar systems, and enhanced surveillance equipment such as the Gray Eagle unmanned aerial system. U.S and Philippine forces also engaged in joint training exercises focused on improving Manila’s counterterrorism and naval operations.
  • Over the past eight years, the U.S. has sent over $1 billion in foreign assistance to the Philippines, according to the White House. Specifically, the U.S. has provided more than $85 million in counterterrorism-related equipment, training, and support to the armed forces of the Philippines and roughly $65 million to enhance the Philippines’ maritime security capabilities.
  • During a November trip to the Philippine capital city of Manilla, Trump stated that he and Duterte have had a “great relationship,” and pledged $14.3 million for the reconstruction of Marawi.
  • On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department officially designated ISIS-Philippines, which includes the Maute Group, as a foreign terrorist organization, prohibiting U.S. persons from engaging in transactions with the group or providing it with material support. The State Department said the Maute Group, which declared its allegiance to ISIS in 2014, “is responsible for the siege of the City of Marawi in the Philippines, which began in May 2017; the September 2016 Davao market bombing, which killed 15 people and wounded 70 others; and the attempted bomb attack in November 2016 near the U.S. Embassy in Manila.”

Alasdair Gordon, former senior national security officer, Australian Government

“The U.S. and Australia both recently signed agreements to enhance assistance to the Philippines military and national security apparatus. This has been necessary, not only to improve current capability, but also to allow the Philippines to prepare to respond effectively to what may well be growing terrorist threats over the next several years.”

Carol Rollie Flynn, former Associate Deputy Director, National Counterterrorism Center

“The Philippines Armed Forces may be better prepared to face ISIS now, but a purely military approach will not solve the problem of ISIS or other terrorist groups in Mindanao. For decades, Mindanao has been plagued by separatist movements and simmering tensions with the central government of the Philippines and this, together with swaths of ungoverned spaces in Mindanao, has provided a relative safe haven for ISIS as well as other terrorist groups such as Abu Sayyaf, offshoots of Al Qaeda, and violent factions of the MILF.  Until the central government addresses the long-standing grievances of the Muslims in Mindanao, the island will continue to be a safe haven for terrorist groups.”

Look Ahead: Despite the initial defeat of ISIS in the Philippines, the group’s resurgence in Mindanao represents an expanding security challenge confronting Philippine authorities. Furthermore, jihadist groups may attempt to appeal to other disenfranchised communities throughout the region and construct dangerous movements in places such as Myanmar where the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority faces continuous persecution at the hands of the country’s central government, and in Indonesia where nearly 10 percent of the population believes that their democratic system should be changed to an Islamic caliphate.

Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South and Southeast Asia, Woodrow Wilson Center

“The bottom line is that when it comes to future extremist threats, the trend lines are not good for the Philippines – or for some of its neighbors.”

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