Philippines: The ISIS Hub of Southeast Asia?

Decreased US military support and favourable conditions for extremist cells to operate are bringing ISIS insurgents to the Philippines.

By Oliver Ward, Edited by Isabel Yeo

As ISIS loses ground in its heartland of Iraq and Syria, its fighters are shifting their attention to the Southeast Asian theatre. Islamic extremists are flocking to the Philippines. Its southern islands have become a hot bed for terrorist cells and radical ideas.

The Philippines is becoming the next focal point for ISIS

At least 60 groups in Southeast Asia have sworn their allegiance to the ISIS caliphate established in Iraq and Syria, and the Philippines is the geographical fulcrum of many of these cells’ activities.

A video from 2016 from the propaganda wing of ISIS called on supporters who could not make the trip to Syria to head to the Philippines instead, promoting the country as a go-to destination for extremists. No other countries in the region are receiving the same level of promotion as the Philippines. In other Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, ISIS directly recruits from the local population.

Moreover, the central command of ISIS in Syria has funnelled tens of thousands of dollars to fighters in the Philippines in the last 12 months.  Recent issues of Rumiyah, the monthly ISIS propaganda publication, have praised insurgents fighting the Filipino Army in the region, giving them valuable press promotion within extremist circles.

By specifically highlighting the Philippines in this way, ISIS is establishing the nation as a focal point for foreign extremists. It is not merely local recruitment that we see in other parts of the world.  Philippines Solicitor General Jose Calida described the situation as an “invasion by foreign terrorists”.

The invasion has begun

The Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu has indicated that there are likely as many as 1,200 ISIS fighters already operating in the Philippines. In comparison, 100-200 people in Malaysia have suspected links to the ISIS. With Indonesians, Pakistanis, a Saudi, a Chechen, an Indian, a Moroccan and a Turk among the dead in Marawi, it is evident that there are plenty of foreign insurgents operating in the Philippines.

The arrival of foreign fighters to Filipino shores is not a new phenomenon. Militants have been entering the country from as early as 2014. In June 2014, the Philippines arrested five Uyghur militants with ties to local armed groups in Manila. Zulkifli bin Har, a Malaysian fighter was also killed in January of 2015 in a firefight with the Philippines Army’s Special Action Force in Mindanao.

Researchers from the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore revealed the ease by which a foreign insurgent could get to the Philippines. They discovered that for as little as RM500 (US$117) a prospective IS militant could buy passage from Malaysia to the Philippines and receive a complimentary weapon.

Why has this happened?  

The conditions in Mindanao make it ideally suited for the establishment of militant groups and terrorist cells. The inequality and rural poverty present across the island, combined with porous borders for the smooth inflow of weapons and fighters make the region attractive to extremists. Weak law enforcement also makes the southern Philippines the perfect location as a hub to control operations throughout Southeast Asia.

The ISIS is not the first terrorist group that has attempted to gain a foothold in the Philippines. During the 1990s, al-Qaeda had the same idea. They established a stronghold within the Philippines, using Manila as their planning base. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his al-Qaeda counterpart, Ramzi Yousef used the Philippines as a base from which to plan their 1994-95 plot to blow up planes over the Pacific. Although the Filipino authorities thwarted their plot, the same men would later go one to contribute to the planning of the 9/11 attacks.

If it goes unchecked, we can expect more attacks across Southeast Asia

The Philippines government needs to stem the influx of foreign ISIS members. If they fail to do so, cases of ISIS sponsored terrorism will only increase across the region. Earlier this year, a militant associated with ISIS launched a suicide attack in Jakarta. The attacker had been collaborating and with terrorist cells in the Philippines. In the past, terrorist cells competed to secure funding, but today there is cooperation between cells instead.

As ISIS suffer more defeats in the Middle East, Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister, K. Shanmugam expressed concerns that many battle-hardened fighters would return to the Philippines and increase operations in collaborations with groups across Southeast Asia. Rohan Gunaratna, a counterterrorism analyst, echoed his concerns, stating “our forecast for 2017 is that the threat in this region will grow because of the creation of an IS nucleus in the southern Philippines.”

What measures can be taken to curb the flow of ISIS insurgents to the country?

In recent years, the Philippines counterterrorism strategy has depended on the United States. The US military has provided much of the funding, particularly in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States. The Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) started in 2002, and more than 600 US military personnel arrived in the Philippines with the task of assisting Filipino forces in their fight against Islamic extremism.

Reduced US involvement in the Philippines partly accounts for the increase in terrorist activity. While the US still provides equipment and weaponry, there is much less interest from the US in committing personnel to the region.

In 2015 the JSOTF-P was deactivated. The US also reduced the number of its active advisors from 320 to just 12 and the NADR (Non-Proliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining and Related Programs) funding for the US for Filipino counter insurgency operations shrank.

In the face of receding US support, Duterte has begun to explore other avenues. Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano called on Malaysia and Indonesia to increase cooperation efforts to curb ISIS movements in the region. Increasing collaboration is the right move. The Philippines may find that cooperation with regional allies is more beneficial than US aid.

ISIS’s network across the SEA evidently transcends national boundaries. Therefore, the only way to combat it is to develop an anti-terrorism force that supersedes national boundaries. So far the three countries have not gotten much further than sharing intelligence information and reducing access to ISIS material online. However, the cooperation will need to go much deeper to ensure success against the spread the ISIS propaganda machine. To stop the movement and collaboration of ISIS members across Southeast Asia, nations themselves need to collaborate. Nations can exchange intelligence information, coordinate maritime patrols and step up their cyber policing to stop online recruitment.

The ASEAN community as a whole would be better served to assist the Philippines and make funding available as a matter of priority. Indonesia and Philippines have explored the possibility of joint maritime patrols in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas to put measures in place to stop the illicit movement of arms and people between the two countries, but funding issues have severely limited the success of the patrols.

The scourge of ISIS is a regional problem, not a national one. Attacks do not happen in isolation and incidents like Marawi should serve as a wakeup call to other heads of state in the region, this can and will occur in other ASEAN countries unless the community comes together to tackle the problem dynamically. The stronger the network becomes and the deeper the roots spread, the tougher it will be to dig out.