Trouble in the Southern Philippines: Problems and Prospects

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Trouble in the Southern Philippines: Problems and Prospects

A closer look at a complex and often oversimplified situation.

On 4 April, a video showing two hostages clad in the ubiquitous orange jumpsuits were beheaded in front of a camera in a remote region of Lanao del Sur province. The two men, who were among six sawmill workers who had been abducted, were declared spies and executed. Though the black flags of the Islamic State (IS) were absent, the group’s ideology, imagery and tactics are proliferating in the southern Philippines and being adopted by a host of different groups.

Then on April 25, the Abu Sayyaf Group decapitated a Canadian man, John Ridsdel, after the deadline for his ransom had passed.

The situation in the southern Philippines is complex, and too often oversimplified in the media. This article will examine the different southern Philippine groups that have declared bai’at to IS, analyze the recent spate of kidnappings and other violence, and conclude with an analysis of the security implications for both the Philippines and the region.

The State of Play in the Southern Philippines

A cell of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), under the leadership of Isnilon Hapilon, was the first in the Philippines to declare bai’at to Sheikh Ab Bakar al-Bagdhadi in a YouTube video in July 2014, following the lead of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir’s Jemaah Ansharaut Tauhid (JAT), and Santoso’s Mujihideen Indonesia Timur (MIT) in Indonesia.

This has not really been operational. And for the most part, ASG cells have simply used the imagery and threat of IS to raise the psychological stakes on the hostages, their families and governments, to command higher ransoms. For example, a German couple captured in April 2014 were photographed on several occasions in front of IS flags. The ASG made the German government’s withdrawal from the anti-IS coalition a condition in addition to the 250 million pesos ($5.6 million) ransom. The day before the deadline for his ransom, the male hostage was photographed sitting in his own grave in front of the IS flag. But as soon as the ransom was paid, the demand for German’s withdrawal from the coalition was dropped immediately. It was as if they really didn’t have any ideological affinity.

In September 2015, an ASG cell, under the leadership of Hairullah Asbang, kidnapped two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina from a marina in Davao, in a well-executed operation outside of the ASG’s normal area of operations. There have been four separate videos of the captives, on October 13, 2015; November 2, 2015; March 10, 2016 (the first that a ransom price was announced), and most recently on April 15 2016 (when the ransom was reduced and deadline extended).

In all but the last video, the hostages were shown in front of IS flags. The videos clearly demonstrate the influence of IS propaganda. The ASG had previously released still photos, but not videos. These had the other hallmarks of IS imagery: a machete at the throat of a hostage, the IS flags, and a very articulate and well-spoken man in charge making the demands and setting the terms.

But at the end of the day, there is not much more to the IS relationship than that: simply using the threat of IS barbarity to command higher ransoms. Indeed, no hostage from Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Japan or the Philippines has ever been shown before an IS flag; this is reserved for Western hostages and their governments. And the ransom rates have been far higher: indeed, a Filipino hostage commands roughly a $10,000 ransom, the demand for Malaysian and Indonesians approximately $100,000, while westerners are now well above $1 million. Indeed the original demand for the three western hostages taken in Davao was 1 billion pesos ($18 million) each, though later reduced to 300 million pesos, or US$6.5 million, still an unprecedentedly high rate.

But there are limits to how closely they will emulate IS propaganda: when one of the Davao hostages was beheaded on 25 April, the head was dumped on the street, the act was not filmed or propagandized.

In July 2014, a video surfaced of Alhabisi Misaya, an ASG cell leader who, since 2013, has been behind many of the kidnappings in the Malaysian state of Sabah. In the video Misaya is seen laughing as he beheads six Philippine captives in a 2007 incident. And while it was leaked out, it was not at the time propagandized. Misaya has been linked to the beheading of only one of his Sabah hostages, a Malaysian national, on November 17 when the ransom deadline passed.

In addition to the ASG, there are several other Philippine groups that have declared bai’at to IS. These include Ansar al-Shariah, Ma’rakah al-Ansar, Ansarul Khilafah Philippines, and al- Harakatul al-Islamiyyah.  These are all very small groups – really no more than cells – and individually none poses a serious threat.

But in January 2016, Al-Naba, an official IS newspaper, reported that the four groups, which it labeled “battalions” of God’s fighters “mujahidin” had been unified. The same article referred to the ASG’s Isnilon Hapilon as “Sheikh Mujahid Abu Abdullah al-Filipini,” described as “one of the senior figures of the Mujahideen in the Philippines.”

A number of mujahid brigades in the Philippines had announced their pledge of allegiance to the Emir of the Believers to listen and obey in hardship and in ease, and to gather under the leadership of Sheikh Abu Abdullah al-Filipini, who was appointed by the Islamic State as emir over the soldiers of the Caliphate in Philippines. The meeting of these brigades came in obedience to the command of Allah to come together, renounce division, vex the tyrants and apostates, and heal the chests of the believers.

Although the statement did fall short of declaring any part of Southeast a wilayat, a province of the IS Caliphate, it was the first time that the IS had recognized the ASG or any other Philippine group.

No one knows for sure why it took IS so long to bestow recognition on these groups. Was it simply preoccupied with its own war and consolidation of power? Were the Southeast Asian groups seen as too small or fringe? Or were they looking for these groups to coalesce around one leader?

Clearly the Al-Naba article was meant to bring these groups together. And in January 2016, video footage of these groups coming together and engaging in joint training in a jungle camp, emerged as evidence of the union, under Isnilon Hapilon’s leadership.

In addition, there is evidence of the IS fold growing to include groups formerly tied to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). In a video posted to YouTube in August 2014, the head of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato, declared his allegiance to the Islamic State. The BIFF broke away from the MILF in 2008, following the collapse of the peace process in mid-2007 and the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling that found the agreement to be unconstitutional.  There is no evidence that the BIFF has received IS recognition, and Kato himself died in April 2015, leaving the group without an experienced leader.

That leads back to the recent video of the execution from Lanao del Sur, which is part of the MILF heartland. The video was first reported by the SITE Group, and erroneously labeled as “Ranao.” ] On the one hand, no IS flags were shown in the video. \ But on the other hand, it was eerily reminiscent of group beheadings that have come out of IS propaganda, including one that featured Malaysians. There is really no Abu Sayyaf or any of the other four groups present anywhere near there. To date, details have not emerged on who was behind the execution or why.  But some background is in order.

The most prominent base commander there is Abdullah Macapagar (aka Commander Bravo), a hardliner and critic of the peace process. In 2007, when the cabinet and supreme court ruled against the draft peace agreement, he and Ameril Umbra Kato went on a two-week long rampage against Christian communities. While Kato broke from the MILF and founded the BIFF, Macapagar was reined in by the MILF leadership. But with the Philippine Congress’s non-passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) following the January 2015 Mamasapano incident, the MILF leadership is struggling to rein in restive and disillusioned field commanders. A durable political solution is looking further off, especially with the Presidential election in full swing.

And we cannot look at the Philippines in isolation. In addition, there are cells and groups across Southeast Asia that have declared allegiance to IS, including Sentoso’s Mujihideen Indonesia Timur (MIT), Abu Bakaar Ba’asyir’s Jemaah Ansharaut Tauhid (JAT), Abdurrahman Aman’s followers, Darul Islam Sabah, and other cells in Malaysia. On top of that there is a company of Southeast Asians in Raqaa Syria, Khatibah Nusantara, whose leadership, including Bahrunnaim, are also vying for leadership of any declared IS wilayat.

There is still no proof that there is any command and control or a significant flow of resources from IS to these groups, especially those in the Philippines. Though there is a concerted effort on the part of IS to increase the amount of Bahasa language propaganda. My guess – and it is just that – is that IS would really like these disparate Southeast Asian cells and groups to coalesce around one leader before declaring a wilayat.

A Spate of Kidnappings & Violence  

While the Philippine government claims that a Moroccan and two Malaysian supporters of IS were killed in recent fighting, that is insufficient evidence of any material support from IS. The ASG has long accepted foreign fighters into its ranks. But that’s not to say that the group can’t evolve.

Regardless of any ties to the Islamic State, there has been a surge in kidnappings and violence in the southern Philippines in the past year. With regards to the ASG, there were always distinct periods of its operations and targeting, and the group has vacillated from a terrorist group with a distinct pattern of sectarian targeting to a for-profit and indiscriminate kidnap-for-ransom gang. Today, we are in mid-pendulum. The emergence of the Islamic State has given the ASG and ideological rallying point and created something upon which other groups are able to coalesce.

But the uptick in kidnappings is noticeable. Currently, the ASG are holding 24 foreign hostages, including one Canadian, a Chinese, a Japanese, a Dutchman, a Norwegian, five Malaysians, and 14 Indonesians. In addition, there are currently seven Philippine hostages, though they tend to be released very quickly.

It is important to note that these cells do behave differently, and they tend to target different victims. Basilan based-cells often focus on Filipinos from Zamboanga. The Sulu-based cells target Malaysians and other foreign nationals from Sabah and elsewhere. Some cells are looking for a very quick turnaround, often putting their captives in touch with family members within days. Others are willing to increase the time they hold hostages and psychological pressure employed to in order to increase the ransom demand.

There are exceptions to the rule. On April 7, the ASG released a retired Italian priest, Rolando Del Torchio, who had been held for six months in Sulu, following his abduction from Dipolog City on October 7, 2015. There were no reports of a ransom being paid. But for the most part, western hostages are held for longer and for higher ransoms.

Most recently, what has caught the attention of regional governments and security analysts, is the spate of maritime kidnappings. On March 26, the ASG seized two tugs and barges carrying coal from Kalimantan. They left one boat, but took the other and all 10 Indonesian crew members, demanding PHP50 million for their release. On April 4, the ASG seized a Malaysian ship off of Sabah. They took four Malaysians hostage, though the three Indonesian and  Burmese crew members escaped. On April 15, another Indonesian ship was hijacked, with four of its eleven crew taken hostage.

Security Implications for the Philippines

For the Philippines, the continued existence of the ASG, the proliferation of groups that have pledged allegiance to IS, not to mention the unraveling of the peace process with the MILF, ought to raise some very troubling questions about long-term internal security issues, at a time when the government ought to be far more concerned about territorial encroachment from China.

We need to ask the question: why are we still talking about the ASG?  The ASG is nothing more than a kidnap-for-ransom gang that uses the imagery and threat of terrorism to increase ransoms. It is not a popular movement, it provides no social services, it has no clearly defined ideology or a respected ideologue, and it is geographically contained. The ASG is nothing more than a group of well-armed and opportunistic bandits.

Since 2002, the Philippine military and security forces have received roughly $50 million a year in counterterrorism assistance from the United States. Until 2014 that included the deployment of 500 U.S. Special Operations forces to provide intelligence support and training.  And yet, on a regular basis, the AFP suffers shockingly high casualties, including 18 dead and 43 wounded in a single encounter on Basilan in April 2016. But that was not a one-time event.

And yet the ASG has not diminished in size and it remains a threat to regional peace and security.  In 2016, the ASG is posing a threat to regional trade in ways that it never had in the past. More importantly, the ASG is serving as a focal point for other groups who share their avowed support for IS as well as disaffected members of the MILF.

The Abu Sayyaf Group has become a small local economy into itself. The hundreds of thousands of dollars it receives in ransoms every year allow it to grow, recruit new generation of militants, pay bribes to local security forces and purchase weapons and ammunition on the black market. To be blunt, too many people benefit from its continued existence.

And even if we were to take the issue of security force and local government corruption off the table, the Philippine military is plagued by a constant turnover of its senior leadership.  On  April 22, 2016, the AFP commander-in-chief stood down after a mere nine months on the job, due to a mandatory retirement age. Due to the seniority process, his successor will serve a similar term. As such, there is no accountability or continuity in policy.

And things in Mindanao will likely get worse. Although the MILF leadership has repeatedly pledged that it will continue to abide by its commitments in the peace process and not resort to war, disaffection among its rank and file is palpable following the Philippine Congress’s torpedoing of the BBL. During the presidential campaign, the BBL has been a non-issue. Indeed, Senator Grace Poe became a presidential front runner through her committee chairmanship that put the onus on the Mamasapnao incident, labeled by her as a “massacre,” almost entirely on the MILF. Two of the leading vice presidential candidates, Senator Alan Peter Ceytano and Senator Ferdinand “Bangbang” Marcos, played key roles in assuring the BBL would not be passed.

Even if we assume that the next president is nominally committed to the peace process, he or she will then go back to the MILF, renegotiate a watered down BBL, saying that it is the only way that it could be passed by Congress. And while the MILF leadership may have no choice but to give in, many rank and file members will be defecting and returning to the battlefield, convinced that the Philippine Congress will never agree to a negotiated political settlement.

MILF chairman Ebrahim el-Haj Murad is having a very hard time managing expectations and keeping control. It will break down over time – that is inevitable, as promised peace dividends vaporize. The MILF has assiduously said that it is anti-IS, and that Congress should pass the BBL so that the MILF becomes a responsible stakeholder that roots out IS elements.  If members of the MILF are starting to declare allegiance to IS, it will simply confirm what hardliners and opponents of the BBL in Congress have been saying all along: that the MILF is two-faced and can’t be trusted.  This is a bad omen for the peace process.

The real concern is this: In the terrorism literature there is a concept of outbidding; i.e. groups legitimize themselves and display their jihadist credentials by being more violent than their competitors as they vie for popular support, international sponsorship, and media attention. And as the insurgencies in the southern Philippines have always been so fractious, one can anticipate groups to emulate IS by raising violence to a new level, both to prove themselves and eliminate competitors.  The  April 4 execution video points in that direction.  Again, the IS imagery and tactics were all there. This was the first time that there was an IS-style group execution of orange-jump suited victims in Southeast Asia.  Even the ASG beheaded John Ridsdel off camera. Clearly they’re looking for attention and/or sponsorship.  If so, we’re in for a rash of violence in the southern Philippines.

Security Implications for the Region

The situation in the southern Philippines once again poses a regional security concern. It’s very clear that, as in the early 2000s, that the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia view the southern Philippines as ungoverned space and the weak link in regional security, where individuals and groups can seek sanctuary, train and conduct operations from. Though there is less ungoverned space than in the early 2000s, there is still plenty enough to attract foreign fighters.

Their concerns are not unfounded. The Southern Philippines has been a haven for Indonesian and Malaysian terrorists since the mid-1990s, and increasingly Malaysian security forces have found operational links, as well as evidence that militants have taken refuge in the southern Philippines.  Indonesia has found that weapons to the IS-affiliated MIT have come from Mindanao, as did the weapons used in the January 14 attack in central Jakarta.

But there is a very real economic concern as well.  Authorities at two Indonesian coal ports have already blocked the departures of ships sailing to the Philippines.  Indonesia supplies 70 percent of Philippine coal imports, worth $800 million. On April 17, Malaysia announced that it too, was limiting regional trade out of security concerns.  And as China’s economy slows, intra-ASEAN trade becomes far more important.  In all there is an estimated $40 billion in regional trade that is potentially affected.

And with 18 hostages from Malaysia and Indonesia, there is some very un-ASEAN like behavior, including multiple statements that violate that sacrosanct principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of others. The Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, has publicly warned about the threat posed by insecurity in the southern Philippines.

On March 30, the Indonesian government announced that it was ready to deploy its security forces for a hostage rescue. Future statements reaffirmed this stating that security forces, including Densus-88 and Kopassus, had been pre-deployed in Nunukan Regency in East Kalimantan. Some statements simply stated that they were waiting for Philippine permission. The Indonesian government seemed blasé to the fact that foreign military intervention would be unconstitutional, an unacceptable affront to Philippine sovereignty, that would never be allowed, let alone in the height of a national election.  And yet, the Indonesian military and senior political leaders have continued to state Indonesia’s willingness to pursue a military operation.  Coordinating Minister Luhut Pandjaitan warned that the Sulu Sea was in danger of becoming a “new Somalia.”

Together, the statements represent a growing unease in both Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta that the Philippines is able to police and control its territory.  And while both Malaysian and Indonesia remain vulnerable to terrorist attacks, the security services of both countries believe that the pervasive insecurity in southern Philippines make their threats even greater.

In October 2012, the Malaysian government announced that it was allocating RM660 million in its 2015 budget to increase security in Sabah, due to the threat posed by Philippine militants. The government has approved two battalions with 1,280 personnel and will build two new camps in the area, upgrade an airport runway and relocate an air squadron from Peninsula Malaysia to Labuan.  In 2013, Philippine gunmen representing the Sultan of Sulu raided Sabah, killing 62.

Indonesia is dispatching two more warships to the region, while Malaysia is stepping up its maritime patrols and building a new base in Sabah.  The three governments have agreed to meet on May 3 to discuss joint patrols.  With the recent celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Malacca Strait joint patrols, there is a precedent, though to be fair, in that case, the threat of US involvement was a motivating factor.  But it is also true that it is imperative as all three countries have such limited maritime capabilities.  With Indonesian leadership, this can and should move forward.

Zachary Abuza is a Professor at the National War College in Washington, DC, where he specializes in Southeast Asian security and politics. The views are his personal opinions, and do not reflect the views of the National War College or Department of Defense.