On June 28, two suicide bombers allegedly trained by the Islamic State in Sulu (IS Sulu) conducted the third suicide attack in the Philippines within the last year. The bombers detonated themselves at a military base near Kajatban village in Sulu. According to the Armed Forces of Philippines (AFP) the two suicide bombers killed six people — three AFP soliders and three civilians — and injured 22. Will suicide bombings become the norm for IS attacks in the Philippines?
The Adoption of Suicide Bombing in the Philippines
Despite its prominence as the terrorist tactic-of-choice since roughly 1994, when Hamas “legitimized” suicide bombing in an attack against Israel, Filipino terrorists have often avoided using suicide tactics. Suicide terrorism was introduced to Southeast Asia largely by Jemaah Islamiyah, which orchestrated the Bali Bombings in October 2002. But despite ties between the Jemaah Islamiyah and Filipino terrorist groups, Filipino terrorists have rarely employed suicide bombings.
This resistance has largely been attributed to the “warrior culture” of Muslim tribes in the Philippines where the honour of the battle is as important as victory. As such, the preference is for head-on confrontation instead of tactics viewed as ‘cowardly.” This warrior culture was reflected during the Marawi Siege in 2017 in which suicide bombings were absent during the five-month battle led by Isnilon Hapilon.
In light of that history, two factors — serendipity and foreign influence — potentially catalyzed the Kajatban attack.
The first suicide attack in the Philippines occurred almost a year ago on July 31, 2018. Abu Khatir al-Maghribi, a Moroccan citizen, intended to drive a van-load of explosives toward a graduation ceremony organized by the Philippines Department of Education. Aimed at remotely detonating the vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), the attack was meant to kill 4,000 schoolchildren. However, the van was stopped by security forces near a paramilitary base and the VBIED was believed to be detonated by al-Maghribi to avoid arrest. That attack took 10 lives.
Months later on January 27, Hatib Sawadjaan, the emir of IS Sulu, recruited two Indonesians to conduct a suicide attack at a church in Jolo. The recruitment of Indonesians for the attack was probably meant to circumvent the resistance of locals to suicide bombing. The ensuing attack marked the first intentional suicide bombing in the Philippines, killing at least 20 people. Since the Jolo church bombing, both the authorities and terrorists have begun to question if the utility of suicide attacks would triumph over Filipino Muslim tribal heritage.
Ultimately, the combination of the unintentional suicide bombing and foreign fighters may have resulted in the adoption of suicide tactics in the Philippines. Southeast Asian Islamic State sympathizers celebrated the attack in Kajatban village on various social media platforms. One of the suicide bombers was identified as 23-year-old Norman Lasuca from Indanan, Sulu, branding him as the first Filipino suicide bomber.
Will suicide bombing triumph over “warrior culture”? Suicide bombs are known for their concealability, adaptability, and target precision. Moreover, the suicide bombers’ willingness to sacrifice their lives catches the attention of the media and demonstrates a deadly resolve to pursue their cases. Nevertheless, it is likely that tribal culture in Mindanao will continue resisting this influence.
There are two probable ways to overcome this Filipino Muslim tribal culture; inspiration and competition. The perceived success of such attacks might inspire other terrorists to launch suicide bombings. The honor accorded to the suicide bombers by groups like IS can inspire a bottom-up adoption of the tactic. Coupled with the IS narrative of a long war or a war of attrition, individuals affiliated with terrorist groups can be influenced to conduct suicide attacks.
An alternate mode of proliferation leverages the inter-tribal competition in Mindanao. This initiative by the Sulu-based Tausugs might trigger a competitive response from IS affiliated terrorists with familial connections to the Maranaw and Maguindanao tribe. This could lead to continuous attempts at outbidding one another through spectacular attacks.
Under normal circumstances, the recent attack was unspectacular and should not necessarily trigger inspirational or competitive responses. Based on the Global Terrorism Database, which codified all terrorist activities between 1970 to 2017, suicide bombings yielded an average of 9.7 kills per attack. The recent attack by two individuals only killed six others, significantly less effective than the global average.
Nevertheless, IS media has used propaganda tools to capitalize on this attack. Amaq News Agency, an IS affiliated media outlet, reported that the two suicide bombers infiltrated the military base and detonated the bomb amidst AFP soldiers resulting in the killing and injury of 100 “special anti-terror forces.” The exaggerated numbers were likely aimed at inspiring suicide attacks in the Philippines or trigger the inter-tribe competitive outbidding.
An alternative explanation to the exaggerated numbers is IS Sulu’s bid to increase global awareness of the East Asia Wilayah. Based on Al Naba’s “Harvest of the Soldiers” battlefield infographics issue 187 and 188, the East Asia Wilayah mounted two attacks and killed seven between June 14 and 27. These numbers are unimpressive when compared to the double digits achieved by the wilayat or provinces based in the Middle East and Africa. The perceived scale of the attack might give the East Asia Wilayah reason to attract IS investments and foreign fighters into the region, hence increasing the strength of local terrorists.
The Philippines is already a destination for foreign fighters. The Sawadjaan-controlled Sulu archipelago was identified as one of the smuggling routes for militants into the Philippines. Besides Indonesians and Malaysians, non-regional fighters have attempted to travel into the Philippines. During the Marawi Siege, AFP claimed that foreigners from the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and China participated in the battle. This trend persists after the siege as at least seven non-regional terrorists attempted to enter the country in 2018.
Suicide attacks in the Philippines demonstrate the impermanence of culture. While the recent suicide attack could largely be considered a failure, data shows that suicide bombings can be very devastating. The adoption of suicide tactics could lead to heavy casualties in the future, thereby attracting the attention of international terrorist groups and networks.
Kenneth Yeo is a Research Analyst from the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) based in the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore