Interviews | Politics | Security | Southeast Asia

Zachary Abuza on Insurgency and Terrorism in the Philippines

A conversation on the state of domestic security issues in the Philippines in 2020 and beyond.

Prashanth Parameswaran
Zachary Abuza on Insurgency and Terrorism in the Philippines
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Philippines continues to face a range of serious internal security challenges under President Rodrigo Duterte, including insurgency and terrorism. These challenges bear careful watching not only for their own sake, but also in the context of wider trends and developments, including ongoing military modernization efforts, alignments with foreign powers including its treaty ally the United States, and domestic perceptions of the Duterte government out to the next general election in 2022.

To get a sense for these issues and more, The Diplomat’s senior editor, Prashanth Parameswaran recently spoke to Zachary Abuza, currently a professor at the National War College.

While the international attention on the Philippines may not be on the level of what it was during the Marawi siege, we have in fact nonetheless continued to see instances of terrorism occurring in the southern Philippines including in 2019, with an increased use of suicide bombings. How would you assess the current state of the terrorism threat in the Philippines, and are there any notable trends in this respect regarding the range of groups that operate in the Philippines, including the Maute Group, the Abu Sayyaf, and the Bangasmoro Islamic Freedom Fighters? 

Terrorism in the Philippines remains a very persistent threat for a number of reasons. First, there is an alphabet soup of organizations that continue to fight the government and try to undermine the peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. These groups, including the Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Islamic State Lanao (Maute Group), and Ansuar al-Khalifa Philippines, have all pledged bai’at to the Islamic State (IS). For the most part, they are geographically isolated and do not coordinate their activities, which is a good thing, because when they do, such as with the 2017 Marawi siege, they do so with devastating effect.

Second, the southern Philippines continues to be a magnet for foreign fighters, mainly from Southeast Asia, but sometimes from further afield. While there are pro-IS terrorist cells throughout the region, it is only in the Philippines that they can actually control physical space.

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Third, these groups benefit from the fact that the Armed Forces of the Philippines are spread too thin, lack necessary resources, are poorly trained and equipped, and often fuel support for the militants by committing human rights abuses, such as intentionally targeting villages with mortar fire.

In terms of trends, the most important trend line to watch is the Abu Sayyaf’s use of suicide bombings. July 2018 saw the first suicide bombing in the Philippines. Since then, the tempo has increased. There have now been six individual suicide bombers in the southern Philippines. Three additional suspected would-be bombers – they had pipe bombs sewn into vests – were killed in a shootout with security forces. Security forces recovered 16 additional pipe bombs two days later, suggesting another wave of attacks. Although the majority of the bombers were foreign fighters, it did include at least two Filipinos. It is unclear whether other pro-IS groups will employ this tactic.

The Abu Sayyaf will continue their campaign of kidnap for ransoms, including renewed maritime operations into Malaysia’s Sabah state.

The Philippine government also continues to contend with challenge of the Communist Party of the Philippines despite earlier indications of potential talks. How do you see the trajectory of this challenge for the Philippines? 

The Philippine government refuses to re-commence peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines, whose New People’s Army operates across the country, in almost all provinces. The New People’s Army (NPA) continues to operate on a national scale, despite a host of policies enacted under Executive Order 70 (2018) to counter them. 2019 saw increased operations in the Visayas, in particular on the islands of Negros and Samar, while the NPA has boosted their operations in Mindanao, moving westward from the Compostela valley. The NPA continues to extort revolutionary taxes and target mining and large-scale agricultural operations. The Philippine military is unable to quell the insurgency, and yet, the government has broken off peace talks, citing the CPP-NPA’s maximalist demands.

One of the positive trends has been that the Duterte government has been making inroads on the implementation of the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), including the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. While it is still early days, how would you contextualize the significance of this development, and how is the interim government faring so far? 

The peace process is one of the few bright spots in the southern Philippines. The one year anniversary of the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) is soon approaching. Though it has not been without problems, there have not been any major setbacks, either. Both sides remain committed to its implementation. There are obviously challenges for the MILF in terms of governance, making the transition from rebels to administrators. There is some concern that the appointed BARMM government is dominated by the MILF and does not have adequate representation from the Moro National Liberation Front and other groups. The block grants from the central government to the BARMM are now starting, so they should have more resources for public infrastructure projects.

The BARMM is being challenged every day by the pro-IS groups that seek to undermine the peace process.  The MILF lost their internal policing authorities in the post-Mamasapano version of the implementing legislation. But now it seems as if Duterte wants to revisit that, and put the onus of internal security on the MILF.  It is unclear whether the Philippine Congress would support that.

We’ll see how the interim BARMM government does in the coming year, ahead of elections in mid-2022.

We have also seen a number of external developments with respect to the terrorism landscape over the past year, including the losses incurred by the Islamic State and changes in the U.S. presence in the Middle East which continues to take shape. What is your sense of how these variables have played into developments in the southern Philippines, particularly amid ongoing hype and speculation on the potential return of foreign fighters and international links? 

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So the assumption was that as the Islamic State lost their Caliphate in Syria and Iraq, they would adopt a global insurgency model, that would include new fronts, such as Sri Lanka, as well as added salience in regions like Southeast Asia. I think that threat has always been overblown. IS remains Arab-dominated, focused in the Levant. Southeast Asia will always remain a peripheral front.

But the events in Syria have clearly impacted Southeast Asia in a few key ways. First, the ubiquitous IS propaganda, including in Bahasa, has largely dried up. That has really weakened their regional appeal.  Second, the takedown of IS channels on social media platforms, in particular Telegram, have weakened IS messaging and the ability to organize. Third, all of the top Southeast Asian militants who were in Iraq and Syria have been killed. So their ability to organize, inspire, and recruit, has been dramatically weakened.

There was a concern that the abrupt and strategically inept withdrawal of US forces from the Kurdish region of Syria, followed by the Turkish invasion, would lead to the mass release of IS militants, including over a thousand Southeast Asian militants and their family members. Though some escaped, it was not in large numbers. And the fear that they would return to the region has not materialized. Those who escaped are most likely to fight in the region and not make the perilous overland tripe back. More importantly, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments have re-commenced negotiations with Turkish and Iraqi officials regarding the orderly return of their nationals.

We also continue to see anxiety about whether the southern Philippines could become a major center for the Islamic State or foreign terrorist groups looking to make Southeast Asia a key hub for their activities. While this has been a continuing fear that has yet to materialize, where do you think we are with respect to this threat or challenge? 

This is a real concern because the southern Philippines remains the most permissive environment for their activities. IS cells in Malaysia or Indonesia can organize, but they can’t control territory.  That remains a draw for people such as the Abu Sayyaf leaders such as Furuji Indama and Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan. Those foreign fighters have made up the majority of suicide bombers.

With the ongoing uncertain situation in Syria, my guess is that most Southeast Asian militants will continue to travel to the Southern Philippines to engage in Hijrah. This is why policing, both maritime and on land, in Malaysia’s Sabah state remains so critically important.

That said, even though successive Abu Sayyaf leaders have been declared the emirs of the Islamic State of East Asia, there is no discernible centralized command and control over all the pro-IS groups and cells in the region. It is still an archipelago of autonomous groups.

As we head further into 2020, what some other signposts and indicators that we should be watching closely for the rest of the year and beyond? 

There are three things that warrant observation. First, the revival of Jemaah Islamiyah. Since 2010, it has been defunct as a militant organization, but been allowed to maintain its network of madrassas, mosques, social welfare organizations, and publishing houses. Its network is as large and resilient as it has ever been. The mid-2019 arrest of JI’s leader concerned Indonesian security officials who did not realize the scope of its operations, or streams of revenue. JI is poised to reclaim the mantle of terrorist leadership. It has never renounced violence; it has taken a tactical hiatus. Unlike the Middle East or South Asia, militant groups in Southeast Asia are very fluid, and people will switch to whichever group is in the ascendancy, especially if their patron leads.

Second, there will be a very large group of terrorist suspects, including the first Islamic State detainees, who will be released from prison in Indonesia in 2020. Indonesia has limited capacity to track these individuals. While recidivism rates in Indonesia are not high, nor are they low.

Third, the ongoing horrific treatment of Rohingya in Myanmar and Uyghurs in China could well be the catalyst for attacks.  It is inconceivable to me that transnational jihadists don’t strike back in revenge at some point to defend their co-religionists.