ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

COVID-19 and Terrorism in the Southern Philippines: More Trouble Ahead

The Jolo city bombing is just the latest evidence that the Philippines needs a new approach to its terrorism problem.

By Jasminder Singh and Muhammad Haziq Jani for
COVID-19 and Terrorism in the Southern Philippines: More Trouble Ahead

A Philippine National Police (PNP) Maritime Group member communicates with other PNP forces during a direct action training scenario as part of the Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) West exercise Aug. 6, 2014, in Puerto Princesa, Philippines.

Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Hubenthal

Continued skirmishes between the Philippines government and Islamic State-affiliated terrorist groups in the months since the COVID-19 pandemic suggest that the terror threat in the country has not receded. The latest twin bombing  in Jolo city on August 24 is yet more proof. Ongoing terror attacks and extremist ideological activities in South Mindanao point to the urgent need for a holistic countering-violent extremism (CVE) strategy in the Philippines, which has been so far been burdened by various legal and resource challenges.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Philippines lawmakers approved the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 (ATA 2020), which effectively repealed the 2007 Human Security Act and supposedly strengthened the government’s response to terrorism. Given the difficulties in the Philippines of prosecuting individuals for terrorism-related offenses, Philippines lawmakers campaigned for a stronger legal tool-kit to counter the threat posed by the communists as well as IS-affiliated units such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

The latter seemed emboldened as the  country was preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 21, BIFF even attacked three army detachments resulting in the displacement of more than 6,000 villagers. While Muslims were celebrating Eid al-Fitr, BIFF fired a mortar round that hit a cluster of houses, killing two children and injuring 13 others. Smaller incidents, such as the shootout on May 29 that killed BIFF drug pusher and bomb carrier Al Rashed Sungan Layao as well as the continued heightened ASG kidnappings this year, suggest that the threat posed by these IS-affiliated groups may stretch into the distant future.

Persistent Violent Extremist Ideology

Despite the beefed-up anti-terrorism law allowing broader legal and kinetic measures against these terrorist groups, these actions are incomplete without a serious counter-ideological approach to neutralize violent extremism. Hence, even when IS-affiliated groups were defeated after the 2017 siege of Marawi City, their ideas continued to percolate and inspire new recruits, as well as new attacks.

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For example, in May 2020, a spokesperson from an IS-affiliated terrorist group tried to garner renewed support for terrorism through a video that was circulated on chat platforms. The video was a response to public anger following the destruction of Marawi City and the continuation of terrorist activities and conflict with the Philippine government, both of which hurt Muslims. The spokesperson acknowledged the role of IS-affiliated terrorists in the forced evacuation of Marawi residents, who continue to reside in paltry conditions in evacuation centers, their homes in ruin and livelihoods lost forever. But he blamed the plight of Muslims on the lack of Shariah and poor governance by non-Muslims. To justify the protracted violent extremism, the spokesperson misleadingly quoted a hadith (a saying of the Prophet Muhammad) to assert that jihad  should prolonged despite the harm on Muslims.

Such religious falsehoods, typical of extremist viewpoints, suggest that the spokesperson has a superficial religious background. In justifying his group’s violence, he ignored the recognized status of Marawi as an Islamic city and the peace agreement establishing the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. Such a background and perspectives are not uncommon among Muslim youths who had supported or joined IS-affiliated groups prior to and during the Marawi siege. If they were not radicalized online or brought into the fold of extremism through family or clan ties, these youths received religious education in informal, poorly funded schools staffed by radical preachers who were educated in informal extremist circles overseas.

The Challenges of a Counter-Ideological Approach

While the situation calls for a counter-ideological approach, CVE has not been made easy in the Philippines. Lawmakers have lamented that although peace and security are public matters, the content of religious education in the Philippines is out of their hands. The explicit separation of church and state in the Philippine Constitution does not allow public money or property to be appropriated for the use, benefit, or support of any religious institutions. However, in the aftermath of the 2017 Marawi siege, the Philippines saw that it necessary to adopt the National Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (NAPPCVE), which allowed the Department of the Interior and local governments to work with religious leaders to mainstream their teachings and help deradicalize youths.

Even with the NAPPCVE, CVE efforts in the Philippines are a monumental task. A 2018 Merdeka Centre poll on attitudes toward extremism in Southeast Asia found that Filipino Muslims were more open to violence and had the “highest tendency to dehumanize persons of other faiths” compared to their peers in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. More than 50 percent would justify attacks against the military, police, and civilians, and thought that jihad meant war. A 2018 survey of internally-displaced-persons camps by Philippines-based Social Weather Stations also showed a concerning percentage of support toward violence.

Heightened Threat

Given their ongoing violent activities in the Philippines, IS-affiliated terrorists appear to consider the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to exploit their downgraded priority in regional and global policy agendas. They are unfazed by the lack of support from angry Muslim residents of Mindanao as well as the new anti-terrorism law. Their response to the law on social media accounts has been to threaten to kill and bomb Christians in the Philippines and strengthen jihadism in Mindanao. These accounts also declare that IS-affiliated terrorist groups continue to grow in numbers and are “stronger than before [the Marawi siege].”

As such, despite the innumerable challenges, the Philippines should not lose its focus on combating and countering violent extremism. While the AFP invigorates its kinetic efforts, there is an obvious need to  inoculate Muslim youths from terrorist propaganda that argues salvation is only possible through violence against their fellow countrymen, Muslim or non-Muslim. However, with constitutional and resource limitations, the latter may prove to be a complex policy puzzle in the long run.

Jasminder Singh and Muhammad Haziq Jani are senior analysts with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) and the Studies of Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme, respectively, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.