The Islamic State’s High Stakes War in the Philippines

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The Islamic State’s High Stakes War in the Philippines

Pro-Islamic State groups are stepping up attacks, hoping to disrupt the Bangsamoro peace process at a pivotal time.

The Islamic State’s High Stakes War in the Philippines

Law enforcement officers investigate the scene of an explosion that occurred during a Catholic Mass in a gymnasium at Mindanao State University in Marawi, Philippines, December 3, 2023.

Credit: Provincial Government of Lanao del Sur – Public Information Office (PIO)

Pro-Islamic State groups have weathered months of counterterrorism operations across the southern Philippines that have killed top leaders and seemingly hollowed out their ranks. Yet the attacks continue.

On December 3, the bombing of a Catholic Mass in Marawi City, which killed four and injured dozens, was claimed by the Islamic State as the work of its East Asia province. In the days since the attack, local pro-Islamic State groups have claimed responsibility for incidents across the Bangsamoro autonomous region (BARMM).

These are not the death spasms of pro-Islamic State groups in the Philippines but a last-ditch effort to collapse the Bangsamoro peace process before the region’s first elections in 2025. If war returns to Mindanao, it will have dire consequences for Manila’s plans to re-posture its armed forces for territorial defense and what contributions it makes to recently beefed-up security agreements with the United States, Japan, and Australia.

Failure to bring a lasting peace to the Bangsamoro region will trigger a cascading effect that will leave the Philippines torn between simultaneous domestic and foreign threats. 

The Marawi Domino

Pro-Islamic State groups again chose Marawi City as the first target in their renewed attempt to derail peace in Bangsamoro. Cradled by densely jungled mountains, the lake and the city sit at the heart of Lanao del Sur province, on the north banks of Lake Lanao.

Marawi’s crown jewel is its iconic Grand Mosque, but the cityscape is dominated by the sprawling Mindanao State University (MSU) campus. Faith and education dominate life in Marawi. When pro-Islamic State militants laid siege to the city in 2017, the university was never captured. It was a physical and symbolic source of resilience and hope. Timed for the beginning of annual Mindanao Week of Peace celebrations and targeting defenseless parishioners gathered for mass in MSU’s gymnasium, the December 3 attack was designed to desecrate Marawi’s sanctuaries and inspire a jihadist revival. 

The Islamic State East Asia (ISEA) is really an array of loosely connected groups, generally distinguished by geographic and ethnolinguistic differences, scattered across the Bangsamoro region. It’s been a tough year for them. 

In the Sulu archipelago, Islamic State-aligned factions of the Abu Sayyaf Group have been gutted by military strikes and outflows of surrenderers. Across Maguindanao, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter factions and the Dawlah Islamiyah have sustained heavy losses. Ansarul Khilafah Philippines, the smallest of the groups, survives despite strikes on its ranks. In Lanao del Sur, Philippines army commanders have combined grassroots peacebuilding, outreach to guerrilla commanders, and targeted counterterrorism operations to apply crushing pressure to the Dawlah Islamiyah.

Despite these hardships, pro-Islamic State groups have sustained their operations buoyed by the knowledge that an historic opportunity lies before them. 

Fragile Peace, Little Time

After decades of war, the agreement between the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), culminating in the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in 2014, heralded the most promising opportunity for lasting peace in living memory. With the establishment of the Bangsamoro autonomous region in 2019, a MILF-majority interim government was appointed for a transition period that ends in 2025. 

As that term draws to a close, grievances in certain demographics have intensified, fueled by a belief that peace dividends have not delivered on expectations. Dangerously, these sentiments are most acute in impoverished rural communities and among former combatants. Pro-Islamic State groups have feverishly tried to exploit these vulnerabilities. 

ISEA is engaged in a high stakes struggle to derail the Bangsamoro peace process. Two recent trends are particularly worrying. First, the uptick in violent incidents linked to pro-Islamic State groups since the Marawi City bombing suggests that ISEA’s factions may be coordinating in a bid to distract and destabilize the security response. 

Second, a local pro-Islamic State media unit, only recently emerged, has become a hub for propaganda efforts. After the Marawi attack, it released a photo series, including of the improvised explosive device that was detonated at MSU, and claimed that “Ansar khilafah Philippines Mujihadeen” were responsible. The media group has since released photos showing battles between Dawlah Islamiyah and MILF forces, “shura council” messages from Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines, a video showing the beheading of an accused spy, and a photo series on life inside the Dawlah group.

Given the hits ISEA has suffered to its leadership, resources, and general ranks over the last year, it may seem absurd that it is attempting a resurgence. However, in the ruthless calculations of guerrilla warfare, the heavy losses sustained in recent months are entirely acceptable, indeed welcomed, if strategic objectives are being met and a steady stream of recruits are refilling the ranks. 

Having worked in communities most vulnerable to ISEA influence, rarely do its local recruiters offer a viable political alternative to the new Bangsamoro government; simply the provision of basic needs and the promise of a dignity inherent to struggle. That for a growing number of recruits this offer is sufficient to outcompete alternatives is damning. But have no doubts: ISEA aren’t looking to build, only destroy. The repercussions if they succeed extend well-beyond the BARMM.

Internal and External Threats

Internal security threats have always been Manila’s number one priority and the restive island of Mindanao the primary concern of its armed forces. However, with the prospect of a lasting peace in the south, the Philippines has planned to pivot the attention and preparedness of its armed forces towards territorial defense.

China’s relentless incursions in the West Philippines Sea, as Manila refers to its portion of the South China Sea, are a regular reminder of the urgency of this shift. Faced with an increasingly unstable, even hostile, neighborhood, the Philippines has renewed security agreements with major allies as the foundations of and insurance for the transformation of its armed forces. Indeed, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has spent much of his first year strengthening defense cooperation agreements with the United States, Japan, and Australia. All of this will be jeopardized if the Philippines’ armed forces need to deploy again to Mindanao. 

The Islamic State understands that its East Asia province has a unique opportunity to be a major spoiler of local, national, and regional stability. On December 7, the Islamic State devoted the editorial of its weekly an-Naba to the Marawi City bombing, offering historical context for the attack, and calling on Muslims to support by immigrating and waging jihad. The article implored its readers to appreciate what is on the line: “Strategically, the Philippines is not just an island located in the far east of the world; rather, it is an area of the global conflict that is still drawing closer day after day between the tyrants of China and America.” It goes on to declare that, “the presence of the mujahideen there is… a foothold for Muslims to confront the projects of the tyrants.”

In 2017, pro-Islamic State forces laid siege to Marawi City in an audacious attempt to impress the Caliph to whom they had recently pledged loyalty, and demonstrate to locals an alternative to the path of compromise being promoted by the MILF and national government. They failed. 

The Marawi City bombing is another attempt to achieve the same thing. But the stakes are even higher. The security of the Philippines, the trajectory of its alliances, and the sovereignty of its seas will heavily depend on what happens in Mindanao.