The Philippines is one of the poorest and most overpopulated countries on Earth. It has a weak and ineffective state, further crippled by corruption and the country’s geopolitical status as an archipelago. Moreover, it is demographically made up of a conservative Christian majority, and a smaller Muslim minority centred on the southern island of Mindanao.
Together this factors have given rise to a number of different shades of armed internal conflict, of which the most prominent has been the country’s fight with Muslim separatists in a region known as Moro located in western Mindanao. There a number of different groups have fought a deadly conflict with the central government for decades.
Most recently, these groups have begun adopting a more Islamist ideology, spurred on by the success of Al Qaeda and other South East Asian groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah. However, in recent years the threat has shifted again, with several of these groups – most notably the ‘Abu Sayaf Group’ – pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (IS).
Elsewhere, these IS affiliates (know by the group as Wiliyat) have come under heavy attack by governments and rival Islamist groups, however in the Philippines, the Islamic State appears to have found fertile ground for its political and military agenda.
“In the backdrop of the Islamic State (IS) creating a province (wilayat) in the Philippines with a nucleus in the Sulu Archipelago, the IS ideology has spread in Western, Southern, Central and Northern Mindanao. ASG Basilan Branch under Isnilon Hapilon has split from ASG central led by Radulan Sahiron. Hapilon’s new group – Islamic State Philippines – has been accepted by IS central and Hapilon has been accepted as the designated Amir,” explained Prof. Rohan Gunaratna, an expert in militancy in South East Asia.
Commenting on the situation in the region late last year, Prof. Gunaratna said that despite a series of government offensives against these Islamist groups, they have continued to grow in size.
“With both a terrorist and guerrilla capability, ASG is the most capable threat group in the Philippines. Despite the Philippine security forces killing 200 ASG leaders, members and supporters in 2015, ASG manpower grew from 449 to 506, a 16.71% increase from 2014,” he said, comment on the situation in late 2016.
Last year the group made headlines for expanding the scope of its operations into kidnappings and sea piracy. While many foreign captives were quietly released as ransoms were (presumably) paid, others were subject to grizzly executions. Indeed, kidnapping has grown to become an important source of revenue for the group, enabling it to fund a slew of operations within the country, and further increase the frequency of attacks.
“The blowback of ASG receiving millions of dollars from kidnap for ransom payments will be severe. In addition to recruiting members and supporters that will strengthen the group, ASG will procure arms, ammunition, explosives and dual user technologies to expand its power and influence. Whenever ASG received ransom payment in the past, it procured in addition to weaponry, a range of items that lured the youth of Mindanao to join the group,” says Prof. Gunaratna.
The political situation in the Philippines has also aided the growth of these groups. The ongoing ‘war on drugs’ led by the country’s populist President Duterte has caused significant instability, and has alienated foreign countries. In recent months, Durterte has openly questioned foreign military support for the Philippines, while alternatively talking tough on extremism, before also offering political concessions.
With the security situation deteriorating across the archipelago, it is likely that the southern Moro region could become one of several new bases for IS as its core territories in Syria and Iraq come under pressure. According to Prof. Gunaratna the country is on-track for a 2017.
“Without US military and Australian intelligence support, the Philippines will fail in the fight against terrorism and IS will declare a wilayat in Mindanao. The scale and magnitude of the threat is evident.”
This is part one of a series of articles focussing on ongoing conflicts around the world currently neglected by the world media.