The spread of IS in the Philippines will perhaps be the single, biggest challenge for Pres. Rodrigo Duterte. Regardless of what his priorities were when he strode into Malacanang, dealing with this threat will consume more and more of his time, and become the defining issue of his presidency.
It will constrain the growth of the economy, and re-shape internal politics as well as international relations for at least the next decade. So it is best to acquaint ourselves with what IS is, who is behind it, where did it come from, and what it intends to achieve.
Back in March 2016, the chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Al Haj Ebrahim Murad declared that ISIS would gain a foothold in the Philippines, if the next president failed to rescue the stalled peace process. This came after IS attacks in Jakarta had many security experts fear that the southern Philippines would be next.
IS seeks to restore the caliphate
The Islamic state, like al-Qaeda belongs to the jihadi school of thought, which seeks to reorder government and society in accordance with Islamic law, or Sharia. Late-20th century jihadism was influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which promoted the restoration of the caliphate as the ideal system for the Islamic world, and Salafism from Saudi Arabia, a theological movement from within Sunni Islam, which seeks to purify the Islamic faith from idolators (shirk) that detract from the oneness of God (tawhid).
According to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought,
A caliphate is an area containing an Islamic steward known as a caliph—a person considered a religious successor to the Islamic prophet, Muhammad (Muhammad ibn Abdullah), and a leader of the entire Muslim community.
The Sunni branch of Islam believes that as a head of state, a caliph should be elected by Muslims or their representatives, while followers of Shia Islam, believe a caliph should be an Imam chosen by God from the Ahl al-Bayt (the “Family of the House”, Muhammad’s direct descendants).
Salafis consider themselves to be the only true Muslims. They are opposed to what they see as the excessive veneration practiced by Shi’a muslims of the Prophet Muhammad’s family. Many salafis are also opposed to democrats, for assigning “partners” to God in legislation, which they see as the sole prerogative of the Divine legislator. As Cole Bunzel wrote
If jihadism were to be placed on a political spectrum, al-Qaeda would be its left and the Islamic State its right. In principle, both groups adhere to Salafi theology and exemplify the increasingly Salafi character of the jihadi movement. But the Islamic State does so with greater severity. In contrast with al-Qaeda, it is absolutely uncompromising on doctrinal matters, prioritizing the promotion of an unforgiving strain of Salafi thought.
The Islamic State of Iraq began in 2006 and gained international recognition when it announced its plans of expanding into Syria in 2013. It rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), and after occupying most Sunni areas in the area in June 2014 declared itself a caliphate, or global Islamic empire. In November 2014 alone, the BBC recorded over 5,000 deaths worldwide as a result of Islamic State militant operations. Of that total 9 attacks resulting in 50 deaths took place in the Philippines (see map below).
ISIS attacks recorded in November, 2014
There are five known terrorist groups in the Philippines that have pledge support to ISIS. These are the Abu Sayyaf Group, Ansar Khilafali Philippines, Khilafaf Islamiyah Mindanao, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Maute Group.
The Australian government through its Foreign Minister in February 2017 warned that IS was looking to declare a caliphate in the southern island of Mindanao. Security analysts have long assessed the risk of this as being high. A report by Intelligent Security Solutions released in May 2016 contended that
The Philippines is emerging as the epicenter of Islamic extremism in the region and will likely serve as the regional headquarters for ISIS…With other regional governments seeking to impede travel of their citizens to Syria, the Philippines may become an alternate destination for ISIS jihadist training…[and] may also serve as a frontline for jihadists to gain combat experience [emphasis added].
In the first half of 2016, under President Aquino, security officials downplayed the presence of ISIS in the Philippines. Under President Duterte, the military has taken a more active role in law enforcement and in forging trilateral military ties with Malaysia and Indonesia to jointly patrol its seas to prevent maritime crime and terrorism.
The Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre in its country risk rating of the Philippines has identified criminal activity as the biggest source of financing terrorist groups in the south. It has stated that “The Philippines has experienced a wide range of crimes – including smuggling of goods and weapons and trafficking of people and drugs – but kidnap-for ransom and extortion are the main income streams.”
An emerging ISIS hub
There were numerous incidents in the Philippines in 2016 that pointed to an increased ISIS presence in the Philippines. The following are excerpts adapted from CNN and ICPVTR: