After Martial Law, Could the Islamic State Rebound in the Philippines?

President Duterte has opted not to extend Martial Law in Mindanao beyond 31 December 2019. The emergency measure had been in place for more than three years (Image Source: PCOO)

On 10 December, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced the end of martial law in Mindanao after opting against an extension, on the advice of military and police chiefs. The emergency measure, which was first imposed in the restive region in response to an ISIS-led siege of Marawi city in May 2017, had previously been extended three times and is now set to expire on 31 December. Two years after ISIS were defeated in Marawi, the jihadist threat has been reduced to a more manageable scale.

The ISIS-affiliated groups which led the siege have been pushed back and many of their leaders killed, leading Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to declare his preference for lifting martial law entirely in November. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP) chiefs initially suggested extending the measure only in ‘selective areas’ where extremist groups still operate. The provinces of Maguindanao and Sulu have both experienced attacks by ISIS-affiliated groups this year.

With martial law lifted, what level of threat do ISIS’ surviving local affiliates represent in Mindanao? And despite ISIS’ declining global influence, after territorial losses in the Middle East and the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a US raid in Syria, could its followers in the Philippines rebound?

ISIS remnants in Mindanao

The Maute Group, accused of planning the assault on Marawi in an attempt to carve out a Southeast Asian ISIS caliphate, are severely depleted after AFP operations in Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur. While the group was 1,000-strong ahead of the siege, it is now thought to have fewer than 25 active members. Its founders, brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute, were killed during the final gun battles in Marawi in October 2017; while its new leader, Abu Dar, was shot dead during a military operation in Tubaran on 14 March, leaving the Mautes without a main figurehead. After Abu Dar’s killing, the AFP said the Mautes were no longer capable of launching a Marawi-style raid, yet military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner warned that the group was still trying to recruit and remains a national security risk.

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which played a minor supporting role in the Marawi siege, emerged relatively unscathed and posed a larger threat in its aftermath. In 2018, they regularly fought government troops and carried-out a string of bombings, maiming civilians in restaurants and shopping malls, in the provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. However, AFP airstrikes and ground operations targeting BIFF hideouts in the rural Liguasan Marsh area of central Maguindanao have dented the group’s capabilities in 2019. In April, regional military commander Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said the three BIFF factions – the most powerful of which is led by ISIS-affiliated militant Abu Toraife – had been forced into a tactical alliance and resorted to guerrilla-style tactics to survive while under growing pressure. In recent months, the group’s remaining fighters have lain low.

A smaller ISIS-aligned group, Ansar Khalifah Philippines (AKP), also remains active further south, in the provinces of Sarangani and South Cotabato. However, since its leader Mohammad Jaafar Maguid was killed in a firefight with police in 2017, AKP has been regarded by the authorities as more of a criminal nuisance than a transnational terror threat, having engaged only in a series of small-scale gun battles.

The threat from Abu Sayyaf

The Philippines oldest known jihadi group, Abu Sayyaf, which was formed in the early-1990s, currently represent the gravest threat of all Mindanao’s ISIS affiliates. After playing a leading role in the Marawi siege alongside the Mautes, Abu Sayyaf retreated from mainland Mindanao to their former maritime hideouts on the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. After regrouping and replenishing its ranks, Abu Sayyaf has rebounded in 2019. The most extreme faction, led by ISIS supporter Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, has perpetrated a wave of high-profile suicide bombings in Sulu this year. On 27 January, two militants detonated themselves inside a crowded cathedral in Jolo, leaving 22 worshippers dead and 81 wounded. A second double suicide attack killed eight people at a military base in Indanan on 28 June, while a fifth bomber blew themselves up at an AFP camp in the same town on 8 September.

Abu Sayyaf laid siege to the city of Marawi for five months in 2017, as part of a coalition of four local militant groups with links to the Islamic State (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

The bombings were all claimed by ISIS via official statements. Several of the suspected bombers were revealed to be Indonesian and Moroccan nationals, adding to concerns that Abu Sayyaf is harbouring foreign fighters trained in bomb-making and willing to volunteer themselves for suicide missions. Back in July, Maj. Gen. Sobejana had warned that seven foreign terrorists were training Filipino militants in IED construction while another 42 suspected foreign fighters were being monitored by the authorities. He said many of these suspects were likely ‘embedded’ with Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF. On 5 November, government soldiers shot dead two Egyptian militants at a checkpoint in Jolo, confirming these fears.

Abu Sayyaf has around 400 fighters and continues to fight the army under the command of Sawadjaan in Sulu, while another ISIS-linked faction led by Furuji Indama remains active in Basilan. Smaller cells are active in the Tawi-Tawi islands, while Abu Sayyaf activity has been reported in Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah and along the coast of mainland Mindanao’s Zamboanga peninsula. Abu Sayyaf is also notorious for launching piracy attacks and kidnappings-at-sea, several of which have occurred in 2019.

Guarding against an ISIS resurgence

Although degraded post-Marawi, and contained to the remote southwest of the country, ISIS-aligned groups are still active and intent on forging a regional caliphate centred on the southern Philippines.

There is growing concern that the BIFF and Mautes may look to replenish their ranks by targeting the 66,000 residents still displaced from Marawi city, more than two years since the end of the siege. The government has been criticized by its opponents for the slow pace of rehabilitation, with the central Banggolo district still in ruin and needing to be cleared of unexploded ordnance before building work can begin. It is feared that young men with limited economic opportunities and their livelihoods placed on hold due to the ISIS-led siege, may ironically become prime targets for recruitment by jihadi groups. Tensions are rising, with the government’s 2021 target for rebuilding the city unlikely to be achieved.

An extension to martial law in Abu Sayyaf and BIFF strongholds would have helped the AFP maintain pressure on ISIS remnants; but the military and intelligence agencies will maintain vigilance regardless. The AFP will likely continue launching airstrikes and undertaking ground offensives in the ISIS hotspots of Sulu and Maguindanao; while also holding regular trilateral naval patrols alongside Indonesian and Malaysian forces in the Sulu Sea, to deter kidnappings and prevent the movement of foreign fighters. Guarding against the transition of Abu Sayyaf to mainland Mindanao is crucial in preventing a repeat of Marawi, when the Philippines’ four ISIS-linked groups were able to join forces to take-over the city.

Hopes are also invested in a peace deal signed between the government and an older, more moderate Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The accord, ratified in a referendum in western Mindanao earlier this year, will see former rebels govern a new Muslim autonomous region, encompassing the core territories where ISIS-linked groups remain active. If the deal brings economic development and enhances livelihoods, then ISIS – known to prey upon unstable and poverty-stricken regions to reinvigorate itself – may be denied a climate conducive to its resurgence in the Philippines.

An earlier version of this article, written before it was announced that martial law would not be extended beyond December 2019, is published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Deciphering the Jihadist Threat to the Philippines’ Moro Peace Process

The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR), ratified in a public vote in early-2019, lends greater autonomy to Moro Muslims in western Mindanao (Image Source: Philippine News Agency).

In the impoverished west of the Philippines’ conflict-afflicted southern island of Mindanao, residents voted earlier this year to approve a landmark peace deal which it is hoped will signal an end to one of Southeast Asia’s bloodiest and most intractable insurgencies. Since the early-1970s, separatists have waged a decades-long armed campaign against the central government in Manila in pursuit of either full independence or greater political autonomy for the region’s oppressed Moro Muslim population. After failed peace agreements and false dawns in 1976, 1989 and 1996, the past year has seen major progress.

July 2018 witnessed the signing of an historic peace accord between the government of President Rodrigo Duterte and Mindanao’s largest Muslim insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The deal – known as the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) – provided the legislation needed to create a new self-governing region to replace the flawed Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was established in 1989. A public vote in all areas set to form part of the new political entity was held across two days in January and February, with a majority needed to ratify the BOL in each jurisdiction. Turnout exceeded 85% as residents voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposed new region, which will be called the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

In the five existing ARMM provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, a combined total of 1.54m people voted in favour while just 198,000 voted against. After polling closed in non-ARMM areas, it emerged that Cotabato city had also voted to join the BARMM and will become its seat of government. While Isabela city voted against, more than twenty villages in North Cotabato province voted in favour to ensure the BARMM will be larger and more populous than its predecessor.

Yet despite hopes for peace rising after voters rubber-stamped the creation of the BARMM, Duterte has kept Mindanao under martial law in an attempt to tackle the lingering threat from ISIS-affiliated groups active in the provinces set to form the new region. Martial law has remained in place since the siege of Marawi erupted in May 2017, when jihadists from the Maute Group (MG), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Ansar Khalifah Philippines (AKP) joined forces to take-over the city. In spite of ongoing peace efforts, these radical elements have refused to relent.

Moro Muslims have been present in western Mindanao since the arrival of Arab traders in the Sulu islands in the 1300s, and have since fought uprisings against Spanish and US colonialists, and later the modern-day Philippine state. The Moros’ have long suffered cultural and political marginalization, and their communities rank among the poorest in the country, with the poverty rate in the ARMM at 59%.

The 30-000 strong MILF long-ago dropped their demand for full independence in favour of autonomy. The last few decades have seen episodes of violence despite a series of past peace agreements having been signed; none of which have managed to quell the insurgency in its entirety. There is now real optimism on both sides that the proposed Bangsamoro region may represent a genuine path to peace.

The new jurisdiction will have its own 80-member elected parliament able to enact laws, headed by a chief minister. The region will receive 75% of taxes collected within its territory, while benefiting from central government grants and improved access to natural resource revenues. Rebel leaders are also hopeful the new region will be a significant improvement on the ARMM, which has been associated with corruption and criticized for constituting autonomy in name only. The government and the MILF campaigned side-by-side for a ‘yes’ vote and have pledged to work together to implement the BOL.

The new Bangsamoro region is to be led during a three year transition period by Moro Islamic Liberation Front chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim (Image Source: Philippine News Agency).

While the government and the MILF have pursued peace, several ISIS-aligned groups have remained active in Mindanao. The main protagonists of the Marawi siege, the ASG and the Mautes, are still alive despite having suffered heavy losses during the conflict. The ASG has reverted to launching attacks in its remote island lairs of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, while the Mautes are still thought to be recruiting in Lanao del Sur despite the group’s leader, Abu Dar, being killed in a recent army offensive. The BIFF is the strongest jihadi group in the region, with around 400 fighters in the provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The AKP operates further south in Sarangani and South Cotabato.

These groups have committed a series of high-profile attacks aimed at disrupting the peace process. Just five days after the BOL was inked last July, a Moroccan suicide bomber with ties to the ASG detonated his device at an army checkpoint near Lamitan city, killing 11 people. Local police said his intended target was a school parade taking place in the city centre. BIFF bombings targeted the Sultan Kudarat town of Isulan on 28 August and 2 September, killing five and injuring 49 civilians. In mid-September a bomb planted by the AKP wounded seven people in General Santos city. A blast blamed on the BIFF struck a shopping mall in Cotabato city on 31 December, leaving another two dead and 34 injured. The post-BOL spike in IED attacks in late-2018 followed a stark warning from BIFF figurehead Abu Misri Mama: ‘we are not in favour of autonomy [and will] continue to fight for independence.’

Attacks have continued into 2019. On 27 January – timed to wreak maximum havoc between the two BOL polling days scheduled for 21 January and 6 February – twin explosions tore through a packed cathedral in Jolo, killing 22 worshippers. The attack, carried out by ISIS-aligned ASG militants, served as a reminder that jihadist groups remain intent on shattering the southern Philippines’ fragile peace.

ISIS-affiliated militants have also regularly clashed with government soldiers on the battlefield, with fighting most intense in rural areas of western Mindanao. Last year witnessed 119 clashes linked to Moro and Islamist groups on mainland Mindanao, with at least 83 involving the BIFF. While the MILF engaged only in small-scale clan disputes between rival factions at the local level, clashes between BIFF factions and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) led to the death of 173 militants and 21 government soldiers. The BIFF is most active in Maguindanao, the site of 70 clashes in 2018, and North Cotabato, which saw 24 encounters. The Mautes have engaged in sporadic fighting with the army in Lanao del Sur, while the AKP has initiated several gun battles in Sarangani and South Cotabato. At least 91,485 people were displaced last year in Mindanao as a result of clashes involving ISIS-linked groups.

The BIFF stronghold of Maguindanao also proved to be the epicentre of a rising IED threat, seeing 19 attacks, which mostly targeted military and Philippine National Police (PNP) vehicles by the roadside.

Meanwhile in its remote island hideouts of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, the ASG engaged in 63 armed clashes with the military during 2018, resulting in 161 fatalities and displacing at least 5,000 civilians.

The 30,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front has pledged to disband and disarm its insurgent force before transitioning into a political party and contesting elections (Image Source: PCOO).

These figures demonstrate that ISIS-aligned groups are still active and pose a threat to stability in the region. Sustained BIFF-AFP clashes continue to take place, while IED blasts have targeted both state security personnel and civilians. However, the threat has reduced since the militants’ attempt to take-over Marawi city was extinguished in October 2017. In the build-up to the siege, the four ISIS-affiliated groups were able to join forces and operate relatively freely in light of alleged AFP intelligence failures. The army was taken aback by the militants’ combined strength and level of co-ordination, and was vastly under-prepared for a prolonged urban siege characterized by street battles and enemy sniper fire.

Post-Marawi, the AFP’s awareness and posture has altered considerably. Remnants of the four ISIS-aligned groups have been weakened by sustained offensives under martial law, while the infiltration of foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia has slowed due to trilateral naval patrols carried-out in the Sulu Sea by the Philippines and its two nearest neighbours. Mindanao’s ISIS-aligned groups are now separated geographically, and will struggle to join ranks to launch a combined assault as they did in Marawi. While a repeat can’t be ruled out, it is unlikely in the current state of heightened vigilance.

With the BARMM ratified, Duterte is now hoping to crush these groups under martial law. Yet despite the progress made in the past year, barriers to peace remain. A lengthy transition awaits as the MILF transforms into a political party ahead of elections to the new regional parliament due by 2022. The demobilisation of the MILF may also prove difficult. The MILF’s 30,000 fighters will likely find it harder to reintegrate back into society than senior MILF leaders who have joined the BARMM’s transitional administration. Political leadership itself will be an arduous task. MILF leaders have sought to prepare early by visiting former rebel chiefs in Indonesia’s Aceh province to learn about the implementation of a similar peace accord there over the past decade. In Aceh, an autonomous settlement addressing grievances of Muslim insurgent groups in exchange for disarmament has largely held firm since 2005.

Authorities hope the peace accord will dent recruitment for ISIS-affiliated groups in Mindanao, who joined forces to occupy Marawi city for five months in 2017 (Image Source: Mark Jhomel).

On Mindanao, the presence of Jihadi groups makes a replication of Aceh’s peace gains more uncertain. Military intelligence reports suggest foreign jihadists from the pre-Marawi influx are still fighting with the BIFF, while the Mautes are alleged to be recruiting in Lanao del Sur to bolster their depleted ranks. Further clashes with the AFP are likely throughout 2019, although under the strain of martial law ISIS-linked groups may further splinter, turn to guerrilla-style tactics and make greater use of explosives.

The key test for a lasting peace in Mindanao will be whether the hearts and minds of Moro Muslims can be won over by the new autonomous region, which promises to reduce poverty and spark more equitable development. Should genuine autonomy prevail and political stability take hold, the brazen attempt by ISIS to hijack the Moros’ five-decade separatist campaign may yet prove to be short-lived.

This article was first published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The statistics in this article are sourced from the institute’s Armed Conflict Database (ACD), which collects data and analyses key trends in all active conflicts worldwide.