Is Abu Sayyaf Making a Comeback in the Philippines?

The Philippine security forces have increased patrols in waters around Abu Sayyaf’s remote island strongholds, following a recent spike in militant activity (Image Source: US Navy)

On 27 July, firebrand Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte mooted the idea of holding peace talks with the notoriously brutal militants of Abu Sayyaf for the first time since he came to office. During a speech in Jolo – the bustling main town at the heart of the militants’ remote maritime stronghold in the Sulu archipelago – Duterte, referencing his own southern roots, declared: ‘now, you have a president with Moro blood…let’s just talk’. Duterte repeated: ‘let’s talk – or what are we going to do; kill each other?’

Four days later, a powerful bomb hidden in a van exploded at an army road checkpoint on the nearby island of Basilan, killing eleven people instantly and leaving at least seven others wounded. Military spokesperson Col. Edgard Arevalo quickly assigned blame to a local faction of Abu Sayyaf affiliated to the Islamic State. The blast – later revealed to be a suicide attack – was followed by a surge in activity by the group during August, including an attempted piracy attack and renewed clashes with the army.

The recent spike in violence indicates a shift away from signs that Abu Sayyaf had entered a steep decline since last year’s Marawi siege, when its most powerful faction – led by now-deceased militant leader Isnilon Hapilon – was wiped-out in a five-month offensive by government forces which ended last October. In the time since, the group has rarely made headlines beyond its remote island hideouts.

Abu Sayyaf is in the headlines once again. And it may be no coincidence that its re-emergence into the public consciousness comes at a time when Duterte has been focused on finalizing a years-old peace deal with the more moderate Islamist rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, based just across the water on the larger southern island of Mindanao. Do the signs of life in Abu Sayyaf indicate a co-ordinated and resurgent campaign aimed at disrupting the peace process? Or are recent attacks a desperate cry for attention as the once-powerful militant group fades into obscurity and irrelevance?

The decades-old roots of Abu Sayyaf’s violence

The modern-day motivations of Abu Sayyaf can be better interpreted through tracing the group’s long history, dating back to its founding by radical Islamist preacher Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani in the early 1990s. Janjalani – unhappy with the stalling separatist struggle for a new Muslim homeland in Mindanao, which at the time was fronted by the moderately-minded Moro National Liberation Front – set-up Abu Sayyaf as a radical splinter group with the aim of fighting for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines. The group was initially hierarchical and well-organized, while it fostered close links with Indonesia-based militant group Jemaah Islamiyah and the global Al-Qaeda network.

After Janjalani was killed during a 1998 military raid, the group splintered and during the 2000s ditched its ideological mantra to a large degree, becoming something more akin to a criminal enterprise. The group became motivated more by profit than ideology, and went on to launch a wave of kidnappings and piracy attacks through which it accrued huge wealth. Ransom payments often ran into millions of dollars. The consequences of not paying-up were stark, as Abu Sayyaf gained a gruesome reputation for beheading both western and Filipino hostages within hours of its ransom deadlines not being met. Attacks on vessels in the Sulu Sea led experts to dub Abu Sayyaf-infested waters as the ‘new Somalia’.

President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to crack down hard on Abu Sayyaf while Martial Law remains in place across all of Mindanao until 31 December 2018 (Image Source: PCOO)

By late-2014 the group had a new leader – Isnilon Hapilon – and had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. This signalled a reversion to its early ideological aim of seeking an independent Islamic state in the Philippines’ conflict-plagued south. In its isolated island bases away from the prying eyes of the military the group increased its number of recruits and used funds from piracy operations to purchase weapons and ammunition. In late-May 2017, Hapilon’s powerful Abu Sayyaf faction joined forces with Maute group jihadists on Mindanao and laid siege to the city of Marawi for five months in an attempt to forge an Islamic State-style caliphate in Southeast Asia. The militants were finally flushed-out by the army in October of last year having sustained heavy losses. More than 1,000 jihadists were killed.

The declining strength of Abu Sayyaf post-Marawi

Since being routed in the tight urban battlefields of Marawi late last year, the strength and capabilities of Abu Sayyaf have noticeably declined. Hapilon was killed during the final throes of battle, dealing a significant blow to the revived aim of the group to fight for an Islamic caliphate. Two main factions were left behind in the group’s traditional strongholds, loosely led by Furuji Indama in Basilan and Radullan Sahiron in Sulu. Further factionalization has also occurred, with sub-leaders commanding small pockets of fighters which are often structured along clan or family lines. Since the start of this year the group’s remnants have come under sustained attack from the army under Martial Law, which Duterte has extended across the entirety of Mindanao and its outlying islands until the end of 2018.

In the first six months of the year at least 63 Abu Sayyaf members have been killed by the army, while Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana recently estimated that only around 100 militants remain in Sulu and just 35 in Basilan. These numbers are hard to verify due to the group’s notoriously shadowy nature and remote areas of operation, however its lack of notable activity until recently backed-up claims that its strength was declining. The year up to July saw few attempted piracy attacks, no mass-casualty bombings and no major attacks on villages – all hallmark tactics of the group in the past. Many small groups of Abu Sayyaf fighters have recently surrendered to the military while the group’s low-profile activities have barely made headlines beyond the remote island provinces where Abu Sayyaf operates.

Abu Sayyaf displays signs of renewed life

The suicide bombing at an army checkpoint on the outskirts Lamitan city, Basilan province, on 31 July thrust the group firmly back into the spotlight. The attack – which left 11 people dead including four civilians, six soldiers and the suspected bomber – took the authorities by surprise. Abu Sayyaf was thought to no-longer possess the capability to pull-off such an attack. Unconfirmed media reports suggested a Moroccan national with links to the Islamic state was the perpetrator, raising worrying questions as to the extent of the link between Abu Sayyaf and the wider global jihadi movement, which was thought to have been severed after the defeat of Hapilon’s faction in Marawi. The suicide attack was just the first in a number of high-profile incidents linked to the group over the next month.

Abu Sayyaf joined forces with the Maute group to lay siege to Marawi in 2017. The militants were defeated by government troops after a gruelling five-month battle (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

On 10 August, a group of around ten heavily-armed Abu Sayyaf militants boarded a Malaysian-owned tugboat off the island of Tawi-Tawi, close to the Malaysian state of Sabah. Authorities suspected the incident to be an attempted hostage-taking or kidnapping-for-ransom, however the crew managed to escape abduction by locking themselves in a secure room onboard the ship before Malaysian troops intervened, causing the militants to flee. Despite the ultimate failure of the operation, the attempted piracy attack demonstrates the willingness of Abu Sayyaf to once again launch ambitious assaults on the high seas. Towards the end of August, clashes with the military also intensified in the group’s island lairs. Several militants were killed, yet fierce battles on 23 August between more than 40 militants and an army battalion left 22 government soldiers wounded, many having sustained gunshot wounds and shrapnel-blast injuries. On 31 August, unidentified gunmen onboard a boat – identified by police as likely Abu Sayyaf members – raided a small coastal town in Zamboanga del Norte, killing four civilians and a government militiaman before taking two people hostage and fleeing back out to sea. The attack serves as just the latest indication that Abu Sayyaf may be trying to reboot their past violent campaign.

Is the threat from Abu Sayyaf really rising?

Do these incidents represent a growing threat from a resurgent Abu Sayyaf? Or are they simply last acts of resistance from a group which is becoming increasingly desperate to gain attention and remind itself of past glories when it was considered the most radical and brutal jihadi group in Southeast Asia?

Despite the spate of attacks, it is clear that Abu Sayyaf remains severely restricted in its reach. It is no longer able to dominate the waters surrounding its maritime strongholds as it once could. Joint naval patrols carried-out on a regular basis by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia in the Sulu Sea have put paid to that. Launching piracy operations on the scale it once did, would now be far more difficult. An atmosphere of increased vigilance by countries in the region has also hampered the movement of jihadi fighters in the remote maritime borderlands between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, which served as a vital transit point for terrorists in the build-up to last year’s assault on Marawi city.

Meanwhile, the Philippine military has permanently deployed 10 battalions to Basilan and Sulu, and continues to launch co-ordinated ground and air assaults on Abu Sayyaf hideouts, aided by President Duterte’s decision to keep Martial Law in place until the end of 2018. In August, the army also set up a new outpost on the remote island of Panguan, located between Tawi-Tawi and the Malaysian state of Sabah, in what senior military spokesman Gen. Custodio Parcon described as an attempt to prevent the area from once again becoming a ‘safe haven’ from which militants could launch attacks. The lawless security environment which allowed Abu Sayyaf to flourish before Marawi now ceases to exist.

Forecast: Abu Sayyaf looking to disrupt Duterte’s peace process

It is no coincidence that the rise in Abu Sayyaf activity in recent months came just as President Duterte finalized a long-in-the-making peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao, aimed at establishing a new autonomous region in Muslim-majority areas of the region – including the island provinces which have long been home to Abu Sayyaf. The deal is expected to deal a huge blow to the recruitment efforts of jihadi groups such as Abu Sayyaf, that have long sought to lure Muslim recruits who felt marginalized and disenfranchised in the Philippines’ impoverished and war-afflicted south. The extremists are now attempting to push back and disrupt the peace process for their own survival.

The Philippine military has deployed 10 battalions to Sulu province in an effort to prevent Abu Sayyaf from relaunching its campaign of terror (Image Source: PIA)

Bombings such as the one perpetrated by Abu Sayyaf in Basilan, and two similar attacks carried-out in August by another radical group – the ISIS-aligned Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters – in Sultan Kudarat, now represent the biggest threat going forward. These radical groups may not have the manpower and resources to take the fight to the army in a conventional sense, so will now likely revert to guerrilla tactics such as suicide bombings, kidnappings and ambushes targeting government troops.

In this sense, Abu Sayyaf are attempting a comeback of sorts. Yet under the strain of Martial Law and with Duterte in the mood to crack-down after the Basilan bombing – which prompted him to order his troops to ‘destroy and kill’ the jihadists – Abu Sayyaf will struggle to resurrect its past reign of terror.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

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Liguasan Marsh Clashes Expose the Latent Threat from ISIS in the Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 amid the continued threat posed by IS-linked groups (Image Source: PCOO)

Shortly before dawn on 10 June, government airstrikes pounded militant hideouts in towns dotted around the edge of Liguasan Marsh. This sprawling wetland – straddling two provinces in the remote interior of the Philippines’ conflict-wracked southern island of Mindanao – has become just the latest front in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) in Southeast Asia, after militants allied to the notorious jihadi group laid siege to the city of Marawi – located 120km further north – for five months last year.

The initial aerial attack by government forces in Liguasan Marsh was followed by a ground offensive lasting several days, which resulted in the death of at least 26 militants but prompted 15,000 residents to flee their homes. The deceased militants belonged to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) – an IS-aligned group which has clashed repeatedly with the military since the turn of the year.

Meanwhile the radical Maute group – chief architects of the Marawi siege – have also risen their head in Mindanao in recent weeks after several months of inactivity. On 17 June, the Mautes – commanded by IS’ new leader in the Philippines, Abu Dar – clashed with government troops in the Lanao del Sur town of Tubaran, leaving five militants dead and 11,700 people from 2,200 families displaced. Military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner said around 30 Maute fighters were able to flee the area unharmed.

More than a year since the uprising in Marawi, does the intensified violence witnessed in June indicate that IS-linked groups – considerably depleted after the siege – are rebounding in western Mindanao?

While the Mautes were dealt a near-knockout blow after sustaining vast losses in Marawi, only a small cohort of BIFF members participated in the siege. The BIFF fighters who did not travel to Marawi have now picked up the IS mantle. Thought to number several-hundred jihadis, the BIFF remain embedded in small pockets of rural territory across three provinces in western Mindanao: Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The group is split into at least three sub-factions, with Esmael Abdulmalik serving as its main figurehead and de-facto leader. Since Marawi, the BIFF have regularly clashed with the security forces, launched a wave of IED attacks and rampaged through civilian towns.

Encounters between the BIFF and the military have increased in both scale and intensity. On 11 March, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reported it had killed 44 militants and wounded 26 during three days of intense clashes in Datu Saudi town. Fighting again erupted in mid-April, before June’s latest military onslaught targeted the group in Liguasan Marsh. Despite suffering heavy casualties, the BIFF have proven unexpectedly resilient, well-resourced and difficult to dislodge. The group have hit back by ambushing soldiers using IEDs. Bomb blasts have also targeted civilians, with an explosion outside a bar in Tacurong causing 14 casualties on New Year’s Eve. More recently, the BIFF bombed a cathedral in Koronadal city in late-April and detonated a device outside a school in Midsayap in May.

IS-linked militants laid siege to Marawi city for five months from May-October 2017. The conflict left more than 1,000 people dead, most of whom were militants (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

The AFP have reported seeing foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia fighting alongside the BIFF, providing a possible explanation for their confounding level of strength. It is thought that a number of these non-Filipino combatants managed to escape from Marawi during the siege and linked-up with the BIFF, while others are rumoured to have entered Mindanao later by crossing porous sea borders. Senior army commander Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana says the AFP is verifying reports that Indonesians and Singaporeans were among those killed recently at Liguasan Marsh, while Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has previously warned of the illicit entry of terrorists from neighbouring countries. The AFP has vowed to keep a ‘tight watch’ along Mindanao’s heavily-indented coast but policing it round-the-clock is a monumental challenge, and inevitably some are able to slip through the net undetected. Some of these new recruits are battle-hardened and trained in bomb-making skills acquired abroad.

As the BIFF has proceeded with its campaign of terror, the Maute group – destroyed as a hierarchical and organized fighting force in Marawi – has been slowly rebuilding beneath the surface. The clashes that erupted in Tubaran in June were the first involving the group since the early months of the year, when sporadic gun battles with government soldiers erupted in the towns of Masui, Pagayawan and Pantar. The latest violence indicates the Mautes are still very much alive under new leader Abu Dar.

Reports of Maute recruitment in Lanao del Sur province have emerged, with the army claiming the terrorists are using cash, gold and jewellery looted from Marawi to lure impoverished young men into their ranks in villages surrounding the ruins of the now-destroyed Islamic city on the shores of Lake Lanao. In February, the AFP’s Col. Romeo Brawner estimated the Mautes had replenished their ranks with around 200 fighters from Lanao del Sur and said the group ‘had not abandoned their objective to create a caliphate’. The military’s commanding general Rolando Bautista recently warned another Marawi-style urban siege was becoming a ‘big possibility’. Police have also arrested Maute members and sympathizers further afield in central and northern areas of the country, while Manila’s police director Oscar Albayalde has placed officers on ‘full alert’ for potential Maute attacks in the capital.

Alarmist rhetoric aside, on the surface the threat from radical Islamists appears to have reduced since the Marawi siege ended. A military crackdown facilitated by Martial Law has kept up the pressure on the jihadists, while a long-delayed peace process with the region’s larger and more moderate Muslim rebel groups is inching towards a conclusion. The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is set to be passed next month, paving the way for the creation of a new autonomously-governed region for Muslim majority areas in Mindanao. It is hoped the landmark deal will forge a lasting peace between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – which has already laid down its arms – while at the same time reducing grievances among the Muslim population and tackling the core long-term drivers of terrorist recruitment in western Mindanao, which have sustained more radical groups for decades.

Since the Marawi siege ended, Philippine troops have been battling the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and remnants of the Maute group in Mindanao (Image Source: PIA)

Yet the current generation of extremist groups present in the region – spearheaded by the IS-aligned BIFF and the rapidly-regrouping Maute remnants – appear unlikely to give up their fight. If the peace process fails to live up to its promise of bringing greater autonomy and development, there is a danger these elements may be able to garner enough support to once again revive Mindanao’s six-decade Islamist separatist struggle – but this time entwined with the warped ideology of transnational jihad and the brutal tactics which have become the trademark of IS’ global brand. Just last month, senior BIFF spokesperson Abu Misri Mama warned the group does not recognize the BBL-led peace process and chillingly said ‘‘we are not in favour of autonomy…the BIFF will continue to fight for independence; the island will not see peace even after this BBL is passed’’. President Rodrigo Duterte has also voiced fears of such a scenario, warning earlier this year of ‘‘war in Mindanao’’ if the peace process collapses.

For as long as their flame still burns, the IS-linked jihadists of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Mautes will represent the greatest barrier to a lasting peace in the Philippines’ troubled south.

What Underlies the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters’ Campaign of Terror in Western Mindanao?

Since the end of the Marawi siege in October, Philippine troops have been redeployed to take on the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Image Source: Philippines Information Agency)

In the three months since the jihadists of the ISIS-linked Maute group were routed by Philippine troops in Marawi, another radical band of Islamists have risen from the shadows to take their place as the vanguard of ISIS in western Mindanao. Since the five-month siege of Marawi ended in late-October, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) have launched a wave of IED attacks and regularly clashed with security forces, whilst their de-facto leader Esmael Abdulmalik has been touted as a possible replacement for slain Abu Sayyaf militant Isnilon Hapilon as ISIS’ new emir in Southeast Asia.

In the post-Marawi climate of heightened threat awareness, the BIFF’s recent spike in activity has garnered an increased amount of attention not only in the Philippines, but across the wider region. Yet the group has been around for almost a decade and has been involved in high-profile incidents before, notably the Mamasapano clash of January 2015 which left 44 special forces soldiers dead and sent shockwaves throughout the country. The BIFF has also claimed responsibility for bomb attacks in the past, whilst a small cohort of its fighters are thought to have taken part in last year’s Marawi siege.

What underlies the BIFF’s intensified campaign of terror? And how has this previously little-known militant group emerged from being a mere footnote in Mindanao’s long-running armed Islamist insurgency to positioning itself as the last bastion of ISIS’ ambitions to carve out a regional caliphate?

The BIFF has its roots in the decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency which has been fought on the Philippines’ conflict-plagued southern island of Mindanao since the early 1970s. In its initial stages, the insurgency was fought by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founded by Nur Misuari, and later by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) founded by Hashim Salamat, which broke-off from the MNLF in 1981. Both organizations enjoyed support from large sections of the Muslim population in the Mindanao region, which has long suffered from underdevelopment and high rates of poverty in comparison to other parts of the majority-Catholic country, leaving its residents feeling marginalized.

The MNLF and the MILF both started out fighting for a fully-independent state for the Muslim-majority Moro population in the south, leading to a protracted conflict which has caused more than 100,000 deaths. Yet in recent decades their stance has softened as both groups have turned their attention away from armed struggle and towards peace talks with the government, aimed at securing greater autonomy in the south rather than independence. This shift angered hardline elements within the separatist movement, resulting in the formation of several radical groups to revive the campaign for a fully-independent Muslim state. A breakaway faction of the MNLF – Abu Sayyaf – emerged in 1990 and went on to gain global notoriety after launching a spate of kidnappings in the region and brutally beheading several Western hostages. Twenty years later, in 2010, a second splinter group emerged this time from within the ranks of the MILF, and called itself the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

The BIFF was formed by Ameril Umbra Kato, who was educated in Saudi Arabia and espoused a more radical brand of Islam based on Salafi-Wahhabi ideology, practiced more widely in the Middle East than in Southeast Asia. Frustrated with the MILF’s decision to accept autonomy at the expense of full independence, Kato led around 300 former MILF comrades in a campaign of attacks targeting the military and civilians in rural areas across the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato. The primary aim of the attacks was to disrupt the peace process between the government and the MILF.

Kato was succeeded as leader by Mohammad Ali Tambako after suffering a stroke in 2011, yet Tambako left to establish another militant group two years later. Kato died of natural causes in 2015 and the BIFF appointed Ismael Abubakar as its new figurehead, signalling a new era in which the group separated into factions and became more of a splintered guerrilla organization than a co-ordinated or hierarchical group. The BIFF remains loosely-structured today, and is not thought to have a defined leadership structure or central chain of command.

The BIFF has its roots in Mindanao’s long running Islamist separatist insurgency, but in recent years has fought under the banner of ISIS (Image Source: Keith Bacongco)

Amidst the uncertainty over its direction and leadership, the group had pledged allegiance to ISIS in late-2014. At the time, this was not viewed as a concern by the authorities and was seen as more of an attention-grabbing ploy aimed at aiding recruitment and boosting the group’s profile. This view changed suddenly when in May last year, militants from the ISIS-aligned Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups launched a brazen assault on the city of Marawi. The threat from ISIS had become visible, having materialized itself on a large scale in Southeast Asia for the first time. The Marawi crisis led the security forces in Mindanao to take pledges of allegiance to ISIS by smaller militant groups far more seriously.

The jihadists from the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf took five months to dislodge. In mid-October, the Philippine military announced the end of the siege after the deaths of militant leaders Omar Maute and Isnilon Hapilon in the main battle zone. More than 900 militants were killed in total, dealing a serious blow to Abu Sayyaf’s capabilities and virtually destroying the Maute group as a fighting force. Whilst a small number of the BIFF’s members were thought to be present in Marawi, many of the group’s fighters remained in its heartlands elsewhere in western Mindanao. These BIFF fighters now constitute the surviving remnants of ISIS in the southern Philippines, and have taken up the mantle vacated by the Mautes with a renewed sense of purpose and authority.

Since the end of the Marawi siege clashes between government forces and the BIFF have intensified in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato, where the group has its rural strongholds. Government airstrikes, ground offensives and gun battles resulted in the death of 28 BIFF members in the final three months of 2017, whilst two government troops were also killed. In December, the BIFF launched a series of attacks targeting the indigenous Teduray tribe whilst attempting to seize pockets of territory in rural villages in Maguindanao province, setting fire to houses and killing several tribe members whilst driving thousands more from their homes. The BIFF has also launched a spate of bomb attacks targeting police patrols, military bases and civilians. On New Year’s Eve, the militants detonated an IED outside a crowded bar in Tacurong city, killing two civilians and injuring twelve, having earlier in the day killed one and wounded five policemen in a bomb blast in Datu Hoffer town.

The BIFF remains split into at least three main factions, the largest and most active of which is led by Ismael Abdulmalik, also known by the alias Abu Turaife. In a particularly worrying development, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has reported seeing ‘foreign-looking’ gunmen fighting alongside BIFF militants in Maguindanao province, indicating that terrorist fighters from elsewhere in Southeast Asia may have joined-up with the group. It is possible that surviving Maute group members, including a number of Indonesians and Malaysians believed to have fought in Marawi, may have bolstered the BIFF’s ranks. At present, the BIFF appears to be the new group of choice for the region’s militants.

Local authorities have said they are monitoring the recruitment activities of jihadist groups in western Mindanao and are bracing themselves for another Marawi-style attack. Cotabato city has been muted as a possible second target. President Duterte has responded by extending Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 and has promised to destroy the BIFF, whilst recently-installed military chief Lt. Gen. Rey Leonardo Guerrero has vowed to redeploy resources from Marawi to tackle Islamist groups across the south. Mindanao’s civilian population remains on edge as its security forces maintain a heightened state of alert, having conducted several urban warfare training exercises in recent months to prepare for a repeat scenario. In Marawi last May, the authorities had been caught off guard.

Military operations against the BIFF have intensified in recent months in the group’s rural strongholds in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato (Image Source: AFP)

The rise to prominence of radical groups such as Maute, and now the BIFF, comes at a crucial stage in the southern Philippines’ drawn-out peace process with the MILF, which has laid down its weapons since a provisional peace deal with the government was signed in 2014. Currently, lawmakers are debating the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which would pave the way for a new autonomous region in the south to replace the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), constituting a final negotiated end to hostilities with the largest groups in the Moro rebel movement.

The bill is expected to be passed later this year. Yet after slow progress in getting even to this stage, concerns have been voiced that if the bill is delayed further, or in a worst-case scenario fails to pass through Congress, frustrations will grow and fertile ground for jihadist recruitment will be created. President Duterte and MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim have both warned of the radicalization risk. Duterte has talked repeatedly of the importance of correcting ‘historical injustices’ committed to the Moro people, whilst Ebrahim has described the BBL as being of ‘great importance for stability and security in Southeast Asia’. In a November interview with Channel News Asia, the MILF leader said ‘the longer this process takes, the more people are going to be radicalized’. Despite expressing his own frustration over the slow progress being made, Ebrahim has said the MILF remains firmly committed to the peace process and is staunchly opposed to radical groups such as the BIFF and Abu Sayyaf.

President Duterte has extended Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 to crack down on the BIFF and other militant groups active in the region (Image Source: Philippine Government)

Whilst the passage of the BBL may be an important step in quelling the long-running insurgency, it must be noted that previous peace agreements have not succeeded in ending the violence altogether. Despite the creation of the ARMM in 1989 and the signing of separate peace accords with the MNLF in 1996 and the MILF in 2014, several new groups have been spawned and the insurgency has evolved.

At present, it is the BIFF which pose the greatest concern going forward. Radical groups such as the BIFF will remain attractive to those who will never accept autonomy and maintain a desire to see a fully-independent Islamic state created in the southern Philippines. This is especially true for those living in the most impoverished areas of Mindanao, who may feel disenfranchised and excluded from the potential benefits that any political settlement may bring.

As long as the underlying conditions of instability remain present in Mindanao, transnational terror groups such as ISIS and aspiring militants from across the region will seek to take advantage of the situation. These links pose the biggest challenge to the ongoing peace process in the Philippines’ troubled south. Despite efforts on both sides to secure a lasting peace, the spread of ISIS’ global ideology to the region continues to aid recruitment, giving new meaning and impetus to the localized battles fought by formerly little-known militant groups such as the Mautes, Abu Sayyaf and now the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

How Marawi Pushed ASEAN Nations to Join Forces to Tackle Terrorism

Bombing of Marawi City
ISIS-linked militants laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi for five months last year, sparking Southeast Asia’s leaders into action (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

Despite parts of Southeast Asia experiencing the scourge of Islamist terrorism for decades, the ten member-states of ASEAN have in the past struggled to co-operate to tackle the jihadist threat. After a spate of attacks in the 2000s carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf bandits in the southern Philippines, the regional bloc made determined efforts to forge a region-wide response.

These well-intentioned moves to implement a multilateral counter-terrorism framework ended up amounting to little more than a set of non-binding protocols and agreements outlining desired outcomes and suggesting best practices for member-states to follow, rather than ushering in a new era of enhanced security co-operation between countries in the region.

Last year’s five-month siege of Marawi by ISIS-aligned militants however, proved to be a game-changer. The militants’ brazen attempt to take over a mid-sized city of more than 200,000 people and forge a Southeast Asian ISIS province centred on the Philippines’ war-ravaged southern island of Mindanao reignited the lingering threat, finally sparking the region’s authorities into action.

Southeast Asia has long been afflicted by the presence of local, regional and transnational terrorist groups. Mindanao has been the site of an intractable armed Islamist insurgency since the early-1970s, which started off as a separatist movement but later spawned radical groups such as Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Meanwhile Indonesia suffered a string of attacks at the hands of homegrown militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the 1990s and 2000s, supported by Al-Qaeda cells operational within the country. The presence of these groups also caused significant alarm in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore, whilst sparking fears in the wider region.

Terror groups were able to establish a home in the Southeast Asia’s maritime states, taking advantage of porous sea borders and areas of weak state presence to set up training camps and bases from which to plan and launch attacks. This was especially true for remote parts of the Indonesian archipelago and in the lawless chain of Philippine islands which divides the Sulu and Celebes seas. In 2002 more than 200 people were killed in suicide attacks by JI targeting nightclubs on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, before Abu Sayyaf bombed a packed passenger ferry in Manila Bay in 2004, killing 116 civilians.

These high-profile attacks in the post-9/11 era prompted ASEAN to introduce a raft of measures intended to combat terrorism. The most important of these was the 2007 ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism (ACCT), designed to ‘‘provide for the framework for regional co-operation to counter, prevent and supress terrorism in all its forms’’ and ‘‘deepen co-operation among law enforcement agencies’’. However, the convention was not ratified by all ten member-states until 2013, and remained merely a set of guidelines with no enforcement or compliance mechanism. Several other region-wide agreements including the 2009 ASEAN Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counter-Terrorism (CPACT) have only had a marginal influence.

The impact of these counter-terrorism measures has been limited for several reasons. ASEAN’s strict adherence to consensus-based decision-making and the principle of non-interference has faced criticism, whilst the bloc’s use of vague language and its lack of enforcement capabilities have prevented the introduction of concrete region-wide measures to tackle terrorism. The grouping has often been described as a forum for discussion rather than a powerful body willing to push its members into taking firm action.

The varied threat level across ASEAN and the differing military and financial capabilities of its ten member-states has also hindered co-operation. For example, the threat from Islamist terrorism may be high in countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, whilst their armed forces are also relatively well-resourced. In comparison, countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam face a far lower threat, and may not be prepared or equipped to contribute resources to the fight. The past reluctance of ASEAN nations to share intelligence or permit foreign troops to operate across national boundaries has also blocked greater co-operation in the field of counter-terrorism.

The heightened regional terrorism threat featured high-up on the agenda at the November 2017 ASEAN Summit held in Manila (Image Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office)

Historically, ASEAN’s ten member-states have displayed a preference for strengthening domestic legislation and signing bilateral level agreements to tackle terrorism, seeing the threats as national rather than regional or global in nature, and therefore not requiring a multilateral response.

That was until jihadists stormed the southern Philippine city of Marawi in May last year. The threat which had lain dormant beneath the surface since the decline of JI in the late 2000s had suddenly re-emerged in a form that was clearly regional in nature as ISIS announced their intention to carve out a Southeast Asian caliphate. Leaders quickly realised the need for closer co-operation to prevent the violence spreading, amid fears of further ISIS-inspired attacks and terrorist infiltration across borders.

Even before the Marawi siege ended in October, regional leaders gathered on several occasions to discuss responses to the evolving threat. Indonesian President Joko Widodo described Marawi as a ‘‘wake-up call’’ regarding the threat posed to Southeast Asia, whilst Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak reaffirmed his country’s commitment to tackle Islamist terror groups in the region. In September, security officials from all ten ASEAN states took part in a specially-convened meeting on the ‘Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism’ in the region, whilst terrorism also topped the agenda at November’s 31st ASEAN Summit hosted by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila.

The discussions sparked by the takeover of Marawi first resulted in strengthened bilateral and trilateral measures agreed between the states most affected. In June, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines began conducting naval patrols in the Sulu Sea to restrict the movement of jihadist fighters to-and-from Mindanao. These measures were later bolstered by the addition of co-ordinated air patrols to spot suspicious activity from the skies. Indonesia and the Philippines have also agreed to establish a hotline to alert one another about security threats along their shared maritime frontier.

More recently two multilateral regional counter-terror initiatives have been established, indicating that ASEAN nations now appear more willing to co-operate on a collective basis than in the past.

In mid-November, the Southeast Asian Counter-Terrorism Financing Working Group (SACTFWG) was established to crack down on the funding of terrorist groups linked to ISIS. The new regional grouping will include law enforcement agencies from across Southeast Asia, and will be led by the Philippines’ Anti-Money Laundering Council and Australia’s Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC).

Then in a landmark agreement on 25 January six ASEAN members – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – signed-up to a new intelligence-sharing pact labelled the ‘Our Eyes’ initiative. The agreement is expected to facilitate the most extensive counter-terrorism co-operation within ASEAN to-date. It will see senior defence officials from the participating nations meet twice a month, and will allow for the development of a new database of suspected militants which can be accessed by law enforcement agencies across the region.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have been conducting trilateral naval patrols in the Sulu Sea to prevent the movement of terror suspects across borders. In this photo, Philippine troops are seen participating in a training drill alongside US forces (Image Source: US Navy)

At its launch, Malaysia’s Deputy Defence Minister Mohd Johari Baharum said the initiative would be crucial in enabling a collective response to emerging security threats which are ‘‘complex and trans-boundary in nature’’. It is hoped that the four remaining ASEAN states will later join the group, as well as external actors with a stake in the region’s stability such as Australia, India, Japan and the US.

The crisis in Marawi certainly got the region’s leaders thinking about how to better pool resources to tackle the growing threat from Islamist terrorism; but it has not yet resulted in an all-encompassing strategy involving all ten of ASEAN’s member-nations. Such an aim will always be difficult to achieve, due to the huge variation in threat along with the differing capabilities and priorities of ASEAN states.

However, ad-hoc collaborative responses have emerged involving the countries most concerned, on a scale not witnessed previously in the region. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have looked to work with other interested parties to find workable and pragmatic multilateral solutions to the most pressing and immediate problems facing the region’s vulnerable maritime states.

With a series of overlapping bilateral, trilateral and multilateral mechanisms now in place, ASEAN integration in the sphere of counter-terrorism has been significantly upgraded. In the post-Marawi era of elevated risk, a set of guidelines which meant little in practice is rapidly being superseded by a more co-ordinated regional strategy, aimed at tackling the most critical threat facing Southeast Asia today.

A version of this article is also published on Asian Correspondent.

The Long Road to Justice for Sri Lanka’s Civil War Victims

During the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, around 80,000 civilians became trapped between Tamil Tiger rebels and advancing government troops (Image Source: trokilinochchi)

More than eight years after government forces crushed the northern Tamil Tiger separatists in the bloody final battle of Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war, victims of alleged human rights abuses committed by both sides still await a semblance of justice. On a visit to the island nation last month, the UN’s special rapporteur for transitional justice, Pablo De Greiff, lamented the government’s failure to establish a hybrid court to try those accused of committing war crimes. De Greiff warned Sri Lanka over its slow progress, stating the delay in investigating alleged abuses ‘‘raises many questions about the determination of the government to undertake a comprehensive transitional justice program’’.

The worst of the alleged abuses took place during the last few weeks of the conflict in May 2009, when government troops cornered the remaining rebels in a thin slice of territory along Sri Lanka’s northeast coastline. The UN and human rights groups have accused the government of extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances and indiscriminately shelling civilian ‘no-fire zones’. Meanwhile, the Tamil Tigers have been accused of launching suicide bombings, recruiting child soldiers and using civilians as human shields during the final battle.

It is estimated that in the dying months of the conflict, anywhere between 7,000 and 40,000 civilians were killed. In addition, tens-of-thousands of Sri Lankans – mostly from the Tamil ethnic minority – have disappeared without trace. With progress toward establishing a war crimes tribunal stalling almost a decade after the bloodshed ended, this report reflects on Sri Lanka’s post-war politics and looks at the political controversy surrounding efforts to put war criminals on trial.

The conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers – formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – began in 1983, after rebels fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the northeast killed 13 soldiers in an ambush. Ethnic tensions had long been simmering between the Hindu Tamil minority and the Buddhist Sinhalese majority, since Sri Lanka’s independence from 150 years of British rule in 1948. The LTTE initially carried out a guerrilla campaign consisting of suicide bomb attacks and ambushes targeting security personnel, before a full-scale civil war erupted in the mid-1990s. The two sides eventually signed a ceasefire mediated by Norway in 2002, before violence once again flared in the mid-2000s as the LTTE regained swathes of territory in its strongholds.

After the election of authoritarian president Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, the military took the fight to the rebels with renewed vigour. In January 2008, the government formally withdrew from the ceasefire and launched an all-out offensive designed to bring an end to the conflict. Over the next eighteen months, government forces re-took most of the rebel-held territory in the northeast, including the strategically-important town of Kilinochchi, which had served as the LTTE’s headquarters for more than a decade. On 19 May 2009, President Rajapaksa declared the country ‘‘liberated’’ from terrorism, as the remnants of the LTTE laid down their arms after their long-time leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed in a shoot-out with government troops.

The final weeks of the conflict were among its most bloody. More then 80,000 fleeing civilians became trapped in a small pocket of territory between rapidly advancing soldiers and retreating LTTE rebels. Alleged war crimes were committed by both sides. International human rights groups accused government forces of shelling civilians in areas which had been demarcated as ‘safe zones’, as well as carrying-out extra-judicial killings of captured Tamil fighters. The LTTE were accused of forcibly recruiting children in an attempt to bolster its rapidly-dwindling ranks, as well as launching suicide attacks in civilian areas and using fleeing civilians as human shields, even reportedly firing in front of crowds to prevent trapped people from leaving the combat zone. Media outlets – notably Channel 4 News in the UK – obtained video footage purporting to show the aftermath of hospitals being shelled, as well as unarmed Tamil fighters being blindfolded and executed by government troops at point-blank range. The footage prompted international outcry and condemnation.

The Sri Lankan government at the time – led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa – denied all allegations of abuse, labelling the unverified video footage as ‘‘fabricated’’ and an outside attempt to destabilize the country. Rajapaksa’s administration rejected all calls for an international inquiry, despite calls by the UN for Sri Lanka to set-up a hybrid court with the involvement of foreign judges.

Hopes for a formal investigation into war crimes were raised in January 2015 following the surprise election victory of Maithripala Sirisena. President Sirisena was elected on a reform ticket pledging to curb the powers of the presidency, fight corruption and protect freedom of speech, marking a clear break from the increasingly-authoritarian strongman-type regime led by Rajapaksa.

President Sirisena’s government has implemented reforms since assuming power in 2015, but a UN-backed war crimes tribunal is yet to be established (Image Source: Russian Government)

Under Sirisena, a degree of progress has indeed been made. The government has initiated public consultations on issues related to the conflict, and last year set-up an ‘Office for Missing Persons’ to trace more than 20,000 people who disappeared during the conflict and its aftermath. Among the missing are activists, journalists and critics of the government along with thousands of former LTTE rebels, family members and Tamil rights campaigners. The government has now acknowledged the problem and announced that family members of missing persons will be issued with certificates, but as yet little progress has been made in finding out the truth of what happened to the disappeared.

Some observers contend that many of the missing Tamils have been abducted by military and intelligence officers, and have either been killed or may still be being held in state-run detention centres. Some evidence has emerged to support this theory, with campaign groups such as Freedom from Torture and the International Truth and Justice Project presenting harrowing witness accounts and first-hand testimonies detailing detention and torture in military camps. Whilst these accounts are unverified, they have been supported by a number of legal and medical experts.

In the year after his election victory, President Sirisena spoke at the UN General Assembly of the importance of confronting his country’s past, pledging to ‘‘follow a process of truth-seeking, justice, reparation and non-recurrence’’. He appeared to back-up these words with action in September 2015, after tentatively agreeing to the terms of a UN Security Council resolution to establish a hybrid court – made up of both Sri Lankan and international judges – to put on trial those suspected of committing war crimes during the Tamil conflict. The move was praised by most member states.

Yet progress in establishing such a tribunal has been slow, and Sirisena appears to have backtracked on some of his early promises. A reconciliation consultation committee appointed by Sri Lanka’s government recommended earlier this year that ‘‘international participation in the court should be phased-out’’ once the ‘‘required expertise and capacity has been built-up’’ among locally-appointed judges. The tribunal has still not come to fruition, and Sri Lanka received a two-year extension in March this year to fulfil its commitment to the UN resolution, further delaying the process.

Last month, the UN’s special rapporteur for transitional justice, Pablo De Greiff, warned the government in Colombo that further delays in making good on their promise to establish a war crimes tribunal involves significant risks. After a two-week visit to Sri Lanka, he said ‘‘no-one should be under the impression that waiting is a costless alternative’’, adding that the ‘‘failure to achieve progress in fully addressing issues’’ related to the civil war ‘‘constitutes a denial of justice’’.

The longer it takes to establish the truth and secure justice for what happened in the final weeks of the conflict back in May 2009, the frustration of victims and tensions between Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Sinhalese communities will inevitably rise. Many Tamils still hold grievances and perceive repression at the hands of the state – particularly at the hands of the military – who retain a dominant presence in the northeast of the country. These suspicions will surely continue to fester for as long as relatives of the deceased and the disappeared sense a continued lack of accountability for abuses committed by state actors during the war, and an absence of justice for its thousands of civilian victims.

President Sirisena’s government has undoubtedly made progress through the introduction of limited reforms, yet accusations of human rights abuses and impunity for state actors continue to be made. It is time for the tougher and more controversial issues related to the final stages of conflict to be tackled – including confronting allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes on both sides – if reconciliation is to be achieved and Sri Lanka is to finally move on from a dark chapter in its history.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Is Bangladesh Succeeding in its Battle Against Islamist Militants?

Bangladesh launched an anti-terror crackdown in the wake of the July 2016 siege on a Dhaka cafe (Image Source: Jubair1985)

Since Bangladesh launched an anti-terror crackdown in response to the high-profile attack on a popular Dhaka café by Islamist militants last July, the country has fortunately not witnessed another major attack on the same scale. Yet sixteen months on from the siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery – during which terrorists massacred 20 civilians with sharp weapons before Bangladeshi commandos stormed the building – fears over violent extremism in the south Asian nation remain ever-present.

Despite thousands of arrests and the deaths of top militant leaders at the hands of state security forces, signs of heightened political tensions and evidence of militant activity just below the surface have raised concerns over the potential for separatist violence and a new wave of attacks, in a country which until recently had little past experience of dealing with terrorism.

Whilst Bangladesh’s improved law enforcement capabilities have almost certainly prevented further bloodshed over the past year, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has faced criticism over its somewhat contradictory approach to confronting terrorism. At the same time as pledging to tackle Islamist militants head-on, the government has been accused of facilitating an environment in which extremist ideology can flourish.

This report asks if Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism crackdown will ultimately prove successful in keeping a lid on militant activity, and asks whether the government in Dhaka is doing enough to combat the radical ideology which fuels such violence.

The issue of terrorism in Bangladesh first caught the world’s attention in 2015, after an unrelenting wave of small-scale attacks targeting secular bloggers, university professors, foreign citizens and members of religious minority groups. In all, more than 20 people were shot dead or hacked to death in a two-year period by Islamist militants, with attacks often taking place in broad daylight.

The level of violence was unprecedented in what is usually considered one of the most secular and tolerant Muslim-majority countries, especially in comparison to regional neighbours Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have long been blighted by sectarianism, religious intolerance and suicide bombings. The attacks made global headlines and hit the tourism industry and Bangladeshi economy hard.

PM Sheikh Hasina’s government blamed the attacks squarely on domestic jihadist group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which it said were linked to its political opponents and seeking to destabilize the country.  This was despite claims of responsibility for some of the attacks by trans-national jihadist groups including the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Neither claim could be proven concretely, however the government’s investigation into the attacks was roundly criticized at the time as few people were brought to justice over the killings.

The attack on the Dhaka café in July 2016 – often described by analysts as ‘Bangladesh’s 9/11’ – was seen as a game changer, and prompted the government to take concrete action. A sweeping security crackdown followed and large-scale police raids led to the arrest of thousands of suspected terrorist sympathizers across the country, whilst a number of senior militant leaders were killed during security operations. Nine suspected militants were killed in the Kalyanpur neighbourhood of Dhaka just three weeks after the café attack, whilst on 27 August last year police claimed to have killed the head of ISIS in Bangladesh – Tamim Chowdhury – during a raid in Narayanganj.

PM Sheikh Hasina denies that ISIS has a presence in Bangladesh, blaming attacks on local JMB militants (Image Source: DFID)

A newly-formed Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTCU) of the Dhaka Metropolitan police took on hundreds of new recruits was granted a national mandate several months after the café siege, and has overseen counter-terrorism operations across the country. Authorities have clamped-down hard and have received much praise for their actions.

However, a number of small-scale suicide bombings earlier this year reignited fears and indicated a possible shift in tactics away from the knife attacks witnessed in the past, towards more sophisticated and well-planned operations of the nature seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whilst the threat appears to have been contained for now, these developments show there is little room for complacency – especially given that some of the driving factors behind Bangladesh’s surge in terrorism over the last few years remain unresolved.

The initial wave of machete attacks on secular bloggers and foreign citizens came after a period marked by what some analysts describe as a ‘creeping Islamism and sectarianism’ in Bangladeshi society. The rise of religious intolerance was evidenced by two attacks on Shia targets in late-2015. First, a bomb blast targeting a procession outside a Shia shrine left two people dead, before a few weeks later a Shia mosque in Bogra was attacked, killing one person and wounding several others. These attacks on Shia targets – a minority group in Sunni-majority Bangladesh – raised suggestions that some in Bangladesh were becoming increasingly sectarian in mindset.

Longer-term factors have also played a role. Following the country’s 1971 independence war, senior leaders from the Jamaat-e-Islam party were convicted many years later on charges of crimes against humanity, with several of them sentenced to death by hanging. These events have stoked anger and exacerbated tensions in Bangladeshi politics which remain close the surface to this day. The Jamaat-e-Islam party is part of the current opposition alliance to the ruling Awami League, which has been in power since 2009. Divisiveness has been a key feature of the political scene in recent years, which has only worsened as the government has linked the terrorist JMB group to opposition parties.

In this sense, the government’s counter-terrorism campaign must be viewed in the broader domestic political context. The debate over naming perpetrators and ascribing blame following terror attacks has become a heavily politicized issue. Despite numerous claims of responsibility from international terror groups – including for the Dhaka café siege – Sheikh Hasina’s government has continued to deny the presence of ISIS or AQIS within the country’s borders, referring only to the JMB group and domestic political forces looking to ‘destabilize the government’.

This language has facilitated a corresponding crackdown on opposition political parties such as Jamaat-e-Islam and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), exacerbating concerns that Hasina’s administration is becoming increasingly authoritarian in its approach to governance. More worryingly, absolving ISIS and AQIS of responsibility allows them to act with impunity – if indeed they are directing attacks within Bangladesh – and establish a firmer foothold under-the-radar.

Whilst terrorism remains a concern in Bangladesh, a repeat attack on the scale of the Dhaka cafe assault has so-far been avoided (Image Source: Souvik.arco)

Whilst launching a crackdown and condemning Islamist terrorism, the government’s approach has also been contradictory. At the same time as appearing to clamp down on terrorist elements, PM Sheikh Hasina has several times in the past warned secular bloggers for criticizing religion, saying ‘I don’t consider such writings as free-thinking but as filthy words. It is not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions’. Some have labelled this as victim-blaming, and say it constitutes a sympathetic attitude towards terrorism, facilitating recruitment and legitimizing extremist ideology. At the very least, many argue that it is an attempt to stifle debate and restrict freedom-of-speech in a country which had been considered relatively open.

Despite these problems, a high-profile attack on the scale of the Dhaka café assault has not been repeated, to a degree validating the government’s strategy and indicating its improved counter-terrorism capabilities. The tide of less-sophisticated lone-wolf attacks has also slowed markedly. However, this type of attack is extremely difficult to guard against as perpetrators make use of easily-obtainable weapons and often have no known links to militant organizations.

When incidents do occur, the government continues to blame local groups such as JMB. And it is true that concrete links between domestic militants and ISIS or AQIS have not been proven, despite claims of responsibility. Yet the politicization of terrorism remains a concern, and a clear distinction must be made between political parties and militant groups unless there is concrete evidence to suggest otherwise.

The government’s denial of ISIS presence in the country raises fears that the violent ideology of transnational jihadist groups is being underestimated. As ISIS continues to lose ground in Syria and Iraq, it may look to further its recruitment in south Asian countries, including Bangladesh. As we have seen recently in the southern Philippines, local groups can be heavily influenced by such ideology and act upon it, whether concrete links to international groups exist or not.

As a result, the authorities in Bangladesh must remain vigilant and alert. The anti-terror crackdown has undoubtedly made progress, but this alone is not enough. Violent ideology must be countered and criticized, meaning that the space for those who wish to defend secular ideals – as well those who wish to defend various strains of religious thought – must be protected in Bangladesh if violent extremism is to be defeated in the long-run.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor

Philippines Communist Insurgency: Rhetoric Heats Up as Peace Negotiations Remain Stalled

President Duterte vowed when elected to pursue peace talks with the CPP-NPA, aimed at ending one of the world’s longest-running communist insurgencies (Image Source: PCOO)

This feature was first published on Asian Correspondent.

When Rodrigo Duterte was elected as president of the Philippines in May 2016, hopes were raised for a negotiated end to one of Asia’s longest-running Maoist insurgencies. On the campaign trail Duterte had vowed, if elected, to enter into ‘inclusive talks’ with rebels from the New People’s Army (NPA), the military wing of the once-outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Peace talks did indeed begin in Norway last August, and got off to a positive start with both sides declaring separate ceasefires and agreeing to further rounds of dialogue, which took place in Oslo in October and Rome in January. At the turn of the year, it appeared steady progress was being made.

Yet the peace process crashed to an abrupt halt in early February after a series of armed clashes led both parties to declare their separate ceasefires at an end. Talks were briefly revived in the Netherlands in April, before a fifth round of dialogue scheduled for May was cancelled by Duterte. Since the collapse of the peace process earlier this year, violence has spiralled and deadly attacks have become a frequent occurrence. September saw several high-profile incidents, with NPA rebels killing four government troops in an ambush in Nueva Vizcaya at the start of the month, whilst on 20 September, nine Maoist rebels were slain in a clash with the Philippine army in Carranglan.

After several attempts to restart negotiations failed, rhetoric on both sides has become increasingly heated in recent months. In August, President Duterte declared ‘war’ against the Maoists, stating ‘Let’s stop talking, start fighting’, before describing peace negotiations as a ‘waste of time’. The CPP responded by labelling Duterte’s administration as a ‘semi-colonial, anti-peasant regime’, whilst claiming ‘the people have no other recourse but to tread the path of militant struggle and collective action’. Amid the escalating war-of-words and with negotiations still stalled, this report examines the reasons why the peace talks faltered and assesses the prospects of future dialogue.

The history of the modern communist movement in the Philippines dates back to 1968 and the founding of the CPP by a former student activist, Jose Maria Sison, who still leads the organization from self-exile in the Netherlands. The party’s armed wing, the NPA, was established a year later with the aim of overthrowing the central government in Manila through a sustained campaign of armed resistance, referred to by the CPP-NPA as a ‘protracted people’s war’. The movement is rooted in Marxist-Leninist ideology and seeks to establish a political system led by the working classes, which would redistribute land to the poor and expel US influence from the Philippines.

The NPA reached the height of its powers in the early-1980s during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, when it attracted widespread public support and had more than 25,000 members. In the democratic era, the movement has declined in strength but still retains an operational presence in most provinces across the country, and now has around 4,800 active members. Clashes between NPA rebels and Philippine troops continue to occur sporadically as the insurgency approaches its sixth decade, despite repeated military crackdowns. The NPA remains especially strong in poorer rural areas where it enjoys widespread support and exercises de-facto control through the collection of ‘revolutionary taxes’; payments which Manila describes as extortion.

Peace negotiations have taken place intermittently in past decades between the National Democratic Front (NDF) – a political grouping which represents the CPP-NPA in formal talks – and successive governments led by Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino, yet to no avail. The election of Duterte last year signalled renewed hope for peace, and the first round of talks with the NDF in August 2016 produced a landmark result: the declaration of ceasefires by both sides. The commitment held and the parties convened again in Oslo two months later, before a third meeting in Rome this January. Yet at the beginning of February, months of careful diplomacy unravelled in a matter of days, whilst efforts to rekindle negotiations in the following months made little progress. Both sides blamed each other as clashes resumed between the army and rebels, leaving many wondering: why did the talks falter, and how did the ceasefire collapse so quickly?

Since the breakdown of peace negotiations earlier this year, NPA attacks against government troops have occurred more frequently (Image Source: Philippines Information Agency)

The trigger for the collapse was a result of the peace process reaching a major sticking-point over the release of political prisoners. As the dialogue moved forward, the CPP-NPA had made it clear that the release of imprisoned members was a pre-condition for the continuation of talks, whereas President Duterte maintained he would not release more prisoners until a formal joint ceasefire agreement had been signed. Tensions surrounding the issue were already boiling over before the NPA lifted its unilateral ceasefire on 1 February. Duterte followed-suit two days later after a series of NPA attacks on Philippine troops, immediately terminating the government’s ceasefire and accusing the ‘terrorist’ rebels of ‘wanting another fifty years of war’.

Whilst unsatisfied demands for a prisoner amnesty served as the trigger for the breakdown of talks earlier this year, there are several more deeply-rooted factors which contributed to the failure of dialogue and restrict the chances of ending the insurgency should talks resume.

First, the factional nature of the NPA – with armed units present in almost every province across the Philippines – and a lack of centralized operational leadership, makes it difficult for the largely symbolic figureheads of the CPP and NDF, responsible for negotiating with the government, to control the activities of their fighters. Whilst a ceasefire is imposed from above, realities on the ground make it easy for violent clashes to occur in a local context. This often leads to further attacks and retaliatory violence, dealing a hammer blow to peace talks at the national level.

Second, a lack of trust exists between both sides. This makes progress difficult to sustain as firmly opposed positions have been reinforced over five decades of conflict. For example, as soon as the talks collapsed in February, both the government and CPP-NPA quickly reverted from making careful diplomatic overtures and returned to using divisive language describing each other as the ‘enemy’. As the months have passed, heated rhetoric has replaced the co-operative tones voiced last year, indicating the fragility of progressive dialogue and the difficulty of reversing long-held suspicions.

President Duterte came to power in 2016 promising to negotiate an end to the Philippines’ long-running internal conflicts, yet conditions appear only to have deteriorated. The government is now firefighting on multiple fronts: the army is still battling ISIS-aligned militants in Marawi, whilst at the same time Congress is trying to finalize a long-awaited peace deal with Moro separatist groups. And now, a resurgent communist insurgency is threatening to inflict further bloodshed.

The only way of resolving the conflict without a peace accord being signed is to tackle the root causes of the insurgency, which would undermine recruitment and support for the NPA through improving the livelihoods of the Philippines’ rural poor. This approach alone however would take decades, and without an accompanying peace deal, may not end the violence in its entirety.

To prevent further internal strife, the government and the NPA have a strong imperative to return to the path of negotiation. Duterte is unpredictable, so his declaration that the peace process with the NPA is over does not necessarily signal the end of the road. If there is a lull in rebel attacks and conditions are deemed right, talks may be restarted in the near future.

After five decades of armed resistance, the cycle of conflict will be difficult to break; yet the revival of the peace process represents the only viable path forward. Unless momentum is regained soon, the Philippines’ long-running Maoist insurgency may prove intractable for another generation.

Balochistan: Seven Decades of Insurgency in Pakistan’s Restive South

The proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, linking Xinjiang to Gwadar Port, has raised tensions over development in Balochistan (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Next year will signal 70 years since the beginning of a fierce separatist insurgency fought in Pakistan’s troubled southern province of Balochistan. Over much of the last seven decades the conflict has rumbled on at a relatively low intensity, punctuated by five distinct periods of heightened violence. The current flare-up – which ignited in the mid-2000s – has proved by far the most enduring. And amid rising tensions in recent years, it appears there is no end in sight to Pakistan’s longest – yet most under-reported – war.

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province and stretches from the country’s interior to its remote southwestern region, where it borders neighbouring Afghanistan and Iran. The province is a vast territory rich in resources including gold, copper and natural gas, yet remains Pakistan’s most underdeveloped and impoverished province. A sizeable proportion of its 12 million residents hold grievances regarding a perceived lack of political rights and accuse the central government of resource exploitation – concerns which underlie the seven-decade separatist movement and continue to drive the struggle for independence today.

The insurgency began less than a year after Pakistan’s independence from colonial rule in August 1947, when in March 1948 Pakistan dispatched troops to annex the southwestern area which was then known as Kalat. The territory’s ruler, Ahmed Yar Khan, later signed an accession treaty formalizing the incorporation of Kalat into the newly-founded nation-state of Pakistan. Yet many in the region strongly opposed the move, and the first of the Baloch nationalist rebellions was born.

The 1948 uprising was soon put down by security forces, but further armed campaigns erupted in 1958, 1962 and 1973, each lasting no-longer than four years before the army were able to regain a semblance of control. The fifth insurgency began in the mid-2000s and has been the most enduring. The violence was triggered as a consequence of several factors: as a result of opposition to the regime of General Pervez Musharraf; as a reaction to the 2006 killing of a key Baloch leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, by the Pakistani army; and in response to a crackdown launched by security forces.

Ten years on, the fifth Baloch insurgency has still not abated as clashes continue between the military and an array of armed separatist groups, including the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), Balochistan Republican Army (BRA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF).

In the last decade, the Pakistani authorities have been accused of committing widespread human rights violations, including presiding over unlawful detentions, extra-judicial killings, torture and disappearances. Criticism from international observers has been particularly fierce, with Human Rights Watch stating in a 2011 report that ‘‘the surge in unlawful killings of suspected militants and opposition figures in Balochistan has taken the brutality in the province to an unprecedented level.’’

The most controversial aspect of the war in Balochistan concerns the fate of the thousands of Baloch fighters and opposition activists who have disappeared in the last few decades. In December 2016, the BBC reported that almost 1,000 dead bodies of political activists and suspected separatists had been found dumped across the province since 2011. Human rights groups say the evidence points towards large-scale abductions and extra-judicial killings, citing relatives’ claims that many of the victims had previously been detained by Pakistan’s security forces before disappearing.

The government and military have repeatedly denied all accusations of complicity with regard to kidnappings and extra-judicial murder, instead blaming the deaths on organized crime and clashes between various militant groups active in the region. However, media silence on the issue within Pakistan, along with the high level of risk making the province a virtual no-go zone for journalists, has made substantive corroboration or verification of these claims almost impossible, further raising suspicions among many in the international community.

Quetta, Balochistan. The resource-rich province is home to 12 million residents in Pakistan’s southwest, bordering Iran and Afghanistan. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Amid the lack of coverage, the government is keen to put across its point of view, labelling most of the Baloch nationalist groups as ‘terrorist organizations’ and highlighting their continued attacks on not just security forces, but also against civilians. For example, in an April 2015 incident the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) reportedly killed 20 labourers working on a road near the city of Turbat. The past few months have witnessed further attacks by Baloch nationalists against construction workers, who are often regarded as legitimate targets by the insurgents given local opposition to state-led development projects in the province.

Ongoing construction projects related to the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have caused particular concern, further enflaming tensions over development in the region. China has invested $46bn in the project, which aims to connect the western Chinese province of Xinjiang with the strategically-important deep-water port of Gwadar, located on southern Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coastline. Pipeline projects routed through the province have also heightened tensions, with separatists accusing the government of prioritizing large-scale, foreign-backed infrastructure and resource-based projects which bring few direct benefits to residents in the southwest.

In this sense, the conflict and its drivers are largely a tale of competing narratives: whilst the separatists claim the government ignores their long-standing grievances related to poverty and underdevelopment, the government argues that insurgent activity is holding the province back and restricting economic growth.

All previous peace-making efforts – which can be described as limited at best – have achieved little. The provincial government is weak and has failed to adequately mediate between politicians in Islamabad, the military and the numerous Baloch separatist groups. A proposed government amnesty programme has also failed to gain traction as violence has continued on both sides.

Unless the central government makes a concerted attempt to initiate meaningful dialogue involving all stakeholders, allows greater media access and demonstrates a willingness to discuss the core grievances of the Baloch population, the prospects for a lasting ceasefire remain slim. The longer the current status-quo continues, the conflict will remain intractable and existing divisions will be further entrenched. Seven decades on from the first uprising against the Pakistani state in Balochistan, the hope for a peaceful resolution looks as far away as ever.

This article was first published on Eurasia Review.

Cyprus: an island divided, but for how much longer?

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Since 1974, a heavily-guarded UN buffer zone has divided Cyprus’ Greek and Turkish communities (Image Source: Jpatokal)

After more than four decades of division, recent peace talks between leaders on both sides of Cyprus’ infamous Green Line have led to a renewed sense of optimism, bringing fresh hope that the long-troubled eastern Mediterranean island could finally be reunified. Since 20 July 1974, Cyprus has been split across the middle, with a 180km-long UN buffer zone separating the Greek-Cypriot south from the Turkish-Cypriot north. Despite the failure of several previous attempts at resolution, there now appears to be a greater chance of success due to a growing political will – reinforced by firm commitments from the island’s leaders – to achieve reunification.

The current phase of negotiations between Greek-Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot President Mustafa Akinci began in May 2015, and significant progress has been made over the last two years. Recent media reports – as of January 2017 – have indicated that the talks are now entering the latter stages, with a final deal expected to be announced in the near future. However, whilst this apparent progress should be welcomed, it is important to apply a note of caution and avoid celebrating prematurely. As talks continue further into the year, it must be acknowledged that the issue of reunification is complex and fraught with many difficult and emotive issues, which will not simply be resolved overnight – irrespective of the outcome of the current discussions.

In order to better understand the complexity of the issues to be resolved, it is first necessary to return to to the roots of Cyprus’ division, and trace the key developments across four decades of a conflict which has remained frozen in time.

In the aftermath of WWII, Cyprus initially remained under British colonial control despite the desire of many Cypriots to unify the country with Greece. Cyprus, however, never came to be under Greek control. Instead, it became a sovereign nation after being granted full independence from Britain in 1960, on the basis of a power-sharing agreement between the Greek and Turkish populations resident on the island. The Greek-Cypriot community leader – Archbishop Makarios – became president, whilst it was determined that a Turkish-Cypriot should hold the position of vice president. The status-quo didn’t last long: in 1964, inter-communal clashes broke out after Makarios proposed constitutional changes which undermined the shared governmental structure, and the fragile system of power-sharing broke down. Following these events, the United Nations sent a peacekeeping force to patrol the Green Line, which by the mid-1960s had been set up to divide the Greek and Cypriot sectors of the island’s capital city, Nicosia.

Events gathered pace in the summer of 1974. First, Greece’s nationalist government deposed Greek-Cypriot leader Makarios in a military coup, in an attempt to move forward the process of unification between Cyprus and Greece. In response to the coup, Turkish troops invaded the shores of Northern Cyprus on 20 July, quickly advancing inland before stopping at the line of division which ran through the centre of Nicosia. From that day onwards, Cyprus has remained divided in two, with the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities partitioned by a heavily-guarded buffer zone.

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Planes lie in ruin at Nicosia Airport, which has remained frozen in time since being abandoned four decades ago (Image Source: Dick Elbers)

In the four decades since – despite being split in two – Cyprus has remained largely at peace. The northern section of the country – named the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) – declared independence in 1983, yet remains recognized only Turkey. Meanwhile, the southern part of the country became a member state of the European Union in 2004, whilst the local economy has grown and the tourism industry has flourished. The only reminders of the conflict are found in the buffer zone, which is up to 7 kilometres wide in places. The landscape within the prohibited zone remains exactly as it looked at the time of abandonment 1974, with the now-defunct Nicosia International Airport serving as a lasting physical symbol of the four-decade-long stalemate. Numerous towns and villages are effectively frozen in time, after their residents fled at the height of the conflict.

Today, Cyprus has more than 1 million inhabitants. Around 80% of the population are Greek-Cypriots living in the south, most of whom are Orthodox Christians; whilst 20% are Turkish-Cypriots living in the north, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims. The internationally-recognized government of the Republic of Cyprus controls the southern two-thirds of the island, whilst the remaining one-third of territory north of the buffer zone is controlled by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

All previous attempts to negotiate a resolution have failed, first in 1987, and more notably in 2004. As part of the 2004 attempt, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan put forward a proposal to make Cyprus a federation of two separately-administered states. The idea was the cause of much optimism at the time, but was ultimately rejected by Greek-Cypriots in a referendum – despite being accepted by the Turkish-majority population in the north. The rejection of the 2004 deal now serves a signal of just how difficult the dispute is to resolve, indicating how simmering tensions and a long-standing lack of trust between the two communities could stand in the way of future efforts.

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The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) declared independence in 1983, but is only recognized by Turkey. The southern Republic of Cyprus is recognized by the UN, and became an EU member state in 2004 (Image Source: Golbez)

In the decade since, however, there is a sense that the political atmosphere on the island has shifted markedly, allowing for a new-found sense of optimism which has enveloped the current round of negotiations. The island’s leaders – Greek-Cypriot Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot Mustafa Akinci – share a mutual commitment to pursue reunification, and appear to have more in common than previous generations of politicians on the island. When the talks first began in May 2015, both leaders enthusiastically promised to meet regularly, in order to maintain momentum and continue moving forward with the peace process. Towards the end of 2016, the negotiations – brokered in Switzerland by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon – significantly gathered pace, leading to hopes that a settlement could be reached before the end of the year, and before Mr Ban’s term as UN head came to an end. However, despite significant progress in a number of areas, this deadline has now passed and intense discussions have continued into the new year.

In recent months, large sections of the mainstream media – particularly in the West – have often over-simplified the dispute, with the majority of reporting on the issue striking a triumphant tone and emphasizing that a resolution is close. However, this enthusiasm and positivity must be tempered by greater recognition that as the talks reach a critical stage, significant obstacles remain to be overcome, in a complex frozen conflict which has to this point proved intractable.

In particular, discussions on critical issues such as territorial realignment, land swaps, property returns and displaced persons will be highly emotive and fraught with difficulty. When the conflict was at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, around 200,000 people were displaced from their homes and driven from their businesses, many of which now lie unoccupied and in a state of ruin, abandonment and disrepair inside the buffer zone. Drawing up new boundaries, determining the control of territory, and deciding upon compensation payments and land returns will be pivotal issues in finding a resolution to the dispute, with both sides so far reportedly unable to reach agreement on difficult questions of this nature.

In addition, two wider issues remain unresolved, surrounding the questions of governance and security. Firstly, it must be determined what the new state of Cyprus should look like, and how it will be administered. Both sides are in broad agreement that the new state should be based on some kind of federal model, yet the extent of power-sharing and the exact nature of governance structures remain unclear. Secondly, the island’s security remains a core issue, which often stokes high emotions on both sides of the Green Line. For citizens in the south, the presence of 40,000 Turkish troops is often viewed as a threat, and to many constitutes an occupation; yet for citizens in the north, the continued Turkish military presence is seen as vital and offers significant reassurance to Turkish-Cypriots. These issues remain particularly contentious, and will require careful diplomacy and compromise on both sides. Finding such compromise, however, will not be easy: a high degree of opposition and scepticism remains in the south, whilst the northern side remains concerned over losing-out on issues of power-sharing and securing a rotating presidency. In any case, any proposed final peace settlement will need to gain the approval of local politicians, in addition to being deferred to the people of Cyprus in a nationwide referendum

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The latest round of peace talks between the island’s Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot leaders have moved the country closer towards reunification (Image Source: Adam Jones)

With the peace negotiations being open-ended and having no set timetable, talk of an imminent end to Cyprus’ division is premature. The political will for reunification does exist, and there remains a strong chance that the talks will be successful, yet the issues are complex and positions deeply-ingrained – meaning that if a solution is to be found, significant compromise will be required on both sides of the Green Line. Even in the scenario where an agreement has been reached, approved and implemented, only time will tell if the two communities can live together in peace and harmony once the physical barrier has been removed.

If this best-case scenario – for so long desired by many Cypriots – does indeed materialize, then the benefits for the island in the coming years – particularly in terms of tourism and economic growth – could be huge. More importantly however, at a time when peace-making is failing miserably in other parts of the region (such as in Syria and Yemen, where attempts at peaceful resolution have given way to years of bloodshed and multiple external military interventions), the reunification of Cyprus would serve as a timely reminder of what concerted and determined diplomacy can achieve.

Is Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency over?

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Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced in December that Boko Haram’s last remaining stronghold had been captured by the military (Image source: Chatham House)

In the final days of 2016, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the army had captured Boko Haram’s last stronghold in the remote Sambisa forest in the northeast of the country. President Buhari said the successful operation marked the ‘‘final crushing’’ of Boko Haram, bringing an end to the brutal seven-year insurgency which has killed 15,000 people and displaced more than two million.

The apparent defeat of Boko Haram follows a year in which the group appeared to be in turmoil after a dispute between two of its dominant figures. In August, long-time militant leader Abukakar Shekau claimed to still be in command, despite an earlier statement by IS – to whom Boko Haram pledged allegiance in 2014 – that he had been replaced as leader by Abu Musab al-Barnawi. The dispute was the strongest indication yet of a more widespread split within the terrorist organization, which had already been significantly weakened by a Nigerian military offensive over the past 18 months.

For some time, the long-running Islamist insurgency – which began in 2009 – has looked to be in a state of gradual decline: militants have been forced to retreat into their rural heartlands after being pushed back from the urban areas they once controlled by a regional coalition of troops from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

However, the group have seemingly been on the cusp of defeat on several occasions in the past, yet each time have fought back – proving themselves to be more resilient than expected. This article looks back at the key developments and crucial moments over the last seven years of the insurgency, before asking how Boko Haram was able to emerge to control large swathes of Nigeria in the first place, and how it can be prevented from doing so again.

Since its emergence as a military force in 2009, Boko Haram has forged a reputation as a particularly brutal terrorist group, pressing its objectives through a wave of killings, bombings, and abductions across Nigeria. It gained widespread international media coverage in April 2014, after the kidnapping of more than 200 girls from their boarding school in the town of Chibok. This thrust the situation into the global spotlight, prompting widespread outrage and strong condemnation from Western governments. Since pledging allegiance to IS later the same year, the Boko Haram conflict has often been simplified and presented within the overall narrative of global Islamic terrorism; however in reality, the background to the militancy is complex, with many factors being responsible for the rise of Boko Haram and its sustained campaign against the Nigerian state.

Boko Haram was formed in 2002 by Muslim Cleric Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf set up a religious complex consisting of a mosque and Islamic school with the aim of opposing Western-style education. The group set up its headquarters in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, and became known by the local population as Boko Haram – which loosely translates from the local Hausa language as ‘Western education is forbidden’.

Based on its radical interpretation of Islam, Boko Haram’s aims quickly moved beyond just education and morphed into a wider, longer-term political objective: to overthrow the Nigerian government and establish an Islamic Caliphate.

In July 2009, Boko Haram shifted its focus to full-scale militant insurgency, launching a campaign of violence in Borno state, killing hundreds of people in attacks on marketplaces, police stations and government buildings. The response from the Nigerian military was immediate: security forces launched a sustained assault, seizing the group’s headquarters and killing its leader along with many of its fighters. At this point, Boko Haram appeared to be decimated; yet its fighters were soon able to re-group under a new leader, Abubakar Shekau.

Under the leadership of Shekau, recruitment soared and Boko Haram gained a reputation for committing acts of horrific brutality, launching a campaign of high-profile attacks throughout Nigeria. In August 2011, Boko Haram extended its reach to the capital, killing 23 people in a suicide bombing at the UN headquarters in Abuja. In January 2012, more than 100 civilians were killed in a single day of co-ordinated bombings and shootings in the town of Kano.

As the violence escalated, the government struggled to maintain control, leading former president Goodluck Jonathan to declare a state of emergency in May 2013, in the three northern provinces of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Troops were deployed to the region to combat the growing militant threat, leading to Boko Haram fighters being pushed out of their urban base Maiduguri, retreating to the dense Sambisa forest and the Mandara Mountains close to the border with Cameroon.

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A coalition of West African states have undertaken a sustained military offensive against Boko Haram since January 2015 (Image Source:VOA)

However, the insurgency proved difficult to put-down, and attacks by Boko Haram continued. Militants once again emerged from their rural hideouts to launch attacks on towns and villages – looting property, carrying out mass killings, abducting women and girls, and conscripting men and boys into their army. In April 2014, the group launched its most notorious attack, kidnapping more than 200 girls from a boarding school in Chibok. Some of the girls have recently been released, but the whereabouts of many others remains unknown.

By the end of 2014 the group had pledged its allegiance to IS, and rebranded itself as IS’ West Africa Province. Despite this development, the Nigerian military continued to push back the jihadists. In recent years, many Boko Haram fighters have been killed and large quantities of weapons have been seized, leaving the group seemingly on the edge of extinction once more. Yet given its past resilience, Boko Haram’s demise is far from certain; and to avoid it rising up once again, a key question must be answered: how was Boko Haram able to emerge as a group powerful and resourceful enough to wage a sustained seven-year insurgency, which wrought havoc across large swathes of territory and threatened the Nigerian state?

A large part of the answer lies in its ideological pull to those who may be sympathetic to its core values: an extreme form of Islam based on Sharia Law, the desired creation of a caliphate, vehement opposition to the West, and the concept of waging war against the Nigerian state.

However, an often-overlooked, but ever-present set of underlying, inter-related factors was vital in driving recruitment and sustaining Boko Haram in the area of northern Nigeria in which it first sprung-up: poverty, underdevelopment and economic marginalization.

This same set of conditions has been a common feature in the emergence of many other groups which have fought against the State throughout recent history. This story is particularly relevant to many other countries in Africa – particularly those with vast natural resources such as oil and minerals – where economic growth has gone hand-in-hand with growing inequality. In this sense, Nigeria can be understood to be suffering from the ‘resource curse’ – a situation in which oil wealth encourages corrupt governance, resulting in vast inequalities between regions and social groups, leading to an increased risk of poverty-induced conflict. Nigeria is now Africa’s largest economy, yet it is also one of the continent’s most unequal societies: in the north, 72% of the population live in poverty, compared to just 27% in the south.

Some may contend that a combination of poverty, unemployment and hopelessness have created a strong sense of resentment amongst the northeast’s generation of disenchanted young men, making the area fertile ground for jihadist groups such as Boko Haram. This wide pool of potential recruits, along with the manipulation of religion by Boko Haram as a vehicle for mobilization, is a key reason as to why the insurgency was able to be sustained for so long.

At present, however, the group finally looks on the verge of defeat – with no major strongholds left and splits in its leadership, Boko Haram appears to no-longer have an effective command structure. Its remaining fighters are likely to splinter into smaller factions, with little capacity to operate beyond remote areas or pose a large-scale threat as they once did. However, despite successes in driving back the militants, the authorities should be wary: if the underlying conditions remain unchanged, the militancy is likely to lie dormant beneath the surface, only to re-emerge once more. A military strategy alone therefore cannot remove the threat entirely. To ensure peace prevails in the coming years, a long-term strategy is needed: one which also addresses the economic and social conditions which have sustained seven-years of insurgency.