The threat from militancy is increasing in the Philippines as Islamic State (IS) encourages cohesion among, and inspires attacks by, regional militant groups. Though fears that IS fighters will flock to the southern Philippines, amid a major counteroffensive against the group in the Middle East, are likely overstated, a capable and well-financed preexisting network of local groups means that significant outside support is not required to intensify militant operations. In recent years, regional groups had been largely constrained to the southern Mindanao Region, but security alerts in Cebu and an unsuccessful attack in Manila in late November suggest that they are trying to expand the scope of their activities. A large-scale military operation is ongoing in the south as the government strengthens efforts to combat the rebels, though it is complicated by rough terrain and support for the militants from some of the local populace.
- Though the arrival of large numbers of Southeast Asian IS fighters from the Middle East is unlikely, regional groups are coalescing around the IS label, leading to greater cooperation and collaboration.
- The militant threat is spreading outside of the main rebel strongholds in rural Mindanao, including to Davao, Cebu, and Manila.
- While an ongoing security offensive may weaken militant groups in their traditional strongholds, it could lead to more attacks elsewhere as rebels attempt to divert troops to other areas.
Islamic State Influence
IS has encouraged support from locals in Southeast Asia since 2014, but concerns over its presence in the Philippines have increased significantly since June, when a video from the group urged Southeast Asians who were unable to reach IS fighters in the Middle East to join the "mujahedeen in the Philippines." The organization endorsed a former leader of a faction of the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Isnilon Hapilon (aka Abu Abdullah al-Filipini), as its emir for Southeast Asia. The video emerged after IS' public acceptance in February of pledges of allegiance from multiple Philippine rebel groups, including ASG, Ansar al-Khalifa in the Philippines (AKP), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, the Maute Group, and breakaway cells of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. In mid-2016, IS also claimed that it had 10 battalions active in the Philippines and had been responsible for 289 deaths since April 2015. Such claims are almost certainly an exaggeration, and reflect the actions of those groups that have declared allegiance, rather than direct IS activities.
Though the Philippine government downplayed the video, fears were renewed in November following the launch of a major offensive against IS in Mosul, Iraq that prompted speculation that thousands of Southeast Asian fighters would regroup in the southern Philippines. However, such concerns are likely inflated, as the combined estimates of governments around the region suggest that there are likely no more than 750 Southeast Asians fighting with IS in the Middle East. Furthermore, many are thought to have traveled without any clear plans for returning home. Attempts to return would be complicated, as regional governments are on alert for travelers arriving from Iraq and Syria - as well as Turkey, a transit point for those trying to join IS. Anyone who is unable to account for their time and activities in these countries is liable to face intense questioning and possible detention. As such, the return of a large group of IS fighters from the Middle East is unfeasible.
Islamic State Allies
Although the creation of a large contingent of veteran IS fighters from the Middle East is unlikely, IS does appear to be inspiring militant groups already active in the region. The Philippines has a long-running insurgency in its southern Mindanao Region, and extended military operations against such groups have met with limited success. Attacks by the various groups, whose combined membership is thought to be around 700, are increasing; the government recorded 46 improvised explosive device attacks in 2015, a 275-percent increase from 12 incidents reported in 2014. The army has managed to kill or capture some fighters, but that does not appear to have blunted their capabilities; though officials stated that the number of ASG militants was reduced from 506 to 481 in the first half of 2016, the group still managed to carry out 38 bombings, a 68-percent increase over the same period in the previous year. However, the various rebel groups had largely been fragmented, advancing their own agendas in different areas, and sometimes battling each other for territory. The groups' tactics also varied; for example, ASG has focused on kidnapping, raising an estimated USD 7.3 million in ransom payments in the first six months of 2016.
IS' influence appears to be encouraging increased collaboration between some domestic organizations, including ASG and the Maute Group. Additionally, an escalation of counterinsurgency operations since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in June has restricted their theater of operations, making partnerships between these ostensibly ideologically similar groups a logical move. This was illustrated by the Sept. 2 bombing of the Roxas Night Market in Davao City, which killed 15 people and injured more than 70 others; this was the first mass-casualty attack in Davao since 2003. Although ASG initially claimed responsibility, it later attributed the bombing to its ally, the Maute Group, stating that it was in retaliation for ongoing military actions against both organizations. The location of the attack was selected deliberately, as Duterte had long-served as mayor of Davao and was in the city at the time, though nowhere near the blast site. The bombing was an embarrassment for the administration, especially as Duterte's presidential campaign focused on improving security. The attack also prompted fears that increased sharing between IS' allies, especially the well-financed ASG, could enable more sophisticated attacks as such groups network and share resources more effectively.
Duterte declared a state of national emergency in the Philippines following the Davao bombing, allowing for better coordination of counterinsurgency operations. The president has warned that the Philippines must prepare for "looming terrorism." The spreading threat became clearer in October when authorities went on alert in Cebu due to suspicions that a small ASG cell had briefly been in the province and intended to kidnap prominent locals. Authorities warned that the cell could target commercial establishments, including shopping malls and public markets. The US Embassy followed with a security message on Nov. 3 warning that militants were planning to stage kidnappings in southern Cebu, particularly around Dalaguete and Santander, including Sumilon Island, which are popular with tourists. The Philippine National Police (PNP) later confirmed that militants are capable of traveling anywhere in the Philippines. While the ability to move freely does not necessarily indicate a capability to stage successful attacks, the presence of militants outside of their typical strongholds suggests that plans to expand their operations are under consideration.
Further evidence of such plans emerged Nov. 28, when a homemade bomb was found in a trash can adjacent to the busy Roxas Boulevard in Manila, several meters from the US Embassy. Authorities safely defused the device, and noted its similarity to the bomb used in Davao. Two days later, authorities detained two suspects, who subsequently confessed to planting the bomb. While the suspects were allegedly from AKP, the similarity to the Davao bomb suggests either the influence of, or coordination with, the Maute Group. The militants reportedly originally planned to set off the bomb at Luneta National Park (Rizal Park), but moved the device after it failed to detonate. The detainees apparently said that the bombing was aimed at getting recognition and funding from IS, as well as to divert military attention from ongoing offensives in Mindanao. Such developments highlight the significance of the terror threat in the Philippines and the potential danger posed by Mindanao-based terror groups should they consolidate their capabilities. However, the failed Manila attack suggests that the groups' bomb-making capacity remains limited.
The government is alert to the growing threat, as evidenced by the state of national emergency and the increasing of the nationwide terror alert status to 3, the highest level, Dec. 1. Counterinsurgency operations are ongoing in Mindanao, but are complicated by the terrain, including difficult-to-access mountainous jungle regions to which the rebels often retreat. Rebels can also easily move between islands, evading capture. Meanwhile, some locals are affording protection to the rebels, further impeding security forces. While this is partly due to local ties of kinship and support for the rebels, some local backing has been linked to extortion by the militants, with villagers threatened with harm unless they provide food and/or safe haven.
Duterte is aware of the likely high cost should the country have to defeat all of the groups militarily. In a sharp reversal from his previous stance, the president urged ASG to end its campaign and start direct talks Nov. 25, offering to discuss autonomy or federalism to a group that he had previously vowed to destroy. However, in addition to trying to expand negotiations, the government will have to increase economic development in Mindanao to counter IS calls for support and reduce the threat of radicalization. Many of the poorest provinces are in Mindanao, which has proven to be a fertile ground for rebellion.
The threat from militant attacks in the Philippines will likely remain elevated in the coming months as IS urges supporters to intensify their actions and regional groups seek to demonstrate their capabilities in return for funding and recognition. However, the capabilities of such groups to launch attacks in Metro Manila, which arguably has some of the best-trained security personnel in the country, remain unclear. The government is alert to the threat and, as the president remains heavily focused on security, will employ measures to reduce the potential for attack.