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The “East Asia Wilayah” of ISIS: A Long Time in the Making



About the author

Kumar Ramakrishna is a tenured Associate Professor and Head Policy Studies, as well as Coordinator of the National Security Studies Programme, in the Office of the Executive Deputy Chairman, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He was previously the Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at RSIS from 2006-2015. A historian by background, Associate Professor Ramakrishna has been a frequent speaker on counter-terrorism before local and international audiences, a regular media commentator on counter-terrorism, and an established author in numerous internationally refereed journals. His first book, "Emergency Propaganda: The Winning of Malayan Hearts and Minds 1948-1958" (2002) was described by the "International History Review" as “required reading for historians of Malaya, and for those whose task is to counter insurgents, guerrillas, and terrorists”. His second major book, "Radical Pathways: Understanding Muslim Radicalisation in Indonesia" (2009) was featured as one of the top 150 books on terrorism and counterterrorism in the respected journal "Perspectives on Terrorism", which identified Associate Professor Ramakrishna as “one of Southeast Asia’s leading counterterrorism experts”. His most recent books are "Islamist Terrorism and Militancy in Indonesia: The Power of the Manichean Mindset" (2015), "Original Sin? Revising the Revisionist Critique of the 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore" (2015), and "Singapore Chronicles: Emergency" (2016).




In April 2016, reports emerged of the announcement of a “wilayat” or province of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) being formed in Mindanao in the southern Philippines. The titular leader of the “Wilayah Al-Filibin”, Isnilon Hapilon, had for years been known to the Philippine security forces as a senior leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), a violent Islamist network with known previous links with Al Qaeda.[1] As ISIS has come under severe military pressure in its territorial base in Iraq and Syria from the US and Russian-led coalition, it has sought to hit back at its enemies by orchestrating or inspiring attacks by organized cells of returned ISIS “foreign fighters” or self-radicalized “lone wolves” in Western and Coalition capitals. In this respect, Southeast Asia, given its strategic location astride critical global sea-lanes and perhaps more importantly, a quarter of the world’s Muslim population, has clearly been in the sights of ISIS planners. It has not been lost on observers for instance that ISIS has expanded considerable resources on Bahasa Indonesia and Malay-language social media propaganda expressly for the consumption of vulnerable Muslim communities in the region.[2] To be sure, some analysts such as Caleb Weiss and others cast doubt on whether a formal ISIS wilayat has actually come about in Mindanao.[3] Nevertheless, other observers demurred. Rohan Gunaratna forthrightly asserted as early as January 2016 that ISIS would seek to declare a formal wilayat or “branch” in Mindanao later that same year, threatening not just the Philippines but the entire Southeast Asian region.[4] Several months later, Joseph Liow opined that the poorly governed Mindanao region, coupled with the organic presence of many violent Islamist networks, renders the possibility of at least a “de facto ‘wilayat’” of ISIS emerging a possibility.[5] In any case, on 23May 2017, several hundred ISIS-linked militants – including the ASG and the newer Maute group (of which more below) as well as number of foreign fighters, launched a large-scale attack on the city of Marawi in the southern Philippine province of Mindanao. Despite early assertions by the Philippine military that the situation was under control, at the time of writing – late July - the siege of Marawi by violent Islamist elements fighting unequivocally in the name of ISIS had yet to be lifted. Moreover, while ISIS Central itself in Syria appeared careful not to announce the formal declaration of an “East Asia Wilayah”, it did not prevent its fighters on the ground in Marawi from issuing statements in the name of such an entity.[6] So deeply entrenched have been the ISIS fighters that the government of President Rodrigo Duterte has had to request for an extension of martial law in Mindanao till the end of 2017 to give the armed forces more time to deal with the situation.[7]



This article takes the position that regardless of whether a formal ISIS wilayat in Mindanao is eventually formed the growing entrenchment of ISIS influence in that region is incontestable. With the elimination moreover by Indonesian security forces of Santoso, the leader of the ISIS-affiliated East Indonesian Mujahidin (MIT) in the jungles of Poso, Central Sulawesi in July 2016, it does appear that ISIS influence would likely be consolidated and most probably strengthened in Mindanao.[8] The article seeks to go behind the current headlines and attempt a deeper analysis of the factors behind the clearly evident growing evidence of ISIS influence in Mindanao. To this end it asserts that the soil for the virulent ideological seeds of ISIS to germinate is very fertile indeed and has been a long time in the making. It seeks to explain why this is the case and to emphasize that the emergence of Wilayah Al-Filibin or the East Asia Wilayah, whatever nomenclature is finally decided upon - and whether de facto or otherwise - may well be a significant strategic development in Southeast Asia warranting greater policy attention.


To this end, the article will take the following approach. It will first survey how centuries of political, social and economic marginalization by the Spanish, American and then Filipino Catholic central governments have created the embattled Muslim “Bangsamoro” identity that has resided at the core of the violent Bangsamoro secessionist movements from the late 1960s onward - centered in the Moro Independence Movement (MIM), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). It will then show how the Bangsamoro movement further mutated by the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, focusing in particular on the rise of the ASG, and how transnational ideological influences shaped the evolution of ASG as much as the specific conditions of the struggle for Bangsamoro autonomy in the Philippine context. Third, radicalization processes within the specific ideological ecosystem of the ASG will be examined, based on firsthand testimony from former and current ASG militants. In this connection, the influence of Wahhabism as a factor in these radicalization processes will be teased out. Fourth, the wider political and socio-cultural environment within Mindanao, as well as the generally poor governance of the region will also be examined, to show how prevailing Moro grievances; the “gun culture”; relative ease of access to weapons and in particular the training by foreign militants, combine to form an enabling environment for the continuation of violent Bangsamoro militancy and in more recent times, fertile soil for ISIS to sink roots into Mindanao. In short, to reiterate, the nascent ISIS East Asia Wilayah has been a long time in the making.



Islam and the Emergence of the Embattled Bangsamoro Identity


By the end of the fourteenth century CE the gradual “Islamization” of the southern Philippine islands – Mindanao and Sulu - had reached a juncture where being a Muslim had become part of the social fabric. As Moshe Yegar points out however, this did not mean that there was strong adherence to Islamic orthodoxy, as the Philippine Muslims were traditionally not well-versed in the religion or the Quran, observed very few rituals and were syncretic in their religious practices. Rather they regarded Islam “as the focal point of their identity and way of life”.[9] By 1565 the arriving Spanish had found that while they could convert the rest of the country to the Catholic faith, they faced greater obstacles in dealing with the Mindanao/Sulu peoples. Aside from occasional successes in compelling traditional local sultans and feudal chiefs or datus into making isolated concessions, the Spanish were basically unable in the course of the next 350 years to completely crush a defiant Muslim resistance in the south. The Spanish, recalling the North African Moors that had conquered the Iberian peninsula in the eight century, labeled the Muslim resistance movement as the “Moro”.[10] When the Spanish themselves capitulated in 1898 to the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War, the problem of pacifying Mindanao and Sulu passed to Washington. [11] The Moro Muslims fought the Americans as well, culminating in the August 1899 signing of the Bates Treaty between the Sultan of Sulu and the United States. While this agreement acknowledged the Sultan’s authority over his subjects, it was suddenly abrogated in 1902, a Moro Province was created and direct rule imposed from colonial Manila. Because the Moro Province was regarded as populated by “wild tribes”, the US Expeditionary Army was tasked with imposing order on what was seen as a practically “ungovernable” region.[12]



These “wild tribes” did not at first present a unified front against the American colonial authorities. As Abinales recounts, “[r]esistance was scattered and unity never emerged among leaders of the different Muslim communities;” each “ethnic group responded to American military occupation based on how it affected their own areas” and did not project the impression of an existing, unified “Moro Mindanao.” [13] As scholars such as Thomas McKenna and Joseph Liow observe, however, the American colonial encounter was to eventually help forge a sense of overarching Moro unity and identity amongst educated Muslims in the south.[14] Before the arrival of Christian Filipino settlers from the northern islands of Luzon and Visayas from 1912 onwards, Mindanao, Sulu and the island of Palawan were the ancestral homelands of more than thirty ethno-linguistic groups. While 13 of these groups, such as the Badjao, Molbog, Iranun, Palawani, Sama, Kalagan, Sangil, Jama-mapun, Kalibugan – and in particular the politically powerful Tausug, Maguindanao and Maranao – were considered as Moro, and more precisely later on as Bangsamoro, the rest came to be known as Lumad: the non-Muslim and non-Christian indigenous clans of Mindanao.[15] Under direct rule, US military forces attempted to govern the “wild, backward, and unpacified” Moro Province with considerable coercion. The thinking in official circles was that “success depended on the Army being unhampered in its pursuit of civilizing the Moros.” [16] Such a policy of carte blanche contributed to several atrocities: the so-called Bud Daho (or Bud Dajo) massacre of March 1906 saw US forces led by General Leonard Wood annihilating nearly 1000 Tausugs for resisting disarmament. The carnage that day was the outcome in no small measure to one Datu Uti’s refusal to negotiate surrender terms, insisting instead that the ethnic Tausugs – Moros traditionally known for their warrior ethos[17]   - would fight until “we can no longer raise aloft the kris (a traditional Malay weapon).” Seven years later, two thousand Tausugs, including women and children, were killed in the so-called Bud Bagsak incident as well. A former senior ASG militant framed these events as enduring community rallying symbols during a presentation in Manila as late as October 2010.[18] US military officers in the Mindanao region sought to not merely forcibly pacify the Moros but also “civilize” them prior to integrating them into the rest of the country. The colonial authorities thus introduced a secular educational system and sent non-Muslim teachers to Moro schools – a policy that undermined the traditional authority of the religious teachers. Moro Muslims reacted by boycotting such schools, leading over time to a spike in illiteracy. Furthermore, as part of the “civilizing” project Christian Filipinos from the rest of the country were encouraged and assisted financially to settle in the Moro Province. Land legislation passed between 1902 and 1919 moreover gradually claimed all lands in the Philippines as State property - although individuals could apply for private ownership. However there was institutional bias built into the system: the 1919 legislation permitted a non-Christian Filipino to apply for 10 hectares of land, while a Christian could apply for 24. The net result was “legalized land grabbing,” with Moro control of their ancestral lands being gradually prised from their collective grasp.[19]



The population in the Mindanao region ultimately came to comprise the Moro Muslims, Lumad and Filipino settlers. Christian settlers eventually formed 75 percent of the region encapsulated by Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan – except for the five provinces that came to be regarded as the Moro homeland, namely Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. At the present time the Bangsamoro people make up 20 percent of the total Philippine population. Apart from the aforementioned five provinces, they are present in large numbers in some municipalities in Cotabato, Lanao del Norte, Zamboanga del Norte and Davao del Sur. Significant communities also remain in Sultan Kudarat, South Cotabato, Zamboanga del Sur and Palawan. Lumads for their part today comprise approximately 5 percent of the population in Mindanao.In any case, by the time of Philippine independence in 1946, an embattled sub-culture of Moro Muslims had emerged, identifying and permanently fixing the Christian Filipino settlers as Them. A “popular and common perception” held that it “was the settlers who had helped the Spaniards” and who “drove them away from their ancestral lands.” [20] In March 1935, 120 Moro datus or feudal rulers from Lanao had penned the so-called Dansalan Declaration, demanding that the Moros be excluded from any future independent Philippine nation. They desired to remain under separate US rule in the Mindanao region “if they could not be granted their separate independence simultaneously.” The deeply ingrained cultural prejudice of the Moros toward Christian “outsiders” permeated the Danalan document:


…we do not want to be included in the Philippines for once an independent Philippines is launched, there would be trouble between us and the Filipinos because from time immemorial these two peoples have not lived harmoniously together. Our public land must not be given to people other than the Moros.[21]


Moro datus warned the Americans that the Moros and the Christian Filipinos should never be made to coexist under one flag. At any rate the US went ahead to grant the Philippines independence in July 1946, incorporating the Sulu-Mindanao region and ignoring the statehood demands of the datus. [22]



Since Philippine independence, continuing massive and uncontrolled inflows of Christian settlers, continuing loss of ancestral lands, together with State-encouraged and expanding foreign multinational control of the pineapple, banana, sugar cane, rubber and other sectors of the Mindanao economy, have intensified the “marginalization and underdevelopment of the Bangsamoro” and indigenous Lumads.[23] The Mindanao area – comprising 33 percent of the total land area of the Philippine archipelago - remains the richest part of the country in terms of natural resources. However, for decades the pattern of investment has been geared toward production for the global export market rather than local needs, thereby disrupting Moro subsistence production practices, expanding the income gap with the Christians and pushing the Moro community toward the “economic periphery.” [24]   Moreover, succor from the democratic political system has never been forthcoming. The relatively weak postwar Philippine State was organized in patronage networks comprising state leaders and the country’s wealthy provincial families and urban and rural elites. Within this political framework, the traditional sultans and datus in the relatively underdeveloped Mindanao region – the Alontos of Lanao, the Pendatuns, Ampatuans and Sinsuats of Cotabato and the Abu Bakrs of Sulu for example - while lacking the wealth of their Christian counterparts in the central and northern Philippines - managed to manipulate the system to their advantage. The traditional aristocratic leaders inter alia, secured access to public works funding and other types of patronage, gained influence over local police systems and in a pattern that endures to this day - created their own private armies.By interposing themselves between the “suspicious, increasingly aggrieved Muslim minority and the determined national state associated with Christians,” they “increased their power at the local level” and accumulated “prestige and influence in the national capital” – while the State permitted them to retain their largesse and private armies in exchange for keeping order and ensuring the peaceful apportioning of land between the Moros and Christian settlers.[25]


That an “outsider”, alienated sentiment remains pretty widespread amongst ordinary Moro communities even till the current time, not just in Mindanao but elsewhere in the country, is palpable. While visiting Maharlika village, a “little Mindanao in Metro Manila” started by President Ferdinand Marcos for internally displaced persons from the south during the 1970s, the author was informed by analyst Rommel Banlaoi that in general the “Moros don’t mix around with Christians outside the village, while Christians are ‘afraid’ to go in there.” In addition, stereotyping of Muslims - as “dirty” and “criminals” - remains “very strong.”[26] This bias is reflected in continuing generalized neglect by the government of quality of life issues in Maharlika and in Mindanao, as well as the systemically low economic status of the large majority of the Moros relative to the rest of the country.[27] A former ASG militant named Noor Umug informed the author on the other hand that Christians are still seen as oppressors and colonizers, and in this respect certain ASG leaders he knows - such as the current top ISIS representative in Southeast Asia Isnilon Hapilon - “throughout his life never engaged with Christians.” Noor recounted that Isnilon’s father apparently taught him to see Christians not as fellow human beings but as “animals” and “colonizers who should be driven away.”[28]



Khalil Sharif Pundomo, an elected barangay (district) councilor in the Muslim enclave of Quiapo in Quezon City, offered additional insights into the political culture of the present-day Moros. Khalil, an ethnic Maranao and scion of the politically powerful Sharif clan from Marawi, serves a 3000-strong population in his rather run-down barangay of which 90 percent are also Muslims of Maranao descent. A simple stroll by the author around the barangay revealed clear elements of the embattled Bangsamoro sub-culture: very evident were digital video disks of hard-core Bangsamoro separatist commanders from the south of the country such as Commander Bravo, Ameril Umbra Kato and the popular fundamentalist preacher Ahmad Basilon. To be sure, Khalil – while lamenting that in the Mindanao region laws are not applied fairly and corruption is a problem – emphasized that he would work “within constitutional means” to pursue his community’s interests. Khalil – who struck one as a practical young man – after all had a business to run, and the Quiapo community that in March 2011 essentially comprised small businesses selling textiles, pirated digital video disks, souvenirs and roadside food stalls, had little economic incentive to engage in co-operation with the militant groups in the south of the country. Khalil claimed he had expressly warned both militants and criminals not to “bring trouble” to the Quiapo community but to “stay away.”[29] In late April and early May 2017, however, two bombs went off in Quiapo. In the second blast, two people were killed, and it appeared that a Shia office in the enclave had been targeted, hinting at the type of sectarian attack ISIS undertakes. Indeed, while local police denied any connection of the Quiapo bombings with ISIS, the latter itself claimed responsibility for both attacks.[30]


In any case, in his interview Khalil was emphatic that he wanted “a separate Bangsamoro homeland as that is the history.” He argued that for Moros there are only two options: “separate or integrate,” and if integration was the only option then it was “very important” that shariah law be applied for the Moro population. He iterated that “religion is very important, part of the identity.” He averred that every Moro Muslim had the ultimate objective “to live their own way of life.”[31] Thus the reason for armed violence in Mindanao was the lack of self-determination and respect for the Moro ancestral domains. So cherished was the Bangsamoro identity in the present day that Khalil cajoled his Quiapo constituents not to refer to themselves as Muslim if they did wrong, but rather as “Tausug, Maguindanao or Marananao” – because it was important not to tarnish the good name of the Muslim community. Khalil insisted that the Muslim identity was more important than ethnic identity and that there was a need to “protect the religion.” While he was careful to point out that protecting and defending Bangsamoro rights and status through the “education” route was the preferred option, he understood why some Moros had resorted to violent struggle as an “option” as well.[32]



The Origins of Contemporary Bangsamoro Secessionist Movements: MIM, MNLF and MILF


The violent “option” alluded to by Khalil Sharif Pundomo has been long in gestation. By the 1960s, intensifying Moro resentment at their creeping economic and social “minoritization” at the hands of the Christian-dominated Filipino State – despite the best efforts of the traditional datus at keeping the peace – had led to sporadic violent clashes between Christians and Muslims. [33]  Exacerbating the situation was the accession to power in the mid-1960s of the ambitious President Ferdinand Marcos, who actively sought to break the power of the local strongmen who were allies of national opposition elites in the south. Marcos unleashed the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Mindanao, destroying the old compact between the State and the traditional Muslim leaders, using the military to break up opposition private armies and setting up rival Muslim associations loyal to him. The outcome was a breakdown in southern stability as a culture of assassinations and electoral violence emerged. The ongoing Muslim-Christian settler conflict was further exacerbated by military support to the latter. The upshot of these developments was a co-optation of the cowed Muslim aristocratic elites by Marcos and their political decline. [34] In light of Manila’s long-standing irredentist claims on the Malaysian State of Sabah, moreover, elements within the military in March 1968 organized a covert plot - called Jabaidah (or Jabidah) - to train on the island of Corregidor a group of Moro Muslims in commando tactics. The idea was that when these agents provocateur infiltrated Sabah they could effectively agitate amongst the population and influence them to demand annexation by the Philippines. In the event, when the Moro soldiers balked at proceeding with the mission, thirty of them were summarily executed by their Christian officers. The so-called Jabaidah massacre spurred the emergence of organized and violent Moro secessionist movements.[35]



Two months after the Jabaidah incident, one of the most prominent and powerful datus of Cotabato, Datu Udtog Matalam launched the Muslim Independence Movement (MIM), aimed at setting up an independent Islamic Republic of Sulu and Mindanao. MIM called for a “jihad or holy war to change Moroland into a Darul Islam.”[36] MIM sought in this regard the outright secession of Mindanao, Sulu and the Palawan regions from Manila’s grasp and in its public rallies promoted the slogan: “We are not Filipinos, we are Bangsamoros.” [37]  Rather than posing any significant threat to Philippine stability, the MIM was essentially a desperate attempt to publicize Moro grievances. [38] Datu Udtog complained about the diminishing status of traditional leaders and village elders; the educational system that “systematically alienated the school children” by demeaning “the cultural milieu in which they grew,” and the ongoing Christian settler encroachment upon Moro territory that in effect “reduced the economic base of Moroland.” [39] More fundamentally, the Jabaidah incident “generated strong feelings among Muslims and galvanized their fears that their lives were of little value in Philippine society.” [40] Security analyst Rommel Banlaoi has argued that “it was through the MIM” that “the ideology of Bangsamoroism” first coalesced. [41]



Datu Udtog’s complaints fell on deaf ears: the Christian-led anti-Moro Ilaga movement mobilized in response, releasing forces that culminated in the June 1971 massacre of 70 Muslims in a mosque in Bario Manili, North Cotabato. This attack on a “sacred place” of the Moro Muslims further radicalized the community. [42]    Moreover, the ensuing political co-optation by Manila of the MIM leadership further marginalized the datus. Many young MIM members quit in frustration and led by a young University of the Philippines political science instructor from Sulu called Nur Misuari, formed the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that sought the “complete liberation of the Moro’s homeland.”[43] Starting in 1969, groups of young Moros were sent to Malaysia for military training.[44] From the outset, the MNLF placed little reliance on “untrustworthy, aristocratic and egocentric elders,”targeting “socialist populists, religious leaders and student movements” to fill its ranks instead. [45] The charismatic Misuari attracted scores of angry young Moros which he promptly deployed in an armed wing, the Bangsamoro Army which – following Marcos’s declaration of martial law in September 1972 - launched attacks on AFP detachments in Sulu, Cotabato and Lanao provinces – sparking a full-scale conflict in the southern Philippines.[46] Military action aside, Misuari sought to psychologically unify the disparate Moro ethno-linguistic groups by promoting the old MIM slogan “Moro not Filipino”, resurrecting Moro folk heroes of the past and fashioning a systematic narrative of the “Moro anticolonial struggle”.[47] The ideological leitmotif of Bangsamoroism was well captured in an April 1974 MNLF manifesto:


We, the five million oppressed Bangsamoro people, wishing to free ourselves from the terror, oppression, and tyranny of Filipino colonialism, that had caused us untold sufferings and miseries by criminally usurping our land, by threatening Islam through wholesale desecration of its places of worship and its Holy Book, and murdering our innocent brothers, sisters and folks in a genocidal campaign of terrifying magnitude…hereby declares the ‘establishment of the Bangsamoro Republic.’[48]



The fighting between the Philippine military and the MNLF reached its apogee between 1972 and 1976, resulting in thousands of lives lost and tremendous damage to property. The MNLF could not sustain the tempo of operations, however. Its leadership was inexperienced and stretched by mounting battlefield losses as the war progressed. These pressures sparked tensions between Tausugs – who controlled the leadership – and the Maguindanaons who did the bulk of the fighting. [49]    



Nevertheless, because the intensity of the fighting had attracted concern from the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) - a fact that Misuari adroitly exploited - a political resolution was eventually reached in December 1976 with the signing of the so-called Tripoli Agreement in Libya. This called for the creation of an autonomous – rather than independent – region in Muslim Mindanao consisting of 13 provinces and nine cities. The region included the five – Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi – with absolute Muslim majorities. However, because Marcos subsequently demanded that a referendum should be held to clarify which province and city named in the Agreement should be included in the autonomous region, the ceasefire fell apart and Misuari went into exile in the Middle East. While President Corazon Aquino, assuming office in 1986 - following the historic People’s Power Revolution that unseated Marcos - offered a new Constitution and set up an Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Misuari expressed dissatisfaction as the ARMM granted autonomy to only four and not the originally envisaged thirteen provinces. However, the arrival on the scene of President Fidel Ramos in 1992 improved the situation, and four years later a final peace agreement with the MNLF was sealed. The terms included the establishment of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development, with Misuari as governor of the ARMM.[50] The ARMM however, unable to satisfy other armed Bangsamoro groups like the MILF (see below), and deeply embroiled in allegations of corruption and sheer incompetence of co-opted Muslim officials, could not improve regional governance and delivery of basic services to the people. As a result the region remained poverty-stricken and strife-torn.[51] Little wonder that critics quickly accused the ARMM of suffering from “paper autonomy.”[52]



To be sure, well before the Misuari-brokered 1996 agreement, misgivings with the earlier 1976 Tripoli accord had severely undermined Misuari politically, splitting the MNLF along ethnic lines and giving rise to an important mutation of the Bangsamoro secessionist movement. Misuari’s support had come from the Tausugs in the Moro-populated areas of Lanao del Norte, Basilan, Sulu, Zamboanga, Tawi-Tawi and Palawan. His chief rival for control of the trajectory of the Bangsamoro secessionist movement by the mid-1970s, however, a Cairo-educated Islamic scholar named Salamat Hashim, drew upon a Maguindanaon support base scattered around Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte and Zamboanga provinces. Hashim criticized Misuari for veering dangerously far away from “the Islamic basis” and toward “Marxist-Maoist orientations,” while at the same time presiding over a central leadership that had become “mysterious, exclusive, secretive” and which seemed to answer only to Misuari. [53] Following an abortive attempt to oust Misuari in 1976, Hashim quit his position as MNLF vice-chairman and together with 57 senior leaders formed a rival “New Leadership.” Chafing at the fact that the OIC had formally acknowledged Misuari’s MNLF as the legitimate organizational representative of the Bangsamoro people, Hashim moved to give greater institutional shape to his faction, formally inaugurating the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Jeddah in 1984 as an alternative standard for the Moros. From the start the MILF sought to emphasize its Islamic credentials, deliberately contrasting itself with the MNLF, which “under Misuari was beginning to look like a secular relic from the feudal era.”[54] Until the 1990s, however, Manila virtually ignored the MILF, accepting Hashim’s assurances that his organization was more moderate than the MNLF. Relative official neglect thus enabled the MILF to “quietly build up power in the areas it controlled, creating a de facto autonomous Islamic community within Philippine territory,” complete with its own “Sharia courts, prisons, and even educational system;” meanwhile the MILF’s armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Army, grew from 6000 in the early 1990s to 15000 by the end of the decade.[55]



In contrast to the MNLF, the emphasis of the MILF on dakwah (proselytization) and tarbiyah (education) was far more pronounced, and the early years of the organization were focused not on fighting but rather building the theological and political basis for an independent Bangsamoro Islamic state.That this commitment of the MILF to Islamizing the Bangsamoro struggle was genuine was evidenced in various ways, such as the several hundred Islamic schools or madaris in its areas of operations; regular ulama summits in the Dakwah Center in Sultan Kudarat in Maguindanao; the murshid or spiritual guides assigned to every Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces unit to ensure, inter alia, that religious prohibitions on drinking and smoking were enforced; to the setting up of an Islamic court overseeing the finer interpretations of Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence) in certain areas under its control.[56]  Hashim - who as a young student in the early 1960s at the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo had been exposed to the works of the key Islamist ideologues Sayyid Qutb of Egypt and Maulana Mawdudi of Pakistan - was himself a committed Islamist.[57] The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s prompted the MILF to send its fighters to that country to fight against the invaders and to undergo military training – and the experience further deepened Hashim’s Islamist beliefs.[58] The MILF under Hashim in sum sought nothing less than an Islamized Bangsamoro State in the Mindanao region, to be achieved by both dakwah and jihad. Moreover, the September 11 2001 Al Qaeda assault on New York and Washington D.C. further reinforced a more global element in Hashim’s thinking as well, when he noted that “[i]n many parts of the world, we have seen the inevitable collision between Islam and the diabolical forces arrayed against” Muslim communities in “Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya,” and “Jammu-Kashmir,” a situation which was “nothing strange” to the long-suffering and victimized Bangsamoro nation.[59]



Nevertheless, Hashim as early as 1985 had evinced a basic political pragmatism, observing that the Moro concept of self-determination, while favoring “complete independence,” could conceivably include “at least, a meaningful autonomous government embracing the traditional homeland of the Bangsamoro, namely, Mindanao, Palawan, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi.” [60] The reality was that the MILF leadership had no detailed understanding of what really constituted an Islamic State in the Mindanao area, dismissing existing models of putative Islamic governance from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia as inapplicable in the southern Philippines. Furthermore, Hashim and his colleagues were not always single-mindedly committed to the violent interpretation of jihad associated with the likes of Al Qaeda and the Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network. The MILF at various times argued that jihad qital (offensive jihad or the lesser jihad) had certainly been justified during the Marcos era, when the State had been at war with Muslims, but less so since then, as relatively less bellicose successor governments sought peaceful negotiations.Finally, despite the MILF’s Islamization agenda, its make-up was not uniformly Islamist: while Hashim and foreign affairs head Abu Zahir were full-fledged clerics, other senior leaders like the current MILF amir Al Haj Murad Ebrahim - Hashim passed away in July 2003 – information head Mohagher Iqbal, and vice-chairman for internal affairs Abdul Azia Mimbintas were not. Added to this, the rank and file, comprising ordinary Maguindanaons, Maranaons, Tausugs and others were a mixture of “mainly folk Islam with some elements of scholarly Islam.” [61]  



At any rate, the MILF declared its non-recognition of the 1996 MNLF accord with Manila, organized mass demonstrations in Cotabato City in December that year to protest against Misuari’s acceptance of mere autonomy rather than complete independence - and engaged in combat with the Philippine army that left more than a hundred dead and generated thousands of refugees. Such a hostile stance prompted Ramos’ successor as President, Joseph Estrada, to launch an all-out campaign against the MILF from April to July 2000 - overrunning the main MILF camp complex Abubakar in the process. Nevertheless, when Estrada’s successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the early 2000s adopted a dual strategy of limited tactical AFP operations combined with peace talks – the incipient pragmatism of Hashim and the other senior leaders meant that this tacit olive branch was accepted, and negotiations between the MILF and Manila for a separate peace agreement began in earnest. To be sure, the MILF mirror-imaged the Arroyo strategy, agreeing to talk while granting local commanders enough flexibility to determine when to engage security forces as well. This image of an “armed, but open-to-negotiation movement”, its skillful use of traditional politicians in its areas of operations as a “buffer between itself and the national state,” and since negotiations started in the early 2000s, the wide berth it has officially given to the likes of Al Qaeda and JI militants, has garnered a positive response from Islamic and Western aid agencies, resulting in funding coming in to reconstruct war-torn Mindanao.[62] Ironically, however, as Hashim had railed at Misuari for supposedly selling out the Bangsamoro cause to Manila, the softening stance of the MILF itself toward the government by the 2000s, generated howls of protest within the Bangsamoro secessionist movement, generating new splinter networks, including the ASG.[63]



The Rise of the Abu Sayyaf


In 1989, Aburajak Janjalani, a former MNLF member, set up the Al Harakatul Islamiyah, which over time became much better known as the Abu Sayyaf Group or ASG.[64]   Aburajak, who had been trained in Afghanistan, named the network after the Afghan mujahidin commander Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, whom he had greatly admired.[65]  While Aburajak had attended a Catholic high school called Claret College in Isabela in Basilan, his subsequent education was fully within a fundamentalist, Wahhabi (see below) milieu. He went to Saudi Arabia in 1981 and studied Islamic fiqh for three years in Mecca, before proceeding to Pakistan, where he became deeply immersed in jihad thinking. He returned to Basilan in 1984, preaching in various mosques and emphasizing the importance of jihad in the sense of “fighting and dying in the cause of Islam.” [66]  He set up the ASG as he was appalled by what he considered the “‘heretic’ leadership of the MNLF and MILF.” [67]    The ASG at the outset, like the earlier Bangsamoro secessionist groups, the MNLF and MILF, declared that it sought the creation of an “Independent Islamic State in Mindanao.”[68] The ideological seeds for the ASG network were sown between 1984 and 1989 in Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga City and General Santos City. Aburajak lambasted traditionalist Moros in these areas, accusing them of not practicing the true Islam as compared with their West Asian counterparts. He urged local leaders to oppose Manila for its historical injustices against the Moros, and that the only way to “seek keadilan or justice for Muslims” was through armed jihad. He even produced eight scholarly commentaries or khutbah laying out his thoughts on the way forward for the Moros. [69]



In setting up the ASG Aburajak also recruited younger scholars who had studied in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Pakistan and Egypt, who were themselves upset at both the MNLF and Manila. When ASG first started out it was relatively organized: Aburajak presided over an Islamic Executive Council of “fifteen Amirs” that oversaw two committees, one focused on education and fund-raising with the other responsible for agitation and propaganda. He also set up a military wing tasked with carrying out bombing attacks, tactical co-ordination and intelligence operations, and comprised largely “disgruntled members of MNLF and MILF.”[70]  One of the earliest Aburajak-directed ASG operations was the bombing of the Christian missionary ship M/V Doulos in August 1991, in retaliation against overzealous Christian missionaries in Mindanao who had apparently made derogatory remarks about Islam.[71]  The ASG gained further notoriety four years later for burning down the town center of Ipil, Zamboanga del Sur, signaling its expansion outside Basilan.[72] It is important to note also that in 1993, Ramzi Yousuf, who had carried out the World Trade Center bombing in New York City in 1993, actually went to Basilan the same year, linked up with the ASG and trained members of the organization for terrorist operations in Manila against Pope John Paul II as well as the American and Israeli embassies. Apparently Yousuf sought to “turn the Abu-Sayyaf organization into a center for international terror”, and helped build funding, logistics and training links for the group with the Palestinian Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and from Arab countries as well as “groups in Pakistan, Malaysia, and apparently, Iran as well”.[73] Hence the ASG from the onset has had direct exposure to violent international Islamist influences.


Following Aburajak’s elimination by Philippine security forces in December 1998 in Lamitan, Basilan, however, the ensuing leadership vacuum led to the ASG’s relatively hierarchical original structure quickly degenerating into a rather haphazard network of various armed groups led by their respective amirs, functioning in the main in Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi. By July 1999, however, Khaddafy Janjalani, the younger brother of Aburajak had been elected to lead the ASG but he lacked both the organizational discipline and ideological zeal of his older brother. Thus between 1999 and Khaddafy’s own confirmed death in January 2007, the ASG focused largely on “banditry, piracy, kidnap-for-ransom and other terrorist activities.”[74]  The network in this regard gained global notoriety in April 2000 when it abducted 21 hostages, mainly tourists, from the Malaysian tourist island of Sipadan. This was followed up by another raid on the Dos Palmas Resort on Palawan, where another 20 hostages were taken and two Americans killed.[75] These highly lucrative kidnapping activities meant an inflow of huge ransom funds into the pockets of the kin and friends of ASG members in Basilan and Jolo – distorting the traditional patronage distribution networks and implying that the ASG had become a significant rival to local politicians. Pressure thus mounted on Manila to co-operate with US forces - newly deployed to the region as part of the George W. Bush administration’s post-September 11 Global War on Terror - to eliminate the ASG.[76]



Intensified security force pressure throughout the 2000s meant that the ASG was forced to consolidate itself in two main areas: Basilan, headed till his death in mid-decade by Khaddafy Janjalani and Sulu, led at one time by Ghalib Andang alias Commander Robot. The Basilan amir following Khaddafy Janjalani’s demise was apparently Khair Mundos, while the Sulu faction was led, after Andang’s arrest in 2003, by Radullan Sahiron. By 2011, Philippine security officials had assessed that the overall ASG amir was a close friend of the late Janjalani brothers, Yassir Igasan, who was a cleric and Afghan veteran with good grassroots and organizational skills and had been educated in Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Igasan represented a throwback to the more Islamist orientation of Aburajak Janjalani rather than the banditry associated with much of ASG activity since the latter’s demise.[77]  The actual ability of Igasan – and for that matter the current pro-ISIS senior ASG leader Isnilon Hapilon - to influence the entire ASG network remained questionable however. Filipino analyst Rommel Banlaoi, who has closely studied the ASG, opines that rather than a “homogenous organization,” the ASG today is a “very loose coalition of many groups of radical Muslim leaders and bandits commanding their own loyal followers in the southern Philippines,” possessing “mixed objectives from Islamic fundamentalism to mere banditry.” Moreover, rather than “ASG doctrines,” members of these ASG networks “pay allegiance mostly to their respective leaders.” These “highly personalistic” networks in truth display widely varying degrees of commitment to Aburajak Janjalani’s original ideal of a “separate Islamic state in the Southern Philippines.”[78]



Moreover, precisely because the ASG network is itself embedded in the wider Bangsamoro secessionist movement, institutional boundaries have been more imaginary than real; crossing of fighters between group boundaries is endemic. Despite the official protestations of both the MNLF and MILF that they have no connections with the ASG - whose “un-Islamic” lawlessness is decried, there are links.[79] After all, many ASG members were ex-MNLF, and informal ASG-MNLF tactical alliances for specific operations have not been unknown. MNLF members provide shelter to ASG militants on the run, while ASG has hired MNLF fighters to mount attacks. Furthermore, ethno-linguistic and kinship ties, intermarriage and personal relationships link the ASG and MILF elements. While no formal institutional links have been detected between the ASG and MILF, unofficial tactical coordination as well as sharing of resources between elements of both networks occurs. A former ASG militant even revealed that ASG fighters would fire upon Philippine soldiers wounded by roadside bombs planted by the MILF. ASG and MILF fighters have even been jointly trained by the Indonesian JI in bomb-making. [80] This pattern of cross-cutting informal and highly personalized linkages holds true, incidentally, for other recent mutations of the Bangsamoro secessionist movement. The existence of the so-called Rajah Solaiman Islamic Movement (RSIM) for instance was discovered in November 2001. A small, secret and violent network that had emerged from the larger non-violent Balik-Islam Movement of Christian Filipino converts to Islam, the RSIM was believed to have participated in terrorist attacks such as the Davao Airport bombing in March 2003, the Superferry 14 bombing on February 2004 and the Valentine’s Day attack in Makati, Metro Manila in 2005. RSIM has collaborated with not merely the ASG, but MILF elements, JI and Al Qaeda in an urban jihad campaign in the Philippines. [81]    



Specifically, the RSIM collaborated closely with the ASG in the Superferry 14 and Valentine’s Day attacks; while RSIM leader and above-ground Balik-Islam activist Ahmad Santos had intimate links with the MILF community, successfully securing training for RSIM militants from the MILF, starting in early 2002. Moreover, through MILF contacts Santos later met Khaddafy Janjalani. The RSIM-MILF connection is why Manila later fingered the MILF for involvement in the 2003 Davao airport bombing, though this accusation was angrily refuted by the latter.[82] This impression of close connections between RSIM, ASG and militants from other networks was obvious when the author met the detained senior ASG militant Idzmar Hayudini in Bicutan jail in Quezon City, Philippines in March 2011. The-then 38-year-old father of four had known Khaddafy Janjalani personally and hailed himself from a traditional aristocratic clan in Sulu. Hayudini appeared to be accepted as amir of not merely the 40 ASG but also the several RSIM - and for that matter, two Indonesian JI detainees - who were incarcerated with him. [83]  In this connection Mindanaoan analyst Ishak Mastura’s views on the matter appear persuasive:


It needs to be stressed that, from the perspective of the Moro fighters, organizational labels used by the government – such as “rogue MNLF-ASG,” “Misuari Breakaway Group,” or more, recently, the “Lawless MILF Group” – have no meaning. Rather than a common bond to a group, these individuals are bound together by the perception of the Armed Forces of the Philippines as (AFP) as the enemy. The government continues to employ labels like the “Pentagon Gang,” “MILF Special Operations Group,” and “Al-Khobar” in an effort to link a variety of Moro armed gangs to the insurgency. This process only assists in the creation of new enemies because rebel fighters easily move between criminal gangs and private armed groups associated with Moro politicians and political clans to the MILF, and vice versa.[84]


Kit Collier similarly argues that the concept of a “clearly bounded ‘group’ - as in the ‘Abu Sayyaf Group’ – is meaningless in Tausug society.” He argues that Tausug military and political life is structured by “temporary factional alliances, ‘overlapping and criss-crossing ties in which the same men may be torn apart and bound together in multiple ways at the same time.’” Collier points out that such minimal alliance networks pivot on a charismatic leader and are “rarely more than a score strong” with membership becoming fuzzy at the edges as one network meshes with another. He avers that numerous minimal alliance networks only coalesce as “‘medial’ or ‘maximal’ alliances of hundreds or even thousands of men if a third common enemy” – in this case, the Philippine State – “shared among them, emerges.” Thus the “Abu Sayyaf is just such a medial alliance” with “no firm boundaries – only leaders with followers who interact with other leaders with followers.” [85]



Radicalization Processes within the Abu Sayyaf Network


Following his return from attending an “Islamic course” in Tripoli, Libya in 1987, Aburajak took concrete steps to set up what can best be described as an “ideological ecosystem” for the ASG, together with fellow Moro students he had met in Tripoli.[86] Through “seminars, symposia” and “small-group discussions” in Basilan, Zamboanga, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Jolo, Aburajak’s ideas began to coalesce and be disseminated. [87] In this respect, a particularly important ideological space of the ASG was formed in 1988 in Marawi City – site of the ongoing siege by ISIS-linked militants at the time of writing. Called Darul Imam Shafii, this was an educational institution set up and funded by one Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, a brother-in-law of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Khalifa had started the Philippine branch of the Saudi charity called the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO). Darul Imam Shafii, apparently patterned after a similar institution in Afghanistan, produced three batches of graduates, according to former ASG leader Mohammad Noor Umug alias Abu Hamdie, who was one of the individuals who attended the institution. He noted that many Darul Imam Shafii graduates later joined the ASG and even the MILF. Notable Darul Imam Shafii alumni included the future ASG leading lightsKhaddafy Janjalani and Yassir Igasan.[88]  Noor Umug at the time was a bored 19-year old who had wanted to travel and see the world outside his Basilan village, factors that led him to enroll in Darul Imam Shafii in 1990. His two years in the school proved to be such a transformational experience that in his words, it “made me more than by myself.”[89] Darul Imam Shafii was a boarding school for students between the ages of and 18 and 21, which operated seven days a week. It was what the American political scientist Cass Sunstein would call an “insulated enclave”,[90] where, according to Noor Umug, “no contact” was permitted with outsiders and when he did venture outside he was always strictly supervised. “They control everything,” he recalled, “what we think, what we see and what we speak.” Videos of the fighting in Afghanistan were employed “to radicalize and mobilize people to become jihadis.” He admitted being influenced himself by these videos in Darul Imam Shafii.[91]  



Within Darul Imam Shafii, a strong dose of the Wahhabi theological strain of Islam appeared evident. Wahhabism is so named after the extremely puritanical 18th century Arab Muslim reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-87). Al-Wahhab derided the Ottoman Turks, who were at the time controlling large tracts of the Middle East, including Mecca and Medina, as “blasphemers for their constant infractions” of the Qur’an, such as “wine-drinking, gambling, fornication and idolatry.”[92] Al-Wahhab and his followers, or “Wahhabis” as they came to be called, destroyed shrines, tombs and sacred objects that they considered “idolatrous.”[93] Even relatively observant Arab Muslims who did not embrace al-Wahhab’s extremely rigid, unequivocally monotheistic interpretation of the faith were condemned as guilty of shirk or apostasy and attacked.[94] Al-Wahhab proceeded to forge a religio-political alliance with the powerful tribal sheikh Muhammad bin Saud, a compact that ultimately led to the founding of the future Saudi kingdom as well as the successful dissemination of the Wahhabi ideas throughout Arabia from the middle of the eighteenth century.[95] In essence, al-Wahhab sought – by force if necessary - to ensure that Muslims remain on what he regarded as the true path of Islam and eschewed “corruptions” such as “mysticism, the doctrine of intercession, rationalism, and Shi’ism.”[96] Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl explains that the “Wahhabis tended to treat everything that did not come out of Arabia proper to be inherently suspect” and “have always equated the austere cultural practices of Bedouin life with the one and only true Islam.”[97] Agreeing, the French scholar of Islam Olivier Roy describes Wahhabism as a “disembedding and asceticising” project as it has long sought the “purification of religious practice of all elements of social and cultural context.”[98] The Wahhabi strain within Islam is hence a “de-territorialized Islam,” bereft of “national or cultural identities, traditions and histories” and reduced to an “abstract faith and moral code.”[99]



Moreover, in the southern Philippine context, Muslim scholar Yusuf Roque Santos Morales argued that Wahhabism runs counter to traditional Sunni theology, and tends to engage in “selective purging” of ideas from classical theologians that go against their views. Thus “Wahhabis try to make [the 13th century medieval Hanbali scholar] Ibn Taymiyya into a Wahhabi, although he had broader and some moderate views.” Morales iterated that he had studied this issue personally for years, and had consulted with “classmates” who had studied in Medina, and summed up by noting that “while Sunnis are physicians able to prescribe medicine,” Wahhabis “are pharmacists: they can make the medicine but do not know who to use the medicine, so they go haywire.”[100] Morales went as far as to argue that in “Wahhabi ideology, violence is inherent” and the direct outcome of a “bipolar, black and white” mindset. In stark terms, he averred that at “the end of the day,” Wahhabis “will really evolve into violent extremists. If they don’t their children will.”[101] The former ASG militant Noor Umug shared Morales’ concerns. He felt that “in the long run”, young people immersed in the intolerant Wahhabi worldview “might do something violent,” because “something may happen: an attack on Muslims, apprehension of the wrong person, an attack on a mosque,” or a “massacre” - and some “radical personalities” would exploit the issue, making such youth feel “obliged to respond” in violence against the so-called enemies of Islam.[102]



In any case, within Darul Imam Shafii, every effort was made to promote the notion that violent action was urgently needed to rectify injustice. In this regard, following the stock Wahhabi denunciation of the traditionalist innovation-riddled Islam of Mindanao and a reminder that the “Moro people should have correct ideology and clear objective,” the core Wahhabi concept of al-Wala’ wal-Bara – the principle of the unity of all Muslims and disassociation from non-Muslims – was employed as a “key factor in ideological indoctrination.” In other words, Wahhabi theology permeated more action-oriented ideological programming within the institution. In this respect the students were warned to steer clear of non-Muslims “who should not be with us.” The takfiri – or excommunicative - perspective of the teachers was further evinced when the students were told that even Muslims not implementing Shariah were kafir or infidels. Thus Misuari and the MNLF should not be seen as brothers in Islam nor considered as “real mujahids” as they were “Zionist” and “communists.”[103] Darul Imam Shafii teachers also added that “negotiations with the government were out of the question.” Noor Umug recalled that he had been “a bit confused” about the attitude to adopt toward Christians. He heard two views: on the one hand, it was possible to co-exist with them under an Islamic State as they would be considered as protected dhimmi. [104] On the other hand, he was warned by Palestinian instructors that Christians were implacable “enemies.”[105] Hayudini, the ASG amir at Bicutan jail – and incidentally the top graduate of the third and apparently final batch produced by Darul Imam Shafii - in this respect matter-of-factly stated that in a future Islamic State in Mindanao the Christians would be fairly treated - as long as they paid the jizya or poll tax.[106]



The curriculum and military training programs at the school, apparently designed by IIRO head Khalifa himself, was in general geared toward promoting an acceptance of jihad to defend Islam. The message was that as the students were going to be ultimately “specialized in jihad” they would have on graduation “an obligation to do something.” Noor Umug, Hayudini and their fellow students were told of the struggles of Palestinian movements like Hamas and Fatah, and in particular that the Muslim Brotherhood was “the best model” to emulate. The students were also warned not to be taken in by the apolitical Tablighi Jamaat, which was accused of distorting Islamic concepts, and that it was much safer to stick with the “authoritative” Brotherhood approach. Key ideologues that were promoted at the school included Ibn Taymiyya – especially his view on jihad – the general interpretation of which, Noor Umug recalled, was “always qital (fighting);” as well as Mawdudi, Qutb and tellingly, al-Wahhab. Noor Umug recalled there was tendency to “always take the extremist view of these scholars” and that any scholar presenting alternative ideas was simply munafiq – meaning hypocritical and not credible. In general, ulama from the Middle East were “seen as superior.”[107] Hayudini for his part recalled reading Qutb in particular. [108]



The mode of instruction at the school was the small study circle or halaqah, derived from the Brotherhood usroh concept.[109] A standard program of basically reading, understanding, memorizing and reciting verses – with a focus on the jihad texts - was followed. While there was some discussion, halaqah students took pains “not to argue” and “never challenged” the teachers. Instead they regarded themselves as “subordinate in knowledge” to their Palestinian and/or Palestinian-Jordanian instructors who were regarded as the “source of knowledge.”[110] Certainly, a number of the young students of Darul Imam Shafii were emotionally primed for relatively unquestioning obedience to their instructors. Due to years of conflict in Mindanao, many of them had suffered “family breakdown” and become Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), who had been “displaced as individuals not as families.” They tended to experience, as the Muslim activist Amina Rasul argued, an unsettling “temporariness” in their daily lives, going “from one place to the next, full of uncertainty, no stability in the way they live their lives,” bereft of family and the friends they grew up with, and with “no future” and “no sense of community ties.” These young IDPs felt “restricted” and weighed down with “uncertainty” as to when they were going to get their next meal and where they were going to go to school.[111]    Political psychologist Clarita Carlos added that these young people “were looking for a father,” and were very susceptible to groups promising to meet their need “to belong,” and “to want a father.”[112] These youth above all, needed the stability, predictability and normality of a regular family.[113] No great surprise then, that within Darul Imam Shafii, attempts were made to generate a feeling of “family” within the various halaqah circles. [114]  



Darul Imam Shafii students were eventually expected to go out and recruit others in new usroh. In this way, Noor Umug recounts, different cells were created in Lanao and Zamboanga. Noor Umug himself became a naqib or leader of two cells in Zamboanga and Basilan, while other classmates formed new cells in Davao and Marawi. Apparently Khalifa’s strategy was to expand the movement that way. In general, as an essentially fundamentalist institution Darul Imam Shafii emphasized “one correct way only.” Khalifa told his students that the same “pure process” of dakwah and tarbiyah followed in Darul Imam Shafii, had in fact been that followed by the Prophet himself. To be sure, Noor Umug emphasized, “most students are changed” because the “teaching is strong.” Hence after graduation, his radicalized worldview that “shariah law is the best law” ensured that he “wanted more” in Basilan: the Islamization of society; women in hijab; and the local government to be Islamic. He claimed to have even persuaded his moderately religious father to become a more serious Muslim. Noor Umug conceded that at that juncture he had fully embraced “jihad against US and Israel.” In this respect the “kafir” enemy was not just the United States government but the “American people” as well, because they “are mostly Christian.” [115]    



Darul Imam Shafii was in fact part of a larger ideological ecosystem in the Sulu-Basilan area, propagating ideological constructions that caused young men like Noor Umug to see themselves not merely as part of the ASG, but the wider Bangsamoro secessionist and for that matter the global jihadist movement spearheaded at the time by Al Qaeda and including JI in Southeast Asia. This is precisely why the ASG also forged close ties with not just Al Qaeda but JI elements as well.[116]   Darul Imam Shafii aside, another similar ideological node was the Markazos Shabab Al-Muslim, a religious organization in Marawi, funded, like Darul Imam Shafii, by Khalifa’s IIRO. The Markazos Shabab apparently supervised madrassas in Mindanao and Manila. [117]   Two other madrassas, Mahad Basilan Al-Arabi Al-Islami and Mahad Shuhada Al-Arabie Al-Islamie were also key ideological spaces where the recruits for the ASG in the early 1990s were radicalized.[118]  In fact the first generation of Aburajak Janjalani’s ASG recruits was largely Tausug madrassa students.[119]  Another important part of the ideological ecosystem was radical mosques. Noor Umug recalled that the Tabuk mosque in Isabela, Santa Barbara Mosque in Zamboanga, and Masjid Tulay in Sulu were “among the sacred places where radical ulama used to conduct lectures on jihad.” Apparently preachers trained in Libya or Syria usually delivered “a more radical point of view of Islam than those who went to study in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.” [120] Mosque khutbah (sermons) emphasized issues such as the “sacrifices of Prophet Mohammad and the Sahaba (Companions of the Prophet),” the importance of jihad, as well as historic Islamic Conquests and the continuing Israeli occupation of the Holy Land. Despite the systematic allusions to the struggles of the global ummah, the centrality of Bangsamoro issues remained: another popular theme at the mosques was “The Bangsamoro People and their Homeland.”[121]



Last but not least a key node of the ecosystem were individuals who “fueled the jihad spirit of the Moro people.” Some of these individuals were foreigners like Khalifa, who were well-resourced and built mosques, Arabic schools, and extended livelihood assistance projects in an attempt to not merely assist the local struggle but also generate loyalty amongst the Moros for Al Qaeda.[122] Other “local religious radicals who propagated armed jihad” were akin to Aburajak Janjalani. While some of them may have trained overseas - usually in Islamic Universities in Libya and Syria – and were influenced by the Palestinian ideologue Abdullah Azzam’s globalism and perhaps linked with Al Qaeda or its affiliates in some way, they were nevertheless relatively more focused on local Bangsamoro issues.[123] Hayudini, for instance, was exposed to the global jihad themes in circulation within the insulated enclave of Darul Imam Shafii. However he appeared less interested in either a regional or a global caliphate for the “simple reason” that it was pointless to think about that as “the Muslims had not even managed to seize control in Mindanao.” Importantly, despite the record of ASG co-operation with JI, he insisted he himself was not so keen to identify with JI ideology too closely - but admitted he welcomed the training they provided. He essentially “did not want trouble in Sulu,” and found it “better to send guys to central Mindanao, where JI was, to train over there.” Interestingly, he appeared to utterly disagree with the global jihad ideology of Al Qaeda and for that matter other ASG leaders who bought into it. He in sum remained focused on primarily Bangsamoro concerns. [124]



He was hardly unique. Other Darul Imam Shafii graduates as mentioned nailed their colors to the MILF mast.[125] While seeing the Moro struggle as part of a global conflict between Islam and the West, by the 2000s the MILF was itself stubbornly focused on an arguably more nationalistic agenda.[126]  This prompted yet another mutation within the Bangsamoro secessionist movement by August 2011: Ameril Umbra Kato, the Maguindanaoan commander of the MILF 105th Base Command – a graduate of the University of Medina and a “Wahhabi through and through” [127]  - split from the MILF to form the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement, more commonly referred to as the Bangsamoro Freedom Fighters (BIFF). [128] To understand the reason for this split, it behooves us to recognize that the current MILF leader Murad wants an indigenized Moro version of an Islamic state, not one based on either the Saudi or Afghan model, nor defined by outsiders. Murad in short is driven by a consciously “Bangsamoro Islamic nationalism.” But a significant number of fourth-generation MILF leaders with South Asian and Middle Eastern experiences, like Umbra Kato, want an Islamized Bangsamoro State: that is, one that is based on the very Middle Eastern, Arabized model that Murad wants to avoid. In fact, Arabized influences can already be seen in some MILF zones, such as dressing styles and especially the wearing by women of the conspicuous burqa. In Umbra Kato’s zone, moreover, farmers wear knee length pants. These Arabized MILF commanders oppose the peace process, insisting that Islam “does not compromise, Islam will always win.” [129]  Umbra Kato’s Islamist rather than nationalist orientation came out in other ways. Before his death in April 2015,[130] he opined that it “does not matter how big or how small your territory, what matters is the rule of Islam.” In short, the issue is about Islamic rule and not so much extent of territory controlled. [131]  This is why to Umbra Kato, by the end of 2010 Murad had seemed headed in the perilous direction of “doing a Misuari in the peace agreement.” The secularly educated and rather pragmatic Murad does indeed seem on balance more interested in territorial consolidation. This translates into the old nationalist paradigm that what matters is justice, the ancestral domain issue and sovereignty – all “ironically more nationalist than religious”.[132] In sum, in an irony of ironies, the BIFF felt that the MILF – set up in the 1980s to be the standard bearer for Islam in the Bangsamoro homeland – had by the 2010s become “very secular, not religious.”[133]



The Enabling Environment: Grievances, Gun Culture and Poor Governance


Noor Umug reiterated that well before the conscious articulation of a violent ideological frame at Darul Imam Shafii and elsewhere, the social humiliation needed to empower that frame was well in place. People were long angry at the government for being discriminated against and treated as second-class and there was generalized angst that Manila was not doing anything for the Mindanao people apart from exploiting the resources in the southern Philippines. Noor Umug iterated that the dearth of good governance was a “very key” factor “turning people violent.” He admitted that what drove him into the ASG ranks in the first place was not ideology but rather “bad governance,” in which local officials simply did not do their job, as well as the profoundly corrosive impact of economic discrimination against the Moros, which is observable even in Manila. Noor Umug held that widespread Muslim stereotyping was a problem and pointedly - that the “government was a sponsor of this kind of treatment.”[134] Hayudini similarly pointed the finger at corruption amongst local politicians and officials and poor governance. He put it pithily as basically “bad people making good people become bad.” It is often lamented that Mindanao, despite its rich resources, stubbornly “remains the poorest region in the country.”[135] The Benigno Aquino administration sought to engage in “a massive clean-up of the ARMM” while observers called for its replacement by new institutional arrangements.[136]  Then on 27 March 2014, Manila and the MILF finally signed the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro, the basis for a new Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) to underpin an autonomous Bangsamoro political entity to replace the ARMM. The draft BBL was submitted to the Philippine Concress on 10 September 2014.[137] Tellingly, though, while the proposed BBL sought to settle complex and long-standing issues related to wealth and power-sharing, Hayudini had argued that even if Christians could somehow provide better governance in Mindanao that was not the point: he wanted an Islamic state in Mindanao. Hence he would still take up arms to establish this goal, good governance by Christians or not. He insisted that “all Moros felt that their land had been stolen by the Christians.”[138]  



The Philippine Army Colonel Taharudin Ampatuan – himself a scion of a powerful southern clan and who had served in Maguindanao in 2009 and 2010 - conceded that poverty was exacerbated by corruption and bad governance by local government agencies controlled by the traditional clans. The ensuing prevailing culture of institutional mediocrity meant that internal revenue collection, basic services, and supposedly “big projects” all tended to fall by the wayside.   Added to the fact that the young people still struggled for access to both quality education and importantly, employment after graduation, the overall situation simply continues to this day to breed generalized resentment. This helps explain why the MILF, by striving to meet basic needs and offering solutions to most of the problems in Mindanao, continues to enjoy such genuine support, while the ASG, in Noor Umug’s view – despite suffering from an image problem these days that paints it as having strayed from its once–hallowed cause, still manages to benefit from the situation. As Amina Rasul put it, “if you have been un-served by the government for 40 years or more, as a young person you will believe that this is a Christian government out to get the Islamic community.” She reiterated that social humiliation is something that is generalized, encompassing not just “uneducated people” but “college students” and “young professionals” as well.[139]



Culture also plays a role. Violence, according to the Muslim scholar and activist Yusuf Morales, “has been part of Moro culture for three centuries, and very much part of their expression.” Morales provided in this respect an anecdote that though slightly exaggerated, nevertheless encapsulates the systemic violence that seems to be endemic in Mindanao sub-culture: two kids could be playing a game. Suddenly one kid slaps the other, who runs home, brings his uncle who slaps the first kid. The first kid in turn goes home, brings his uncle – who, unhappily, happens to be a “cop.” Shooting breaks out and “then you have intergenerational clan war.” Morales, a convert whose family hails from Mindanao itself, insisted that “this has been there since even before the Spaniards arrived.” He asks rhetorically: “if this is the case for family matters, what more for political issues?” Hence violence is a “way of life,” and not just for the Tausugs and Maranaos, who have long seen themselves as warrior sub-cultures. “Family feuds” are common even within Muslim enclaves in Metro Manila. Concurring with this assessment, Colonel Ampatuan noted that in the Mindanao region most households own guns to protect them from harassment and as a self-defense system due to the reality of clan wars. There is in fact a healthy pragmatism at barangay level. If the barangay is near to major highways or urban centers, they tend to be linked to local officials. Those that are more than five kilometers away from highways and urban centers tend to become MILF. Hence Ampatuan argued that bread-and-butter armed defense requirements drive barangay affiliations more than precisely formulated ideological concerns. While the local people in MILF zones certainly profess to be Muslims, and say they are pro-jihad, “the main aim is defense of clan or communities.” He observed that MILF imams do organize religious activities and ideological support, and the local people go to the mosque every Friday and pray five times a day – but “that’s it.” As an illustration, a small village in an MILF area, comprising a few families led by a small sultan who decides all major community decisions and owns all the firearms - becomes by default the local MILF leader too. Normally in a barangay about 30 percent of the families own firearms, forming the so-called Community MILF. The Community MILF stands ready to be deployed for action by any senior MILF commander contacting the barangay sultan for assistance. In short, it is very much part of life to have firearms, and if the locals are not particularly well-trained - they are, nevertheless in Ampatuan’s studied view - good fighters.[140]



Finally, it is worth emphasizing that relatively easy access to weapons and training sustains the gun culture in the southern Philippines. Criminal gangs, private armed groups associated with Moro politicians, and violent Islamist networks like the ASG and MILF intersect. In this respect Rasul opined that there have been cases of drug-related kidnappings wrongly labeled as terrorist but were in fact carried out by young people with guns “free to do whatever they wanted.”[141] Transnational criminal linkages in particular have been important. Small-arms trafficking in Southeast Asia remains a big problem thanks to a lucrative market for illicit weapons created by the conflicts in Indonesia, Myanmar and of course the Philippines. Apart from Cambodia, where an estimated 500 000 to one million weapons remain in circulation – a legacy of the Vietnam War – illegal arms from the Middle East and China are also “finding their way “to insurgents, criminals, and terrorists throughout the region,” expedited by “Southeast Asia’s vast maritime and continental borders” that are notoriously difficult to police.[142]  Mindanao itself has long boasted a “criminal gun mafia” that has supplied arms to Indonesian militants.[143] Transnational Islamist networks have also played a role in fostering the opportunity to be violent in the southern Philippines. Mohammad Jamal Khalifa’s IIRO proved to be instrumental in “funding the ASG and MILF in the early 1990s,” while foreign trainers with military experience in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets also imparted violent expertise to the ASG around the same period. The ASG’s kidnapping-for-ransom activities from 1992 onwards – exemplified by the Dos Palmas Resort kidnapping of May 2001, later described by the Christian missionary Gracia Burnham in her harrowing book In the Presence of My Enemies – also generated much funding for the network.[144]  



Finally, regional JI militants have long been known to have trained ASG and other Moro militant networks in bomb-making skills. In 2003, for example, 100 ASG militants were trained by JI in preparation for “bombing operations in Mindanao and Metro Manila.”[145] Two senior JI militants with significant bomb-making expertise and involved in the first Bali attacks – Dulmatin and Umar Patek – were deeply involved with the ASG in Mindanao from the mid-2000s onwards.[146] In September 2011 a leading regional terrorism analyst suggested that the JI and ASG in Sulu “are already so integrated they operate almost as one organization,” adding that “the ASG has been able to carry out bomb attacks because of training and support given by the JI.”[147] Ampatuan appeared to support this analysis. He recalled that during negotiations with a local MILF brigade commander to surrender JI militants he had told him that if he did not turn over the Indonesians “US spy planes will locate them and attack” his unit together with “army artillery.” The MILF brigade commander – who was, incidentally, Ampatuan’s former classmate – said he would revert in a week. In the event he came back and told Ampatuan the answer was no, as Moro culture did not permit the betrayal of friends. Besides, he added, these “JI guys” were living in a mosque, praying and helping on the farms of people when not on operations: in sum, they were seen not as JI, but as honorable “mujahidin,” so “how to betray these guys?” Ampatuan added that it was increasingly hard for outsiders to “distinguish JI from MILF anymore,” as “they can speak the language and dialect fluently.” Locals apparently refer to JI as “Indo, Indo.” Such close social and apparently increasing institutional integration with better-trained Indonesian militant elements will ensure the capacity of future ASG – or for that matter newer ISIS-inspired groups - to continue to possess the capacity to mount terror attacks both in-country and even regionally. In October 2016, in fact, with increasing restrictions on the ability of Indonesian fighters to travel to join ISIS in Syria, reports surfaced of perhaps “dozens” of them going by sea to Mindanao instead to marry up with their Philippine counterparts, increasing concerns about “cross-border violence”.[148] It is telling therefore that there have been reports that Indonesian, other Southeast Asian militants and even fighters from further afield have been involved in the current Marawi siege.[149]



Compounding matters is the continued tendency of the AFP to “misapply military force” in the Mindanao region. The former commander of AFP forces in Mindanao, Lieutenant-General Mohammad Benjamin Dolorfino, a convert to Islam, has pointed out that the “adverse effects of military force” can “alienate the people and exacerbate existing conflict situations,” causing “affected civilians” to view soldiers as “villains rather than protectors.”[150] Joseph Liow similarly notes that “many Philippine security officials” in Mindanao display “dehumanizing attitudes” toward Moros. He claims that at a security conference in Kuala Lumpur, a senior Philippine military officer “even opined publicly that Moros should basically be exterminated because they are all likely to be terrorists.”[151] Noor Umug concurred that the government seems overly focused on a kinetic approach, and that occasional arrests of the wrong people unlucky enough to share the same name as wanted militants only turns entire families against Manila. He warned that people in Mindanao are just “waiting;” if the government does nothing to rectify its attitude, “more young people will join the ASG,” replenishing its ranks.[152] In this respect, the rather pronounced kinetic attitude of the new Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte - elected in June 2016 - is worrying. While he has appeared conciliatory toward the MILF and MNLF,[153] he declared in August that he had “ruled out negotiations” with the ASG[154] and a month later that the military aside, he was considering hiring “Gurkhas”, “mercenaries” and “hatchet men” to destroy the ASG, whom he publicly dehumanized as “germs” that must be “eradicated”.[155] Moreover, it appears that the AFP’s use of airstrikes - that have destroyed large parts of Marawi City in the current crisis - has been exploited by the ISIS-linked fighters, to argue that while they have merely been seeking to conquer “the City for the purpose of implementing the Laws of Allah”, the “response of the Crusader Army” has been “brutal”.[156] Even Duterte has been forced to apologize for the destruction of the city.[157]



Conclusion: The “East Asia Wilayah” - a Long Time in the Making


 In May 2015, in Manila, a high level conference was organized to discuss the looming ISIS threat to the Philippines, at which the author was present. One of the drivers of the meeting was to urgently rally support for congressional passage of the proposed BBL designed to underpin an autonomous Bangsamoro homeland, which had been delayed inter alia, by intense social media coverage of an incident four months earlier in which 44 elite police Special Action Company (SAC) commandos had been slain by BIFF and MILF elements in a firefight in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.[158] The conference tacitly recognized that kinetic measures would not be enough to alleviate the threat of radicalization into violent extremism of the ISIS or ASG variety. While there was some discussion on the drivers of violent Islamist radicalization in the Philippine, particular the Mindanao context – as well as international best practices in countering such processes and reintegrating former militants back into the community – there was at the same time recognition that these responses were themselves insufficient. Former Senator Santanina Rasul reaffirmed that the problems in the south ran much deeper and that “poverty, illiteracy, bad governance, wide availability of loose firearms, and non-enforcement of the rule of law in southern Philippines created a fertile ground for radicalization to take root”.[159] In this respect, many participants agreed with the view of Dr Macapado Muslim, President of Mindanao State University, that the passage of the proposed BBL “which provides a regional governance system, addresses both major political and economic redistribution issues, and important religious and cultural identity needs and grievances of contemporary Moros” represented an “important step in insuring [the Philippines] from the threat of ISIS”.[160] However, if the BBL fails to be passed into legislation in the current Duterte administration, or is passed in a diluted form that offers the proposed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region only a symbolic autonomy without any substantive addressing of the long-standing historic Moro grievances discussed in this article, then rather than stopping violence, such a development would only “fuel the recruitment drives” of not just the ASG, but also the BIFF and even MNLF.[161] In this respect, it seems that the current Marawi crisis has finally prompted President Duterte to invest more political capital in seeking to ensure the successful passage of the BBL that would be meaningful to the long-suffering Bangsamoro people.[162]


One vexed issue that may hamper peacemaking efforts though is the continuing spread of intolerant Wahhabi ideas that sustain the violent extremist ideologies that fuel the likes of ASG and similar groups.[163] Yusuf Morales noted that since the 1970s, three generations of Muslim scholars have been Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia, so the “Wahhabi influence” has become “deep in the south,” and the Wahhabis are “embedded” in the educational system. He added that 1500 students travel to Saudi Arabia every year, coming back as imams for the community, and having a big impact. He complained that Muslim converts to Wahhabism in Manila “would literally cut their ties with family members who are Christians,” declaring that their “Muslim brothers are the real brothers.” He was adamant that there was a need for a comprehensive curriculum review “to ensure Wahhabi ideas don’t get in.”[164] He added that a systemic revamp was needed at tertiary level: most university students of Islamic studies flunked nursing, engineering and teachers examinations, “so the most gullible ones are undergrads frustrated by their failure of entry into higher end courses.”[165] These Islamic Studies undergraduates do not really develop critical enquiry skills as they tend to reflexively accord respect to “anybody who speaks in the name of Islam.” Exacerbating matters further, the secular educational system in the Philippines frowns on those who enroll in Islamic Studies, so this results in their social exclusion: Bachelor of Science in Islamic Studies graduates thus tend to “band together” in an unfriendly environment. Morales added that “most if not all of them are Wahhabis,” while their “teachers teaching Islamic Studies in the Philippines are Wahhabis as well.”[166] On graduation they become religious police, go into the military, foreign affairs, or join the Department of Education.[167] To Morales, in sum, “Traditional Islam” in the Philippines has been steadily supplanted by “Wahhabi-Salafi-Saudi Islam”.[168] In light of Morales’ views, it is particularly telling that a recent report on the Marawi siege emphasized that “mosque and Islamic school reconstruction” in the city after the fighting eventually ends, “is not accompanied by ideological strings from Middle Eastern donors”.[169]



In any case, at the time of writing, judging from the stubborn resilience of the ISIS-linked fighters holding off the AFP in Marawi, it appears that the nascent ISIS East Asia Wilayah - whether formally declared or not – is set to pose a gradually increasing threat to not merely the security of the Philippines, but that of the wider Southeast Asian region. Already analysts have detected the emergence of a number of newer ISIS-affiliated groups in Mindanao, such as the Maute group, which has been heavily involved in the Marawi fighting,[170] Ansar Khalifah Sarangani and Khilafa Islamiyah Mindanao[171] – though as discussed the institutional boundaries of such entities are likely porous. Security planners should hence not too readily dismiss reports of the growing ISIS foothold in Mindanao as mere “propaganda”.[172] Even more so since in January 2017, the Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealed that ISIS had contacted Isnilon Hapilon the previous month, instructing him “to find a suitable area to establish a caliphate” in “Central Mindanao”, as the traditional ASG island sanctuaries in Sulu and Basilan were deemed “too small for a caliphate”.[173] The siege of Marawi appears to be the first serious step in setting up such an entity. Philippine analyst Rommel C. Banlaoi even claimed in June 2017 that Marawi City has been identified as the potential “headquarters” of the East Asia Wilayah of ISIS.[174] Moreover, recent reports suggest that even if the AFP manages to regain control of Marawi, the escape and return of battle-hardened Indonesian and Malaysian Marawi veterans to their respective countries would strengthen the capacity of domestic militant networks in those countries to launch deadly strikes locally. Furthermore, an ISIS foothold in Mindanao in the shape of a “regional training site” for returning Southeast Asian and other fighters from the Middle East would also prove an ominous strategic development. Already there are signs that there exists a command and funding structure linking Indonesian ISIS leaders in Syria with key militant leaders in Mindanao with the potential to set a “regional strategy for further attacks”.[175]   Hence while Lorenzana vowed that the Philippine military would not allow an ISIS foothold from developing in the country, circumspection is called for. As this article has shown, the so-called East Asia Wilayah of ISIS is not only potentially sustainable - it has been a long time in the making.

[1] Isnilon Hapilon is the leader of the ASG Basilan faction. The overall ASG leader is Radullan Sahiron, based in Sulu. See Rohan Gunaratna, “ISIS in Philippines a Threat to Region”, The Straits Times, 12 January 2016, available at

[2] Bilveer Singh and Kumar Ramakrishna, “Islamic State’s Wilayah Philippines: Implications for Southeast Asia”, RSIS Commentary CO 16187, 21 July 2016, available at

[3] Randy Fabi and Manuel Mogato, “Islamic State Unit Being Formed in Southern Philippines – Sources”, Reuters, 24 June 2016, available at; Caleb Weiss,“The Islamic State Grows in the Philippines”, Long War Journal, 24 June 2026, available at .

[4] Gunaratna, “ISIS in Philippines a Threat to Region”.

[5] Joseph Chinyong Liow, “Escalating ISIS Threat in Southeast Asia: Is the Philippines a Weak Link?”,, 9 July 2016, available at

[6] Marawi, the “East Asia Wilayah” and Indonesia (Jakarta: Institute for the Policy Analysis of Conflict Report No. 38, 22 July 2017), pp. 2-3.

[7] Felipe Villamor, “Philippine Congress Extends Martial Law in Besieged Region”, The New York Times, 22 July 2017, available at

[8] Singh and Ramakrishna, “Islamic State’s Wilayah Philippines”.

[9] Moshe Yegar adds that of all the groups, the ethnic Tausugs were the oldest Muslim community and considered relatively the most orthodox. See his: Between Integration and Secession: the Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/Myanmar (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2002), p. 187.

[10] Cesar Adib Majul, Muslims in the Philippines (Diliman: University of the Philippines Press, 1999), pp. 89-92.

[11] Syed Serajul Islam, “The Islamic Independence Movements in Patani of Thailand and Mindanao of the Philippines,” Asian Survey, Vol. 38, No. 5 (May 1998), pp. 444-445; Joseph Chinyong Liow. Muslim Resistance in Southern Thailand and Southern Philippines: Religion, Ideology and Politics (Washington D.C: East-West Center, 2006), pp. 8-9.

[12] Islam, “Islamic Independence Movements,” p. 445; Patricio Abinales, American Military Presence in the Southern Philippines: A Comparative Historical Overview (Honolulu: East-West Center Working Paper 7, October 2004), p. 3.

[13] Abinales, American Military Presence, p. 3.

[14] Thomas M. McKenna, Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), p. 132; Joseph Liow, Religion and Nationalism in Southeast Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. 65-66.

[15] Jamail A. Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict in Southern Philippines: A Discourse on Self Determination, Political Autonomy and Conflict Resolution,” lecture at Emory University, 4 November 2003. The term “Bangsamoro” – Bangsa being the Malay term for nation - emerged by the late 1960s to function as a clearer identity marker for a “new and distinct nation.” See Liow, Muslim Resistance, p. 8. Moreover, in more recent times the Bangsamoro identity has been extended by the major separatist groups like the MILF to embrace non-Muslims resident in Mindanao, to assure the latter that they would be fairly treated under any future Muslim rule in the south.; idem, Religion and Nationalism, pp. 70-72

[16] Abinales, American Military Presence, p. 5.

[17] Interview with Noor Mohammad Umug alias Abu Hamdie, Quezon City, Philippines, 25 March 2011. Noor Umug, a former Abu Sayyaf Group militant, is an ethnic Tausug.

[18] Noor Mohammad Umug, “Walking Away from Terrorism: A Case of Disengagement,” lecture at the Tenth Biennial International Conference, organized by the Council for Asian Transnational Threat Research (CATR), Manila, 26-28 October 2010; Liow, Religion and Nationalism, p. 64.

[19] Islam, “Islamic Independence Movements,” p. 445; Abinales, American Military Presence, p. 5.

[20] Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict.”

[21] Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict.”

[22] Islam, “Islamic Independence Movements,” p. 446; Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict.”

[23] Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict.”

[24] Islam, “Islamic Independence Movements,” p. 452.

[25] Abinales, American Military Presence, p. 8.

[26] Rommel Banlaoi comment, 26 March 2011. See also Liow, Religion and Nationalism, p. 69 and Majul, Muslims in the Philippines, pp. 408-409.

[27] Banlaoi comment,.

[28] Noor Umug interview.

[29] Interview with Khalil Sharif Pundomo, Quiapo, Quezon City, 27 March 2011.

[30] Marawi, the “East Asia Wilayah” and Indonesia, p. 6.

[31] Pundomo interview.

[32] Pundomo interview.

[33] Astrid Tuminez, “Rebellion, Terrorism, Peace: America’s Unfinished Business with Muslims in the Philippines,” Brown Journal of World Affairs, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Fall/Winter 2008), p. 214.

[34] Islam, “Islamic Independence Movements,” p. 448; Abinales, American Military Presence in the Southern Philippines, p. 9.

[35] McKenna, Muslim Rulers and Rebels, p. 141; Islam, “Islamic Independence Movements,” p. 448, n. 15; Liow, Muslim Resistance, p. 10; George C. Decasa, The Quranic Concept of Umma and its Function in Philippine Society (Rome: Gregorian University Press, 1999), p. 374; Patricio P. Diaz, “MNLF: When? Who?” Mindanews, February 7, 2011.

[36] Decasa, The Quranic Concept of Umma, p. 373.

[37] Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict.” See also Rommel C. Banlaoi, “Bangsamoroism and the Nexus of Identity Politics and Violent Extremism in the Southern Philippines,” paper presented at the International Workshop on “The Impact of Identity Politics on Violent Extremism,” organized by the Centre of Excellence for National Security of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, and the Global Futures Forum, Singapore, 23-25 October 2011.

[38] Decasa, The Quranic Concept of Umma, p. 373.

[39] Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict.”

[40] Decasa, The Quranic Concept of Umma, p. 374.

[41] Banlaoi, “Bangsamoroism.”

[42] Islam, “Islamic Independence Movements,” p. 448; Liow, Muslim Resistance, p. 10.

[43] Islam, “Islamic Independence Movements,” p. 449; Decasa, The Quranic Concept of Umma, p. 377.

[44] Decasa, The Quranic Concept of Umma, p. 377.

[45] Liow, Muslim Resistance, p. 10.

[46] Liow, Muslim Resistance, p. 11; Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict.”

[47] McKenna, Muslim Rulers and Rebels, p. 164.

[48] Banlaoi, “Bangsamoroism.”

[49] Abinales, American Military Presence, p. 10; Islam, “Islamic Independence Movements,” p. 449; Liow, Muslim Resistance, p. 11.

[50] Islam, “Islamic Independence Movements,” pp. 449-50; Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict.”

[51] Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict;” Banlaoi, “Bangsamoroism;” Yegar, Between Integration and Secession, p. 352.

[52] Banlaoi, “Bangsamoroism.”

[53] Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict.”

[54] Liow, Muslim Resistance, p. 12.

[55] Abinales, American Military Presence, p. 11.

[56] Liow, Muslim Resistance, pp. 13-14.

[57] Banlaoi, “Bangsamoroism.”

[58] Zachary Abuza, Militant Islam in Southeast Asia: Crucible of Terror (Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner, 2003), pp. 90-91.

[59] Liow, Muslim Resistance, pp. 14-19.

[60] Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict.”

[61] Abinales, American Military Presence, p. 12.

[62] Abinales, American Military Presence, pp. 11-12; Liow, Muslim Resistance, pp. 16, 18.

[63] Yegar, Between Integration and Secession, p. 345.

[64] Rommel C. Banlaoi, Al-Harakatul-Al Islamiyah: Essays on the Abu Sayyaf Group (Quezon City: Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism research, 2009).

[65] Noor Umug, “Walking Away.”

[66] Rommel C. Banlaoi, Counter-Terrorism Measures in Southeast Asia: How Effective Are They? (Manila: Yuchengko Center, De La Salle University, 2009), pp. 47-8, 55.

[67] Banlaoi, Counter-Terrorism Measures, p. 48.

[68] Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict.; Yegar, Between Integration and Secession, p. 344.

[69] Banlaoi, Counter-Terrorism Measures, p. 55.

[70] Banlaoi, Counter-Terrorism Measures, p. 49.

[71] Banlaoi, Counter-Terrorism Measures, p. 56.

[72] Abinales, American Military Presence, p. 13; Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict.”

[73] Yegar, Between Integration and Secession, pp. 346-347.

[74] Banlaoi, Counter-Terrorism Measures, p. 50.

[75] Alexander P. Aguirre, “The Philippine Response to Terrorism,” Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism, Vol. 4, No. 1 (April 2009), p. 50.

[76] Abinales, American Military Presence, p. 13.

[77] Banlaoi, Counter-Terrorism Measures, p. 53.

[78] Banlaoi, Counter-Terrorism Measures, p. 51.

[79] Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict.”

[80] Banlaoi, Counter-Terrorism Measures, pp. 61-2.

[81] Rommel C. Banlaoi, “Media and Terrorism in the Philippines: The Rajah Solaiman Islamic Movement, “Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, Vol. 4, No. 1 (April 2009), pp.64-5.

[82] Banlaoi, “Media and Terrorism.”

[83] Interview with Idzmar Hayudini, Bicutan Jail, Quezon City, 26 March 2011. Hayudini has been described as an ASG “intelligence officer” who had been involved in planning the group’s kidnapping-for-ransom activities aimed at Westerners. He had been arrested in Zamboanga City in October 2003. Al Jacinto and AP, “Extremist Plot to Kidnap Foreigners Foiled- Police”, Arab News, 3 December, 2003, available at

[84] Ishak V. Mastura, “Will the Conflict in Mindanao Look Like the Insurgency in Southern Thailand?” in Conflict, Community and Criminality in Southeast Asia and Australia: Assessments from the Field, ed. by Arnaud de Borchgrave, Thomas Sanderson and David Gordon (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2009), pp. 55-6.

[85] Christopher (Kit) Collier, “‘A Carnival of Crime’: The Enigma of the Abu Sayyaf,” in de Borchgrave, Sanderson and Gordon eds., Conflict, Community and Criminality, p. 48.

[86] For more discussion of the concept of an “ideological ecosystem”, see Kumar Ramakrishna, Islamist Militancy and Terrorism in Indonesia: The Power of the Manichean Mindset (Singapore: Springer, 2015), p. 109. Scott Atran proposes a similar idea, which he refers to as a “passive infrastructure”. See his: Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values and What it Means to be Human (London: Allen Lane, 2010), p. 166.

[87] Banlaoi, Counter-Terrorism Measures, pp. 46-7; Noor Umug, “Walking Away.”

[88] Noor Umug, “Walking Away.”

[89] Noor Umug interview.

[90] Cass R. Sunstein, Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 154.

[91] Noor Umug interview.

[92] Anthony Nutting, The Arabs: A Narrative History from Mohammed to the Present (New York: Mentor, 1964), p. 224.

[93] John L. Esposito, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 47.

[94] Hamid Algar, Wahhabism: A Critical Essay (New York: Islamic Publications International, 2002), pp. 20-21.

[95] Algar, Wahhabism, pp. 20-21.

[96] Khaled Abou El Fadl, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), p. 45.

[97] El Fadl, The Great Theft, pp. 46-7.

[98] Joel S. Kahn, Other Malays: Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism in the Malay World (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2006), p. 96.

[99] Anthony Bubalo and Greg Fealy, Joining the Caravan? The Middle East, Islamism and Indonesia (Alexandria, NSW: The Lowy Institute for International Policy, 2005), pp. 40-41.

[100] Interview with Yusuf Roque Santos Morales, 29 March 2011, Manila. Morales, an activist as well as a scholar, is an authoritative observer of Mindanao Muslim politics and extremism.

[101] Morales interview.

[102] Noor Umug interview. To be sure, the debate between Wahhabi ideas and violence is an ongoing one. For more details, see Kumar Ramakrishna, “ Reflections of a Reformed Jihadist: The Story of Wan Min Wan Mat”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 38, No. 3 (December 2016), pp. 495-522.

[103] Noor Umug interview.

[104] For an explanation of dhimmitude and its relation to jihad see Robert Spencer, Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West (Washington D.C: Regnery Publishing Inc., 2003), p. 7.

[105] Noor Umug interview.

[106] Hayudini interview.

[107] Noor Umug interview.

[108] Hayudini interview.

[109] The usroh concept of small tight-knit cells devoted to the study of core religious texts and strict observance of rituals, originated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The usroh method was also adopted by the Tarbiyah movement in Indonesia as well as JI. See Kumar Ramakrishna, Radical Pathways: Understanding Muslim Radicalization in Indonesia (London and Westport: Praeger Security International, 2009), pp. 64, 89.

[110] Noor Umug interview.

[111] Interview with Amina Rasul, Quezon City, 29 March 2011.

[112] Interview with Clarita Carlos, Quezon City, 25 March 2011.

[113] Rasul interview.

[114] Noor Umug interview.

[115] Noor Umug interview.

[116] Banlaoi, Counter Terrorism Measures, pp. 56-61.

[117] Noor Umug interview; Noor Umug, “Walking Away.”

[118] Noor Umug, “Walking Away.”

[119] Noor Umug interview.

[120] Noor Umug, “Walking Away.”

[121] Noor Umug, “Walking Away.”

[122] Noor Umug, “Walking Away.”

[123] Azzam was Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s ideological mentor. See Abuza, Militant Islam in Southeast Asia, p. 5.

[124] Hayudini interview.

[125] Noor Umug interview.

[126] Father Jun Mercado interview, Quezon City, 27 March 2011.

[127] Mercado interview.

[128] Banlaoi, “Bangsamoroism.”

[129] Col. Tahraudin Ampatuan interview, Quezon City, 26 March 2011.

[130] “Philippine Rebel Leader Umbra Kato Behind Deadly Rampage 'Dies'”, Daily Mail, 15 April 2015, available at

[131] Mercado interview.

[132] Mercado interview.

[133] Mercado interview.

[134] Noor Umug interview.

[135] Kamlian, “Ethnic and Religious Conflict;” Banlaoi, “Bangsamoroism.”

[136] The Philippines: Back to the Table, Warily, in Mindanao (Jakarta/Brussels: International Crisis Group Asia briefing 119, March 24, 2011), pp. 10-11.

[137] Thomas Koruth Samuel, Radicalisation in Southeast Asia: A Selected Case Study of Daesh in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines (Kuala Lumpur: Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2016), pp. 103-105.

[138] Samuel, Radicalisation in Southeast Asia, p. 103; Hayudini interview.

[139] Rasul interview.

[140] Ampatuan interview.

[141] Rasul interview.

[142] BG (ret.) Russell Howard, “The Nexus Between and Among Internationally-Focused Terrorist Groups and Multinational Criminal Cartels,” Home Team Journal, No. 3 (2011), p. 87.

[143] Sidney Jones, in Arnaud de Borchgrave, Thomas Sanderson and David Gordon, eds., The Power of Outreach: Leveraging on Expertise on Threats in Southeast Asia (Washington D.C: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2009), p. 47

[144] Noor Umug, “Walking Away;” Gracia Burnham, with Dean Merrill, In the Presence of My Enemies (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 2003), pp. 251-66.

[145] Banlaoi, Counter Terrorism Measures, pp. 59-61; Noor Umug, “Walking Away.”

[146] Sidney Jones, “The Ongoing Extremist Threat in Indonesia,” Southeast Asian Affairs 2011, ed. by Daljit Singh (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2011 p. 92. The two men had earlier sought refuge with the MILF, but following the beginning of peace talks with Manila, the MILF as an institution distanced itself from JI, although individual MILF commanders had been known to continue to shelter JI militants.

[147] Dona Z. Pazzibugan, “Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Sayyaf Now Merged, Says Anti_terror Expert”, Inquirer.Net, 29 September 2011, available at

[148] Kanupriya Kapoor and Augustinus Beo Da Costa, “Some Indonesians ‘Joining pro-Islamic State Groups in Philippines”, Reuters, 25 October 2016, available at

[149] “Malaysians, Arabs, among Foreign Fighters Killed in Marawi”, Today, 2 June 2017, available at

[150] Lieutenant-General Benjamin Dolorfino, “The Mindanao Security Situation: A ‘Whole-of-Society’ Approach towards Peace,” Peace, Autonomy, and Democracy in Mindanao: Proceedings of a Roundtable Discussion (San Juan City: Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, 2011), p. 42.

[151] Liow, Muslim Resistance, p. 56, n. 6.

[152] Noor Umug interview.

[153] “Duterte Sets Talks with Nur, MILF”, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2 August 2016, available at

[154] “Duterte Orders Army to Destroy Abu Sayyaf”, Reuters, 10 August 2016, available at

[155] Vasudevan Sridharan, “Dutere to Abu Sayyaf: ‘I will Eat you Alive - Just Give Me Salt and Vinegar”, International Business Times, 6 September 2016, available at

[156] Marawi, the “East Asia Wilayah” and Indonesia, p. 24.

[157] Philip C. Tubeza, “Duterte Ready to Order ‘Carpet Bombing’ of Marawi if Needed”,, 22 June 2017, available at

[158] The operation, codenamed Oplan Exodus, succeeded in eliminating the wanted Malaysian JI militant Marwan @ Zulfikli bin Hir. However the high death toll amongst the SAC commandos and the involvement of MILF elements generated massive public opprobrium against the passage of the BBL. Juliane Love De Jesus, “SAF: Rising from the Fields of Mamasapano”, Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 25, 2016, available at Other reasons for thedelay in passing the BBL were apparently the indifference of legislators and the influence of hardliners. Samuel, Radicalisation in Southeast Asia, pp. 105-106.

[159] Radicalization in East Asia: Addressing the Challenges of the Expanding ISIS Influence (Diliman, Quezon City: Center for Integrative and Development Studies, 2015), p. 1.

[160]  Radicalization in East Asia, p. 2.

[161] Teresa Jopson, “Making Peace with the Bangsamoro Basic Law”, East Asia Forum, 11 May 2016, available at

[162] Tubeza, “Duterte Ready to Order ‘Carpet Bombing’”.

[163] Erik Espina, “Real Threat: ‘Wahhabism’”, Manila Bulletin, 4 May 2017, available at

[164] Morales interview.

[165] Morales interview.

[166] Morales interview.

[167] Morales interview.

[168] Vic M. Taylor, “Radicalization of Outlook”, Mindanao Gold Star Daily, 26 May 2017, available at

[169] Marawi, the “East Asia Wilayah” and Indonesia, p. 24.

[170] Formed in September 2014 in the town of Butig in Lanao Del Sur and officially called Daulah Islamiyah Fi Ranao or the Islamic State of Lanao, the Maute group is headed by two Middle Eastern-educated brothers, Abdullah and Omarkayam Maute. From the outset the Maute brothers proclaimed their loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi. Like the ASG, the Maute group has drawn into its ranks disgruntled members of older groups like the MILF and funds its activities through criminal activities such as extortion, kidnapping, drugs, illegal possession of firearms and manufacturing of explosives. The Maute group has apparently forged close links with the ASG and the BIFF as well. See Rommel C. Banlaoi, “The Maute Group and Rise of Family Terrorism”,, 15 June 2017, available at

[171] Samuel, Radicalisation in Southeast Asia, pp. 100-103; Arianne Merez, “ISIS Now Connected with Maute Group: Duterte”, ABS-CBN News, 28 November 2016, available at

[172] Fabi and Mogato, “Islamic State Unit Being Formed in Southern Philippines”.

[173] Carmela Fonbuena, “ISIS Makes Direct Contact with Abu Sayyaf, wants Caliphate in PH”,, January 26, 2017, available at

[174] Banlaoi, “The Maute Group and Rise of Family Terrorism”.

[175] Marawi, the “East Asia Wilayah” and Indonesia, pp. 15, 23.

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