Three Years After Marawi Siege: Terrorism in the Philippines Persists Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic
- Rommel Banlaoi, PhD
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Three years after the Marawi siege, terrorist threats in the Philippines persist. Followers of the Islamic State in the Philippines continue to conduct violent activities even during the onslaught of COVID-19 pandemic. Four major groups are still operating in Mindanao on behalf of the Islamic State (IS). These groups claim to be part of the Islamic State in East Asia (ISEA) more known during the Marawi siege as the Daula Islamiya Wilayatul Mashriq (DIWM). The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Turaipe Group of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the Zacaria Group, and the Nilong Group are the four major groups belonging to ISEA. These groups get support from foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) and militant Muslim converts associated with the Suyuful Khilafa Fi Luzon (SKFL). The Salahuddin Group is the newest group supporting IS activities in the Philippines.
Suicide terrorism has become the most favored tool of attack by Pro-IS groups in the Philippines three years after the Marawi siege. Persistence of terrorist threats in the Philippines during the pandemic requires an effective and innovative method to overcome the current threat.
It is the third year of Marawi siege, a five-month long armed battle between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the soldiers of the Islamic State in East Asia (ISEA) or the Daula Islamiya Wilayatul Mashriq (DIWM). The siege started on 23 May and ended on 17 October 2017. Three years after the siege, terrorism in the Philippines remains unabated with the COVID-19 pandemic making the threat more virulent and harder to confront.
This paper argues that terrorist threats in the Philippines have become more dreadful with the sudden rise of suicide terrorism after the Marawi siege. Violent activities of terrorist groups in the Philippines also continue despite the strict quarantine measures of law enforcement authorities during the pandemic.Terrorist groups even use the current pandemic as a window of opportunity to recruit members, intensify propaganda activities, and mount violent attacks.
Suicide Terrorism: Most Favored Attack After Marawi Siege
Despite the death of their key leaders (i.e. Isnilon Hapilon, Omarkayam Maute, Abdullah Maute and Human Abdul Romato Najid, more known as Abu Dar), remnants of ISEA in the Philippines have resumed their devastating terror attacks in the aftermath of the Marawi siege. Remaining followers of ISEA were responsible for the following four major suicide attacks in Mindanao three years after the siege:
- Lamitan (Basilan) Suicide bombing involving a German national with Moroccan ethnic origin, 31 July 2018
- Jolo (Sulu) Cathedral Suicide bombings involving an Indonesian couple, 27 January 2019
- Indanan (Sulu) Suicide bombing (involving a Filipino), 28 June 2019
- Indanan (Sulu) Female Suicide bombing, 8 September 2019
These four violent attacks demonstrated the sudden rise of suicide terrorism in the Philippines, a phenomenon considered to be impossible to happen in a country dominated by Christians. Yet, suicide terrorism became the most favored tool of violence by pro-IS elements in the Philippines three years after the Marawi siege. Though not exactly new to the Philippines, suicide terrorism has resurfaced recently after a long period of hiatus since the end of Spanish and American colonial rules.
Among these suicide attacks, the Jolo Cathedral twin suicide bombings were the most devastating attacks, so far. The suicide bombings led to the death of 23 persons and the wounding of more than 100 others. The Islamic State (IS) took responsibility for the bombings committed by what they called us “two knights of martyrdom against a crusader temple”. Philippine investigators identified the two suicide bombers as Indonesian couple: Rullie Rian Zeke, the husband, and Ulfah Handayani Saleh, the wife.
Foreign Terrorist Fighters
These recent suicide bombings strongly indicated that foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) continued to operate in Mindanao. Intelligence estimates in 2018 indicated close to 100 pro-IS FTFs in the Philippines. But intelligence estimates at the end of 2019 downgraded the figure to 59 “watch-listed” and 7 under hot-pursuit FTFs. During the Marawi liberation; the AFP identified 32 dead bodies of FTFs from the ground zero.
Most FTFs coming to the Philippines were from Indonesia and Malaysia while others came from the Arab World, particularly from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. From the 59 “watch-listed” FTFs, some are suspected to be coming from Europe, North Africa, and even from Xinjiang Province of China.
FTFs come to the Philippines to facilitate transfer of funds and weapons to local supporters, to conduct violent extremist propaganda activities, and to transfer skills in religious jihad. FTFS also regard the Philippines as an alternative home base, a new land of jihad, and a very excellent sanctuary or safe haven because of domestic Muslim resistance, weak law enforcement, and very porous borders. More importantly, their local counterparts welcome the entry of FTFs despite their recent setbacks in Iraq and Syria.
FTFs can enter the Philippines through several backdoors from Sabah covering the maritime borders of the Philippines and Malaysia and from Manado covering the maritime borders of the Philippines and Indonesia. But most of the FTFs have entered the Philippines through normal immigration process at the Philippine airports using budget airlines.
Terrorism During the Pandemic
Though lockdown measures against COVID-19 pandemic are enormously slowing down the entry of FTFs to the Philippines, pro-IS local terrorist fighters (LTFs) continue their violent activities with the support of FTFs. Sadly, LTFs are currently exploiting the COVID-19 situation to further justify their violent extremist activities. They use quarantine measures against the pandemic as rallying issues to recruit members and to propagate the idea of violent extremism, especially in depressed rural areas heavily affected by lockdowns. Because of the pandemic and long delay in the rehabilitation efforts, Marawi has become more vulnerable to violent radicalization and terrorist recruitment.
Based on military sources, armed groups in Mindanao were involved in at least 50 violent incidents during the lockdown period from 16 March to 15 May 2020 in the form of armed clashes, shootings, harassments, hand grenade explosions, and roadside bombings using improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), for example, continued their kidnap-for-ransom operations, ambuscades, bomb making, and other violent extremist activities in Sulu during the pandemic. On 17 April 2020, the ASG killed eleven and wounded fourteen soldiers of the 21st Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army in a firefight in Patikul, Sulu. Thus far, this was the bloodiest encounter between the AFP and the ASG during the pandemic.
In Marawi, pro-ISIS individuals were sighted in April 2020 doing recruitment and propaganda activities in the Bubong-Kapai-Tagaloan II and Butig-Sultan Dumalondong-Marogong corridors of Lanao and Bukidnon provinces. They took advantage of the redeployment of government military forces performing quarantine missions during the pandemic. They also used the delay in the rehabilitation of Marawi as justification to recruit fighters.
Current Pro-IS Groups in the Philippines
Three years after Marawi siege, four major groups continue to operate in Mindanao on behalf of IS even during the COVID-19 pandemic: the ASG, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), remnants of the Maute Group, and remnants of the Ansar Khilafa Philippines (AKP). Outside of Mindanao is the Suyuful Khilafa Fi-Luzon operating mostly in Luzon including Metro Manila. These pro-ISIS groups recognize Hajan Sawadjaan as their de-factor leader under an umbrella organization that they call Islamic State in the Philippines (ISP) or Daula Islamiya Alfalabin. They receive support from FTFs in the form of training, money and other logistical needs.
At present, there are two major factions of the ASG under two leaders who pledged allegiance to IS: 1) Hajan Sawadjaan, the ASG commander in Sulu; and, 2) Furuji Indama, the ASG commander in Basilan. These two leaders used to work as deputies of Isnilon Hapilon.
Radullan Sahiron is another ASG commander in Sulu. He is a long-time commander of the ASG who used to work with its founder, Abdurajak Janjalani. But Sahiron developed an adversarial attitude towards FTFs having suffered near-death experiences with Al-Qaeda operatives in Mindanao. Thus, he refused to pledge allegiance to IS and rejected to join DIWM.
Philippines intelligence sources describe ASG members who pledged allegiance to IS as part of the Daula Islamiya-ASG (DI-ASG). This pro-IS group has urban terrorist fighters based in Zamboanga City whose members also operate in the provinces of Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, and Zamboanga Sibugay in communities not only of Muslims but also of Christians who have converted to Muslims called Balik Islam or Muslim Returnees (Muslim converts). Since its foundation in 1989, the ASG has been welcoming members from Muslim converts. The Rajah Solaiman Islamic Movement (RSIM) was known to be the organization of militant Muslim converts in the Philippines associated with the ASG.
Military intelligence describes the ASG in Sulu under the leadership of Sawadjaan as Daula Islamiya Sawadjaan Group (DI-SG) while the ASG in Basilan under the leadership of Indama as Daula Islamiya Indama Group (DI-IG) to indicate that these groups operate in the Philippines on behalf of IS. Though the DI-SG is based largely in Sulu, it also operates in Tawi-Tawi and even in Sabah. The DI-SG has manpower of around 300 local fighters affecting 54 villages. The group has been responsible for the series of kidnapping activities in Sabah where it maintains supporters in coastal communities.
BIFF Turaipe Group
Next to the ASG is the BIFF, particularly the faction being led by Esmael Abdulmalik (Alias Commander Turaipe/Turaifie) who pledged allegiance to IS in April 2017. The BIFF used to be part of the 105th base command of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). But the BIFF became a splinter group of the MILF when the latter entered into peace talks with the Philippine government. BIFF has two other factions led by Ismael Abubakar or Commander Bungos and Imam Minimbang or Commander Karialan. But Commander Turaipe formed his own pro-IS faction that he formally called Jama’ahtul Mujahirin Wal Ansar (JMWA) based largely in Datu Salibo town of Maguindanao. Commander Turaipe sent some of his troops to fight during the Marawi siege. After the siege, he continued his armed activities in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato through ambuscades, roadside bombings, liquidations, and harassments on behalf of IS. Commander Turaipe even renamed his group as Daulah Islamiya Majwyndanaw (DIM) or the Islamic State of Maguindanao responsible for most of the violent attacks in Maguindanao three years after the Marawi siege. The military calls his group as DI-Turaipe Group with more than 80 armed followers at present.
Remnants of the Maute Group are now part of the group led by Commander Ker Mimbantas also known as Commander Zacaria or Commander Omar. He was a member of the Maute Group, also known as the Daula Islamiya Ranao or the Islamic State of Lanao founded by the Maute family led by the Maute brothers, Abdullah and Omarkayam.  Commander Zacaria has around 40 armed followers who used to work with the Maute brothers and Abu Dar. Commander Zacaria took the leadership of the Maute Group when Abu Dar died in April 2019. The military calls the Zacaria Group as the Daula Islamiya Zacaria Group (DI-Zacaria Group) operating mostly in Lanao del Sur and Marawi City. Commander Zacaria is a nephew of the late Alim Abdul Aziz Mimbantas, then Vice Chairman for Military Affairs of the MILF.
The last pro-IS group refers to remnants of the AKP now being led by a certain Jeoffrey Nilong, alias Commander Momoy. He is believed to have taken over the leadership of AKP after the death of its leader, Mohammad Jaafar Maguid or Commander Tokboy in February 2017. The Nilong Group is holding makeshift camp in Polomolok, South Cotabato with the intention to conduct bombing activities in the said province as well as in General Santos City and Cagayan de Oro City. The military calls this shadowy group as Daula Islamiya Nilong Group with no more than 10 followers operating mainly in the provinces of South Cotabato, Sarangani and General Santos of the Southern Philippines.
Aside from these four major groups, the group being led by Hassan Salahuddin has emerged to become the most active in conducting terrorist bombings in Central Mindanao. Salahuddin was the first leader who pledged allegiance to the new IS Caliph, Al-Qurashi, on 11 November 2019. He used to be a member of the Special Operation Group (SOG) of the MILF in the 1990s. He joined the Al Khobar Group (AKG) in 2006 to conduct extortion activities in cities of Tacurong, Kidapawan, Koronadal and General Santos using skills in bomb making. The military calls his group Hassan Salahuddin Group or Daula Islamiya Salahuddin Group (DI-SG) with only around 10 followers but mostly trained in bomb making.
Salahuddin developed his skills in bomb making through his mentors, Basit Usman and Marwan (Zulkipli bin Hir) who were targets of Mamasapano clash on 25 January 2015.  When Basit Usman organized the Al Khilafa Sarangani in 2012, Salahuddin joined him as his protégé to conduct training on bomb making with pro-IS followers in Central Mindanao. When Basit Usman died on 3 May 2015 in a military encounter, Salahuddin joined the BIFF-Turaipe Group in order to establish the Daula Islamiya Maguindanao.
With the support of BIFF-Turaipe Group, Salahuddin masterminded the Isulan, Sultan Kudarat bombings on 28 August 2018 and 2 September 2018. DI-SG also coddles foreign terrorist fighters through the assistance of a long-time friend, Mauwiya, a Singaporean follower of Jemaah Islamiya. Mauwiya has been operating in Central Mindanao since the 1990s. There is still no clarity to date if military forces have killed Mauwiya during armed clashes in Maguindanao.
Suyuful Khilafa Fi Luzon
Aside from Mindanao, the IS also operates in Metro Manila and in the wider island of Luzon through the Suyuful Khilafa Fi Luzon (SKFL) or the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Luzon. SKFL evolved from Jamal Al Tawhid Wal Jihad (JTJ) Philippines whose members pledged allegiance to IS in 2014. Abu Musab Al Zarqawi founded JTJ in Iraq as the Al-Qaeda in Iraq. After the death of Osama bin Laden, Al Zargawi reorganized the JTJ as the Islamic State in Iraq, the forerunner of IS.
In cooperation with pro-IS groups operating in the National Capital Region (NCR), the SKFL was responsible for several bomb threats and foiled bombing activities in Metro Manila during the Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in November 2017 and the Summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in November 2016 as well as the visit to Manila of Pope Francis in January 2015. The SKFL was also responsible for several bomb threats in Northern Luzon in November 2019 threatening to attack Catholic churches. The SKFL also operates in Southern Visayas and Northern Mindanao by penetrating Muslim converts or Balik Islam communities in these areas, particularly those associated with the RSIM. However, Philippine law enforcement authorities only identify more than ten active operatives of the AKFL pursuing violent activities mostly in Luzon.
Countering Terrorist Threats During the Pandemic
Pro-IS groups remain active in the Philippines three years after the Marawi siege. The current pandemic is even providing these groups some justifications to sow further terror. Countering terrorism while combatting the pandemic is really putting enormous pressures on law enforcement authorities to perform both tasks. The Philippine military, for example, has limited power to fulfill these twin responsibilities, particularly in the context of bioterrorism. But there are fears that giving the military more power can lead to abuse and repressive measures at the expense of human rights.
The current pandemic is now changing existing counterterrorism narratives.  This requires a new thinking and strategy that can effectively deal with multiple threats. But any measure to deal with these threats must be developed in accordance with international legal standards to prevent abuse of human rights. In the development of counter measures against terrorism during the pandemic, it is paramount for government to more innovative by harnessing the knowledge not only of law enforcers but also of other stakeholders from the academe, civil society, and the private sector.
The COVID-19 and lessons learned three years after the Marawi siege tell us that confronting multiple threats require the innovative participation not only of government bureaucracies but also of the wider society. The government can have more power to deal with multiple threats if it can empower more people to deal with these threats.
With the continuing presence of pro-IS groups, terrorist threats in the Philippines persist three years after the Marawi siege. These groups take advantage of quarantine measures against COVID-19 to recruit members, to intensify their propaganda activities, and to mount violent attacks during the pandemic.
Combatting terrorism in the period of pandemic is putting tremendous pressures to law enforcement authorities to consider new ways of confronting the threat. There is no doubt that the current pandemic is now changing our existing counterterrorism narratives. Unless authorities apply quick innovations to effectively combat terrorism during the pandemic, threat is bound to evolve to a higher form that is more cumbersome to defeat.
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