Abstract: With the Philippines’ long history as a source of Islamist extremism in Southeast Asia, there are indications that the Islamic State is now seeking to extend its presence in the country. While the group has received pledges of support from certain local militant entities, none represents a viable vehicle for furthering sustained attacks outside of Mindanao. Arguably a more relevant threat relates to the large Filipino expatriate community in the Middle East that could either be co-opted as recruits or targeted in attacks.

The Philippines has long been a significant source of Islamist extremism in Southeast Asia. Although the largest and most prominent militant group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), appears set to sign a peace deal with Manila, two other established entities remain active and new ones have emerged. There are also disturbing indications that the so-called Islamic State is seeking to extend its presence in the country by co-opting elements in Mindanao and its surrounding islands. This article examines the current militant landscape in the Philippines and assesses the prospects that it will emerge as a new regional beachhead for Islamic State terrorism.

Main Islamist Militant Entities in the Philippines
Three main militant entities operate in the Philippines: MILF, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). While the former is in the midst of peace negotiations with the government, the latter two remain on an operational footing.

MILF is the largest and best-equipped Islamist militant group in the Philippines. The organization was initially founded under the leadership of Hashim Salamat with the aim of establishing an independent Islamic state in all areas of the southern Philippines where Muslims have traditionally been the majority. Following Salamat’s death in 2003, his more pragmatic successor, al-Haj Murad Ebrahim, moderated the objective over time. He felt a guarantee of comprehensive autonomy rather than outright independence was the most realistic concession that could be extracted from Manila.[1] To this end he signed a cessation of hostilities agreement in 2003 and has since participated in Malaysian-sponsored talks aimed at resolving an array of concerns about a future self-governing Moro homeland.

At the time of writing, most of these issues had been worked out, and despite a serious clash between MILF and the elite Filipino Special Action Force in January 2015 that left 43 police officers dead,[2] the expectation is that a final peace deal will be signed in the near future.[a] This should pave the way for the formal institution of a so-called Bangsamoro Judicial Entity (BJE), an autonomous region for Muslims under the constitutional control of the Philippine state.[3]

ASG was established in 1991 by Abdurajak Janjalini, a veteran of the Afghan mujahideen campaign against the Soviet Union during the 1980s. Its stated goals are the purge of all Christian influence in the southern Philippines and the establishment of an independent Islamic State of Mindanao (MIS).[4] From the outset this agenda was tied to larger, transnational extremist plans, mostly rhetorically but occasionally substantively.[b]

In its early years ASG operated as a cohesive and explicitly religious organization. The loss of several senior commanders, however, has progressively seen the group degenerate into a fractured and criminalized entity. Today, the organization, which numbers no more than 100 members, is split between roving kidnap-for-ransom bands operating on the islands of Basilan and Jolo.[5] Isnilon Hapilon, an elderly cleric who now goes by the name of Sheikh Mujahideen Abdullah al-Philippine, leads the largest and most active of these factions, which is based on the island of Basilan.

BIFF is a spin-off of MILF formed in December 2010 by Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato, a scholar and former leader of the Front’s 105th Command.[6] Among other things, he contended that MILF had strayed from the Bangsamoro’s original goals and undermined the Moro Islamic cause by negotiating only for Mindanao’s autonomy and not full independence.[7] After Kato died from pneumonia in April 2015, BIFF’s command passed to Ismael Abu Bakar, a somewhat more radical leader who also goes by “Bonmgos.”[8] BIFF is larger and better equipped than ASG, although its influence remains highly localized largely within two barangays (hamlets) in Maguindanao.[9]

Other Groups
Besides MILF, ASG, and BIFF, there are at least three smaller groups that have emerged in the Philippines in the last few years: Jamaal al-Tawhid Wal Jihad Philippines, Ansar Khalifah Sarangani (AKS, or Supporters of the Caliphate), and Khilafa Islamiyah Mindanao (KIM). While information on these entities is scant, none is believed to number more than a handful of followers.

Jamaal al-Tawhid Wal Jihad Philippines (JaTWJP, sometimes also referred to as Tawhid and Jihad Group in the Land of the Philippines and Pride) emerged sometime in 2012. The organization espouses a jihadist ideology, and it has taken responsibility for a number of sporadic assaults against the military. Abu ‘Atikah al Mujahir is thought to lead the group although it is not known how many members he oversees.[10]

AKS surfaced in 2014 under the leadership of Abdul Basit Usman, one of the most wanted men in the Philippines with a US$1 million bounty on his head under the United States’ Rewards for Justice Program.[11] It is essentially a bomb-making outfit but has lost much of its relevance largely due to the death of Usman who was killed by elements of MILF on May 3, 2015. Many of the remaining members have since migrated to KIM.[12]

KIM, the largest of the three, is a dedicated jihadi organization that seeks the creation of an independent religious state in Mindanao. It is led by an Afghan-trained Islamic cleric known as Humam Abdul Najid, who is believed to have carried out twin bombings against the al-Imam mosque and Rural Bus Transit station in Zamboanga City on August 16, 2012.[13] KIM has occasionally been referred to as an umbrella movement that links Islamists from ASG, BIFF, and rump local elements from the now-defunct Jemaah Islamyyia (JI) network, though it is still unclear whether the group acts as a collective entity rather than a stand-alone in its own right.[14]

Islamic State Influence in the Philippines
During the last several years there has been growing concern over the Islamic State’s spreading ideological and operational influence in Southeast Asia. Thus far, most attention has centered on Muslim majority states such as Malaysia and especially Indonesia. While these two countries do warrant a cause for worry, there are indications that the group has also sought to extend its reach into the Philippines. In a 24-minute audio narration that the al-Furqan Media Foundation aired on December 26, 2015, for instance, al-Baghdadi specifically included the Bangsamoro struggle as one of several campaigns that Muslims from around the world should support.[15] The speech came on the heels of a purported Islamic State-produced video that featured militants performing physical exercises at a “boot camp” in the jungles of Mindanao.[16] There has also been at least some speculation that the bomb attacks in Jakarta on January 14, 2016, were a response to the activities of pro-Islamic State Filipino supporters who were seen as competing with Indonesian jihadis as the recognized standard bearers for al-Baghdadi’s group in Southeast Asia.[17]

None of the above provides definitive evidence that the Islamic State has managed to establish a concerted operational presence in the Philippines. To date, most of the group’s activities appear to have been directed toward two ends: proselytism and recruitment. It is known that the Islamic State has used social media tools in an attempt to co-opt potential followers and sympathizers from schools and universities in Mindanao.[18] In addition, elements widely suspected of being directly connected to the organization have purportedly tried to enlist fighters to join al-Baghdadi’s self-defined jihad in Syria and Iraq (allegedly offering 7,000PHP/US$147 as a joining bonus).[19] These latter activities first came to light in July 2014 when Musa Ceratino—an Australian-born Christian convert to Islam and regular attendee of the now-closed radical al-Risalah Salafist center in Sydney, Australia[c]—was arrested in Cebu City for inciting terrorism on the internet and exhorting Filipinos to go fight for the Islamic State in the Middle East.[20]

It is not clear how successful the Islamic State’s recruitment efforts have been and/or the extent to which it has been able to sway popular sentiments among radically prone Muslims in Mindanao. One organization that has certainly not been influenced is MILF, the dominant rebel group in the area. The Front has not only vociferously denounced the “savagery and barbarism” of al-Baghdadi and his movement, it has also stressed a ready willingness to work with Manila to prevent the latent spread of Islamic State ideology.[21]

MILF’s firm rejection of the Islamic State notwithstanding, at least some Filipinos are thought to have left the country to fight for the movement’s cause. In August 2014, leaked government documents claimed that as many as 200 nationals had infiltrated Iraq to undergo militant training with the Islamic State, further warning that many of these volunteers intended to return to the Philippines to wage a jihad war as hardened and experienced Islamists.[22] It is not apparent, however, on what basis this estimate was made, and, indeed, the Foreign Ministry quickly put out a statement that the postulated figures were entirely hypothetical.[23] Two months later, the government announced it was creating a centralized database to document the identities of citizens suspected of joining the Islamic State overseas. This would strongly suggest that there is intelligence confirming the presence of Filipino militants in the Middle East, although estimates of how many—even in rough terms—have been notably absent. At the time of this writing, the official military line was only that there was no indication that any Islamic State-linked nationals had returned home to operate in the country.[24]

Irrespective of the number of Filipinos who may have gone to fight with the Islamic State, it is clear that the group has enjoyed at least a degree of verbal support in the Philippines. This first became apparent on June 25, 2014, when the leader of ASG’s largest faction, Isnilon Hapilon, pledged full “loyalty and obedience” to the Islamic State and al-Baghdadi. The bay`a (oath of allegiance) was made on an uploaded YouTube video that also featured more than a dozen men who were praying with him in a forest clearing while shouting “Allah Akbar.”[25]

More recently in January 2016, Hapilon put out a second video announcing his support of the Islamic State. The seven-minute taping, which also featured a pair of militants claiming to represent the previously unheard of Ansar al-Shariah Battalion and the Ma’arakat al-Ansar Battalion,[d] was distributed on Twitter, Telegram, and the Deep Web forum Shumukh al-Islam. In it, Hapilon declares “a pledge of allegiance to the Caliph, Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Ibrahim bin ‘Awwad ibn Ibrahim al-Qurashi al-Husseini al-Hashimi,” and exhorts Allah to “preserve him, to listen and obey… and not to dispute about rule with those in power.”[26]

In common with ASG, BIFF has also affirmed its backing for the Islamic State, this time in an amateur visual recording that was aired on August 13, 2014. Although not as strong as Hapilon’s twin bay`a—in the sense of articulating full obedience to al-Baghdadi—the video nevertheless made clear that a mutually beneficial alliance had been made. Abu Misry Mama, a spokesman for BIFF, later confirmed the authenticity of the recording, declaring that while his group did not intend to impose the Islamic State’s highly radical brand of Sunni Islam in the Philippines, assistance to the movement would be proffered should such a request be made.[27]

The various smaller groups that have emerged in the Philippines have similarly expressed support for the Islamic State. In November 2012 Jamaal al-Tawhid Wal Jihad Philippines posted a film urging Muslims in Mindanao to back the group’s jihad.[28] Just under two years later, AKS produced its own video pledging allegiance to the Islamic State while also threatening to deploy suicide bombers in the Philippines and make the country a graveyard for American soldiers.[29] And KIM, which uses the black flag as a backdrop on its Twitter and Facebook accounts, has made no secret either of its admiration for al-Baghdadi or its own self-defined role as the leading force of the so-called Black Flag Movement in the Philippines (BFMP).[30]

The various pledges of allegiance that al-Baghdadi has managed to solicit from militant groups in Mindanao have generated growing fears that his group has now found a new operational base in the heart of Southeast Asia. Hapilon’s bay`a in January 2016 caused particular concern as it seemed to suggest that ASG had moved to coalesce its own backing for the Islamic State with other additional jihadi outfits, possibly presenting a new unified extremist front against Manila that could be further buttressed by returning fighters from the Middle East.[31] While such a scenario cannot be dismissed outright, the Philippines is unlikely to emerge as a new beachhead for fostering the Islamic State’s’ regional extremism. Five factors account for this.

First, Jamaal al-Tawhid Wal Jihad Philippines, AKS, and KIM are all very small entities and none appears to enjoy a defined organizational structure for carrying out sustained acts of violence. Second, prospects of an Islamic State-inspired and -directed umbrella movement emerging in the Philippines are low. Thus far, only the January 2016 video has hinted at such a development possibly occurring. As noted, however, neither the Ansar al-Shariah Battalion nor the Ma’arakat al-Ansar Battalion has a proven operational history, and it is certainly not apparent what, if any, threat potential they represent. Equally, rebel groups in Mindanao have long been riven with tribalism and common banditry, which work against the genesis of a dedicated and effective unified jihadist fighting force.

Third, ASG and BIFF have both suffered at the hands of sustained military onslaughts, and neither represents a viable vehicle for furthering attacks beyond purely local theaters in Mindanao (where they also confront the far larger and powerful MILF), much less to the central and northern regions of the Visayas and Luzon. Fourth, there is currently no evidence that Filipinos who may have gone to fight for the Islamic State in the Middle East have returned and are now playing an active role in radicalizing Islamist sympathizers at home. Finally, while much of northern and central Philippines remains very much networked on the “grid,” many Muslims in the south lack the type of concerted online presence that the Islamic State can usefully exploit. Moreover, given strong family, clan, and cultural ties that exist in this part of the country, it is unlikely that they would be swayed by the group’s missives in the first place.[32]

Arguably more relevant for the Philippines are threat contingencies that relate to the estimated 2.5 million expatriates who live and work in the Middle East.[e] This large and highly visible overseas community could easily be singled out, either as a vehicle for jihadi recruitment (in the case of Muslims) or as a target for direct attacks (in the case of Christians). How to adequately monitor and protect the Filipino diaspora in this part of the world could very well turn out to be the most immediate national security challenge confronting the governing administration in Manila.[33]

Peter Chalk is an adjunct senior analyst with the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, and a subject-matter expert with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He also serves as the associate editor of Studies in Conflict Terrorism and a specialist correspondent for Jane’s Intelligence Review and Oxford Analytica.

Substantive Notes
[a] President Benigo Aquino III has urged legislators to pass the proposed law establishing the BJE in time for the end of his six-year term in mid-2016. “Manila Mourns Slaughtered Police,” Bangkok Post, January 30, 2015.

[b] ASG has been linked to several transnational terrorist plots. For further details, see Peter Chalk, Black Flag Rising: ISIL in Southeast and Australia (Canberra: ASPI, 2015).

[c] The al-Risalah center was part of the Australian al-Qa`ida-inspired Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaa’ah network. It ostensibly served as community drop-in facility-turned-prayer group but was also the main hub for extremist teaching in Sydney and was a regular venue for local and visiting radical preachers. It was closed following a major police raid that was part of Operation Appleby (which also targeted the iQraa Salafist center in Brisbane) in September 2014. See Greg Barton, “Islamic State, Radicalisation and the Recruitment of Foreign Fighters in Australia: The Pull to Make the Hijrah from the Lucky Country to God’s Nation,” From the Desert to World Cities: The New Terrorism (Singapore: Konrad Adenauer Stifung, 2015), pp. 112-113.

[d] Abu Anas al-Muhajr represented the Ansar al-Shariah Battalion; Abu Harith al-Filipini, the Ma’arakat al-Ansar Battalion.

[e] The Philippine Diaspora in the Middle East is mainly concentrated in Saudi Arabia (1,550, 572), the UAE (679,859), and Qatar (342,442).

[1] Peter Chalk, “The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters: The Newest Obstacle to Peace in the Southern Philippines,” CTC Sentinel 6:11 (2013).

[2] Floyd Whaley, “Scores of Philippine Police Killed in Clash with Islamist Rebels,” New York Times, January 26, 2015.

[3] Floyd Whaley, “Accord Raises Hope for End to Mindanao Strife,” International Herald Tribune, January 27, 2014. Also see Chalk, “The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters: The Newest Obstacle to Peace in the Southern Philippines.” For more on the background to the accord, see International Crisis Group, “The Philippines: Breakthrough in Mindanao,” Asia Report No. 240, December 5, 2012.

[4] For a detailed overview of ASG, see Peter Chalk, Angel Rabasa, William Rosenau, and Leanne Piggott, The Evolving Terrorist Threat to Southeast Asia: A Net Assessment (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2009), pp. 48-56.

[5] Peter Chalk, Black Flag Rising: ISIL in Southeast and Australia (Canberra: ASPI, 2015).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jacob Zenn, “Rebel with a Cause in Mindanao,” Asia Times, September 13, 2011; International Crisis Group (ICG), The Philippines: Back to the Table, Warily, in Mindanao (Jakarta/Brussels: Asia Briefing No 119, March 2011), 6; Ikhwah Al-Mujahidun, “A Day with the Mujahideen of the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters),” EsinIslam, May 13, 2012, p. 2.

[8] Personal interview, senior terrorism analyst, Manila, January 2016; Chalk, “The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters: The Newest Obstacles to Peace in the Southern Philippines?”

[9] Chalk, “The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters: The Newest Obstacles to Peace in the Southern Philippines?”

[10] “Jamaal al-Tawhid Wal Jihad Philippines,” Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) Database, accessed February 19, 2016.

[11] Rommel Banlaoi, “Self-Proclaimed ISIS Followers in the Bangsamoro Homeland: Threats to Philippine Security,” Institute for Autonomy and Governance, July 22, 2015.

[12] “Ansar Khalifah Sarangani,” TRAC Database, accessed February 19, 2016; personal interview, senior terrorism analyst, Manila, January 2016.

[13] Banlaoi.

[14] “Khilafa Islamiyah Mindanao,” TRAC Database, accessed February 19, 2016; personal interview, senior terrorism analyst, Manila, January 2016.

[15] “ISIS Released Audio From Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi Entitled ‘So Wait, We Too are Waiting,” SITE, December 26, 2015, available on SITE’s Twitter account (@siteintelgroup) as of February 26, 2016.

[16] “WATCH: New ISIS Video Shows Training Camp in the Philippines,” heavy.com, December 21, 2015.

[17] Kirsten Schulze, “The Jakarta Attack and the Islamic State’s Threat to Indonesia,” CTC Sentinel 9:1 (2016); “Kapolda: Bahrun Naim Diduga di Belakang Aksi Teror di Thamrin,” CNN Indonesia, January 14, 2016; “Pelaku Bom Sarinah Sasan Starbucks,” Tempo, January 15, 2016.

[18] Personal interview, senior terrorism analyst, Manila, January 2016.

[19] Personal interview, senior terrorism analyst, Manila, January 2016.

[20] Charithie Joaquin, “Daesh and the Philippines: Distant But Virulent Inspiration,” The Geopolitics of Extremism: ISIS in Asia: Asian Conflicts Report (Geneva, GCSP, August 2015), p. 15; Barton, p. 113.

[21] Chalk, Black Flag Rising: ISIL in Southeast Asia and Australia, p. 14. See also Shaul Shay, The Islamic State and its Allies in Southeast Asia (Herzliya, Israel: International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, 2014), p. 3; “Philippine Muslim Rebels Oppose Islamic State ‘Virus,’” Agence France-Presse, August 28, 2014.

[22] James Brandon, “Syrian and Iraqi Jihads Prompt Increased Recruitment and Activism in Southeast Asia,” CTC Sentinel 7:10 (2014); Arlyn dela Cruz, “More Filipino Militants Fight in Iraq,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, August 9, 2014.

[23] Personal interview, senior Southeast Asian security analyst, August 17, 2015. See also “DFA Cannot Monitor Muslim Filipinos Going to Iraq, Syria for Supposed Terror Training,” interaksynon.com, August 27, 2014.

[24] Personal interviews, senior security and terrorism analysts in Kuala Lumpur, September 2015, and in Manila, January 2016. See also Joaquin, p. 14; and Maria Ressa, “Experts Warn PH: Don’t Underestimate ISIS,” rappler.com, January 13, 2016.

[25] Chalk, Black Flag Rising: ISIL in Southeast Asia and Australia, p. 16; Brandon; Joaquin, p. 15; Shay, p. 5.

[26] “Fighters in Philippines Pledge Allegiance in Video to IS Leader,” SITE, January 4, 2016.

[27] Chalk, Black Flag Rising: ISIL in Southeast Asia and Australia, p. 16; Sands; Shay, p. 4; “BIFF, Abu Sayyaf Pledge Allegiance to Islamic State Jihadists,” GMA News (the Philippines), August 16, 2014.

[28] Personal interview, senior terrorism analyst, Manila, January 2016.

[29] Personal interview, senior terrorism analyst, Manila, January 2016. See also “’Ansar al-Khilafah in the Philippines Threatens Philippine Government, American Soldiers,” SITE, April 23, 2015.

[30] Personal interview, senior terrorism analyst, Manila, January 2016.

[31] See, for instance, Ressa and Banlaoi.

[32] Chalk, Black Flag Rising: ISIL in Southeast Asia and Australia, p. 15; Joaquin, p. 15.

[33] Chalk, Black Flag Rising: ISIL in Southeast Asia and Australia, p. 16. See also A. Hashim, The Impact of the Islamic State in Asia (Singapore: IDSS Policy Report, February 2015), pp. 11-12; “How Southeast Asia Is Responding to ISIS,” Interpreter, March 5, 2015.

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