ISIS in the Philippines (Part II)
By: Jeff Bates
Beginning of ISIS in the Philippines
Starting in 2016, ISIS’s leadership encouraged Muslims to start an Islamic State in Southeast Asia. Volunteers came from distant countries including Chechnya, Somalia, and Yemen (Beech, Hannah; Gutierrez, Jason. 2019). In 2017, militants loyal to ISIS took control of Marawi, a city on the island of Mindanao. This city is where Isnilon Hapilon, the recognized emir of the Southeast Asian caliphate was located. Based on a tip of which building he was located at, the Philippine military went into the city to capture Hapilon. Overwhelmed and surprised by enemy firepower, the military was forced to retreat. In the next 5 months, the Philippine military (along with the assistance of the US military) fought to take over the city. J. “Lumpy” Lumbaca reported that,
“As Philippines Secretary of National Defense…detailed…the Islamic State-linked terrorists led by the Maute brothers and Isnilon Hapilon in Marawi were better trained, equipped, and supported beyond anything seen before in Southeast Asia. They used cyberspace, messaging platforms, and the dark web for instantaneous communication platforms, digital currencies and online transfers to receive some $1.5 million USD from the Middle East, radio frequency scanners, thermal imaging, night vision devices, drones, and advanced weapon systems. Simply put, terrorists are getting better at what they do” (Lumbaca, J. “Lumpy”. Indo-Pacific Terrorism: What to Expect for the Foreseeable Future).
Kinetic airstrikes were carried out along with targeted assassinations by special forces. In the end, 900 militants were killed, and 90 Philippine soldiers died. Hapilon and other high-level ISIS commanders were confirmed killed and the city was ultimately secured. Under the direction of Duterte, martial law is in force to protect against the resurgence of extremist fighters in the city.
After Hapilon’s death, Benito Marohombsar, (commonly known as Abu Dar), took the reigns as the ISIS leader (but not emir) in the Philippines. He was a charismatic leader who fled to the isolated jungles and started recruiting new militants. Considered a high value target, the Philippine government knew that they had to act quickly to kill or capture Abu Dar before his terrorist organization (known as the Maute group) could become strong enough to start a similar situation like what had happened in Marawi. The military started an operation in the jungles and were able to locate the illusive Maute group. During a fierce firefight, the Philippine military killed Abu Dar and several militants. However, most of the extremists were able to flee the attack and remain at large. (Fonbuena, Carmela. 2019).
ISIS Emir – Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan
Towards the beginning of 2019, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan declared himself the emir of ISIS in Southeast Asia and is said to be hiding on the nearby island of Jolo. He is the leader of Abu Sayyaf, a mix of bandits and self-styled militants who have pledged allegiance to ISIS. (Navales, Mark; Maitem, Jeoffrey. 2019)
Sawadjaan is not well known to outsiders, but if he proves to be a charismatic leader, he could unite the six extremist groups in the Philippines and Islamic extremist groups in other countries throughout Southeast Asia. Potentially, we could see a repeat of what we saw in 2014 as ISIS quickly took control of large swaths of territory in the Middle East.
Worst Case Scenario
Paying particular attention to the Philippines, the Islamic State would need to act immediately and carry out terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and assassinations in the Southern islands. This would allow ISIS to take control of key cities which would allow them to successfully create a caliphate. With this dramatic success, supporters of ISIS around the world would provide the extremists with financial resources, weapons, and volunteers.
Taking lessons from Iraq and Syria, the group would make strong defenses on the islands to ensure their caliphate remains strong. As the caliphate grows, extremists would likely seek to expand their territory by using insurgent tactics in areas not under their control. Continuing the use of kidnappings, assassinations, and terrorist attacks, the group could bring the Philippine government to its knees. ISIS could negotiate with the Philippine government for more territory in exchange for a stop of violence. Since the enemy can blend into the population rather than simply hiding in the jungle, it is likely that we would see another Afghanistan style war in the area if peace could not be reached with the government. The taking of territory in the Philippines by ISIS would have to be very quick and decisive. This is because the US and other Western leaning nations would not like to see a new Islamic State established. With a mature caliphate, attacks against Western countries would more easily be carried out.
2017. PH, US Marines hold joint urban warfare training amid Marawi offensives. ABS-CBN News. Accessed from https://news.abs-cbn.com/news/06/30/17/ph-us-marines-holdjoint-urban-warfare-training-amid-marawi-offensives on April 22, 2019.
Beech, Hannah; Gutierrez, Jason. 2019. How ISIS Is Rising in the Philippines as It Dwindles in the Middle East. The New York Times. Accessed from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/09/world/asia/isis-philippines-jolo.html on April 20, 2019 Burger, John. 2019. ISIS’ new staging ground could be the southern Philippines. Aleteia. Accessed from https://aleteia.org/2019/03/21/isis-new-staging-ground-could-be-thesouthern-philippines/ on April 20, 2019
Fonbuena, Carmela. 2019. Leader of Isis in Philippines killed, DNA tests confirm. The Guardian. Accessed from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/14/leader-ofisis-in-philippines-killed-dna-tests-confirm on April 20, 2019.
Lumbaca, J. “Lumpy”. Indo-Pacific Terrorism: What to Expect for the Foreseeable Future. Small Wars Journal. Accessed from https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/indopacific-terrorism-what-expect-foreseeable-future on April 20, 2019
Navales, Mark; Maitem, Jeoffrey. 2019. Duterte: IS Will Never Gain Foothold in the Philippines. Benar News. Accessed from https://www.benarnews.org/english/news/philippine/philippines-militants04102019124836.html on April 20, 2019.