By Michael Hart
July 22, 2019
Midday on June 28, a suicide bomber struck a checkpoint outside a military camp in the town of Indanan, on the restive southern Philippine island of Sulu. Moments later, a second bomb exploded. The attack killed three Philippine soldiers and three civilians, as well as the two bombers. The local military commander quickly blamed an ISIS-affiliated faction of Abu Sayyaf, the extremist group that has been active in the southern Philippines for decades.
Within hours, the Islamic State released a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, marking the second time this year it has linked itself to a twin suicide bombing in Sulu. In January, double blasts tore through a packed cathedral in the town of Jolo, not far from Indanan, killing 22 worshippers. Authorities hoped that attack was an outlier, but June’s bloodshed has reignited fears over ties between the Islamic State and an Abu Sayyaf splinter group led by Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, a militant described by the U.S. State Department as the Islamic State’s “acting emir” in Southeast Asia and whom Philippine authorities also blamed for the cathedral bombing.
In his typically outlandish style, President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to crack down, ordering the military to “wipe Abu Sayyaf out from the face of the earth.” Such rhetoric is common from Duterte, but it has rarely made much difference on the battlefield against extremist groups. The uptick in army deployments to Sulu since the late June bombings suggests more urgency from Duterte, angered by another attack on Philippine soil by an ISIS affiliate.
How connected are Abu Sayyaf and the Islamic State, and what kind of threat does this evolving, radical partnership pose in the Philippines’ remote southern islands, where Abu Sayyaf has long operated? Can it even be “wiped out” through military force?
Abu Sayyaf was founded by Islamist preacher Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani in the early 1990s to oppose the Moro peace process on Mindanao, the largest island in the southern Philippines. Two larger Muslim insurgent groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front, laid down their weapons in pursuit of dialogue with Manila—something Abu Sayyaf utterly rejected. Nominally fighting for the region’s independence, Abu Sayyaf became notorious for terrorist attacks, kidnappings and beheadings.
In 2014, its senior leader, Isnilon Hapilon, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State shortly after the jihadist group overran swaths of Iraq and Syria. At the time, many observers saw Hapilon’s vow merely as an opportunist attempt to gain attention and financing—a way to benefit from the Islamic State’s rising appeal rather than signaling concrete ties. Yet three years later, when the battalions Hapilon commanded within Abu Sayyaf joined forces with the ISIS-linked Maute Group to lay siege to the city of Marawi on Mindanao for five grinding months, such ties were suddenly taken more seriously.
Hapilon was killed in a gunfight with Philippine troops in the final days of the siege in October 2017; his ISIS-aligned battalions, it seemed, had been defeated. After Marawi, links between Abu Sayyaf and the Islamic State appeared to fade as Abu Sayyaf retreated to its usual hideouts on the outlying Philippine islands of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. The remaining factions, already splintered, went back to their previous criminal activities, such as extortion and kidnappings at sea. At the same time, the Islamic State suffered dramatic territorial losses in Iraq and Syria that cut into its ability to maintain support for its regional affiliates.
Yet the Islamic State’s foundational ideology didn’t go away. The Indanan blasts are just the latest indication of how it is still driving and inspiring a new kind of militancy in the southern Philippines. With the suicide bombings of cathedrals and checkpoints, Sawadjaan’s shadowy cell, known as Ajang Ajang, has adopted many of the Islamic State’s brutal tactics. Suspected of operating out of northern Jolo’s mountainous terrain and coastal areas, it has also become the most influential faction within Abu Sayyaf. Sawadjaan is thought to command several hundred fighters in Ajang Ajang; Abu Sayyaf is widely estimated to have only around 400 fighters total. After a military operation in March killed the Maute Group’s figurehead, a leader known as Abu Dar, the Philippine government labelled Sawadjaan the Islamic State’s “most recognized leader” in Southeast Asia.
The Indanan blasts are just the latest indication of how the Islamic State’s ideology is still inspiring a new kind of militancy in the southern Philippines.
Abu Sayyaf has historically been a fractured outfit, yet Sawadjaan has unified its most radical elements in Sulu under the banner of the Islamic State. Another ISIS-aligned cell, led by Furuji Indama, is its dominant branch on the neighbouring island of Basilan. Following the siege of Marawi, the two traditional strongholds of Abu Sayyaf, on Sulu and Basilan, are now effectively ISIS hotspots.
The rising influence of the Islamic State in the southern Philippines has attracted foreign fighters, as two Indonesian suicide bombers were behind the Jolo attack, and a Moroccan national was allegedly responsible for one of the blasts in Indanan. With jihadist groups on the main island of Mindanao hemmed in by bolstered naval patrols since the siege of Marawi, Abu Sayyaf is now the main group of choice for ISIS-linked militants trying to reach the Philippines by sea, due to its presence on smaller, more remote islands close to the Malaysian coast.
Despite the dominance of these two cells in Basilan and Sulu, smaller Abu Sayyaf factions are still thought to operate without ties to the Islamic State, including on Tawi-Tawi further west. These groups act more like criminal bandits, seeking profit and influence rather than envisaging themselves as transnational jihadists.
As Abu Sayyaf’s ISIS-linked cells have staged more brazen attacks, Philippine generals have echoed Duterte’s tough rhetoric amid rising public anger. Even before the bombings in Indanan, the head of the Western Mindanao Command, Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, vowed to defeat Abu Sayyaf by the end of 2019. Two days after the attack, he promised “relentless” operations in response to Duterte’s order to destroy the group and deployed more soldiers to Sulu, where there are now more than 5,000.
Similar promises to defeat Abu Sayyaf, however, have gone unfulfilled before. There is one difference this time: Abu Sayyaf is not holding any hostages, which in the past has restricted military operations. After Ewold Horn, a Dutch hostage held by the group since 2012, was shot dead as he tried to escape on May 31, the military claimed Abu Sayyaf no longer held any captives, lessening the risk of military action inadvertently killing hostages and clearing the way for “all-out offensives’” and aerial bombardments.
While the army has engaged in counterinsurgency in Sulu for three decades, this year’s string of suicide bombings connected to the Islamic State may yet change the situation on the ground, adding urgency to Duterte’s strategy. Counterterrorism operations will likely intensify under martial law, which was imposed at the outbreak of the Marawi siege in May 2017 and is set to remain in place until the end of this year. Islamic State affiliates on mainland Mindanao have already been subdued, freeing up resources and manpower to confront Abu Sayyaf more forcefully in the Sulu islands to the west.
A peace process on Mindanao with older Moro insurgent groups, which resulted in the landmark creation of a new self-governed region earlier this year, also gives the government breathing room to tackle extremists. The deal is likely to act as a dampener on terrorist recruitment, as residents give autonomy a chance.
But militancy has persisted in the Sulu archipelago for generations despite past peace accords. The Philippine military may have the firepower, but that alone is unlikely to “crush” the group, as Duterte wants. Only if the peace process heralds economic development and dents recruitment for the long term—far beyond the age of the Islamic State—can Abu Sayyaf’s vicious campaign be brought to an end.
Michael Hart is a freelance writer and researcher focusing on civil conflict and the politics of East Asia. He has written for The Diplomat, Eurasia Review and Geopolitical Monitor, among other publications.
Source: World Politics Review