One year after the liberation of Marawi, Islamic State PH still alive

Marawi residents look at smoke rising from bombed area of the city a month after armed fighting between government forces and ISIS-inspired militants broke out. (File photo by Luis Liwanag)

A year after the liberation of Marawi City on October 17, 2017 from what the Islamic State calls as the “Soldiers of the Caliphate in East Asia,” the Philippines still confronts the virulent threats of terrorism.The Islamic State still has significant numbers of local followers in the Philippines represented by armed groups associated with the siege of Marawi City on May 23, 2017.

Continuing arrivals to the Philippines of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) of the Islamic State encourage local terrorist fighters to mount violent attacks in order to protect the “East Asia Wilaya” – the Islamic State East Asia Province, which is essential to the Islamic State’s persistent jihadist activities in Asia.

The Islamic State in the Philippines is down but not dead.

While many followers of the Islamic State East Asia Province-- otherwise known as the Islamic State East Asia (ISEA) based in Mindanao -- have been neutralized after the Marawi City siege, five important local branches still persist in the provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sarangani, and Sulu.

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Basilan represents the Islamic State activities in the province under the leadership of two local commanders:Furuji Indama and Radzmil Jannatul.These two commanders used to be the sub-commanders of Isnilon Hapilon, the former Amir of the ASG in Basilan and the known Amir of the Daula Islamiya Wilayatul Mashriq (DIWM: the Islamic State Province in East Asia) responsible for the Marawi City siege.

Hapilon’s death saw the rise of Indama as the de-facto leader of the ASG in Basilan with Jannatul as his deputy.The Indama Group, which the Philippine military sometimes calls as Daula Islamiya-Indama Group (DI-Indama Group) is composed of remnants of DIWM in Basilan.The group has 50 to 70 armed followers associated with the ASG in Basilan fighting on behalf of the Islamic State.With the help of Moroccan and Malaysian FTFs, this group masterminded the July 2018 Lamitan suicide bombing in Basilan.

The Abu Dar Group (ADG) operates on behalf of the Islamic State in Lanao del Sur.The ADG refers to the remnants of the Maute Group now being led by Humam Abdul Romato Najid/Owayda Marohombsar, alias Abu Dar.He is the only surviving leader of DIWM that planned and executed the Marawi City siege in order to establish the Islamic State East Asia Province in Mindanao.Abu Dar is still at large re-grouping the pro-Islamic State followers in Lanao provinces.

Pres. Duterte celebrates Oct. 20, 2017 the liberation of Marawi with the troops bound for the airport in Cagayan de Oro. (Malacanang photo by Ace Morandante)

The ADG claims to be the Daula Islamiya Fi Ranao or the Islamic State in Lanao provinces composed of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte.Military sources state that this group, also called Daula Islamiya Maguid Group (DI-Maguid Group), has more than 90 armed followers if combined with the total remnants of the Maute Group operating in Lanao provinces.

This group is responsible for a series of bombing attacks in the said provinces, including the violent armed encounter with the military in Tuburan, Lanao del Sur on June 17, 2018.The group has been conducting training and recruitment activities in the Lanao del Sur towns of Lumbaca Unayan, Marogong, Pagayawan, and Tubaran. The ADG has intentions and capabilities to conduct bombing activities in Marawi City, Iligan City, Davao City and Cagayan de Oro City.

In the province of Maguindanao, the main group fighting on behalf of the Islamic State is the Jamaah Mujahideen Wal Ansar, a faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) headed by Esmael Abdulmalik, alias Abu Turaipe.His followers call themselves members of the Daula Islamiya Maguindanao (DIM) or the Islamic State in Maguindanao.The Philippine military describes this group as Daula Islamiya Turaipe Group (DI-Turaipe Group) with around 60 armed men at present.This group initiated the attempted siege of Datu Paglas town in Maguindanao on July 3, 2018 through its sub-leader, Commander Sulaiman Tudon.

The Philippine police identified the DI-Turaipe Group to be responsible also for the Isulan, Sultan Kudarat bombings on August 28, 2018 and September 3, 2018, both claimed by the Islamic State. Its over-all operational leader in orchestrating all these bombing activities has been identified as Salahuddin Hassan, a long-time colleague of the late Malaysian-born Zulkipli bin Hir, alias Marwan, who was killed in Mamasapano, Maguindanao on January 25, 2015.Hassan is now seen to be the replacement of a local militant, the late Abdul Basit Usman, the master-bomber of the Islamic State in Mindanao, who was killed in Maguindanao on May 3, 2015.

Because of the influence of the Islamic State, the two other factions of the BIFF headed by Ismael Abu Bakar (alias Commander Bungos) and Mohaiden Minimbang (alias Commander Karialan) are now presently uniting to consolidate their forces against the establishment of a Bangsamoro Government as mandated by the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) signed by the Philippine President on July 26, 2018.The BOL implements the peace agreement entered into by the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on March 27, 2014. Most members of the BIFF used to be part of the MILF.In fact, the DI-Turaipe Group is currently recruiting some members of the MILF to oppose the establishment of the Bangsamoro Government and to support instead the creation of an Islamic State in Mindanao.

In the province of Sarangani, remaining members of the Ansar Khalifa Philippines (AKP) continue to operate on behalf of the Islamic State.AKP members call themselves part of the Daula Islamiya Sarangani.But the Philippine military describes the group as Daula Islamiya Maguid Group (DI-Maguid Group), referring to the group led by its late founder, Mohammad Jaafar Maguid, alias Commander Tokboy.The AKP has been responsible for facilitating entry to Mindanao of Indonesian and Arab FTFs coming from Manado.A certain Jeoffrey Nilong, alias Commander Momoy, has been identified to be the current leader of the group assisted by Commander Tokboy’s brother.Commander Momoy is believed to be holding his 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.

In Sulu, the main leader of the Islamic State there is Hajan Sawadjaan, an ASG sub-commander working under the leadership of Commander Radullan Sahiron.He is the father-in-law of Amin Baco, a Malaysian-born militant who participated in the Marawi City siege and once rumored as the leader of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia.Sawadjaan has more than 30 armed followers fighting on behalf of the Islamic State.Sawadjaan was responsible for facilitating entry to Mindanao of some Malaysian and Arab FTFs coming from Sabah.His group was responsible for a series of bombs attacks and kidnap-for-ransom activities in the provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

Aside from Mindanao, the Islamic State also operates in Metro Manila through the Suyuful Khilafa Fi Luzon (SKFL) or the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Luzon.Most members of SKFL come from the Rajah Solaiman Islamic Movement (RSIM), a militant organization of Muslim converts responsible for the 2004 Super Ferry 14 bombing that killed 116 passengers and injured 300 others.In cooperation with some members of the Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf Group operating in Manila, 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.

On April 26, 2018, the PNP arrested two members of the SKFL.During the arrest, the police confiscated pairs of Islamic State flags and materials for the manufacture of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).The arrest also confirmed the links of the SKFL with personalities associated with the ASG, Maute Group and the AKP who also operated in Metro Manila to sow terror.

Foreign Terrorist Fighters

Confounding the threat of terrorism in the Philippines from the Islamic State is the continuing entry of FTFs to the country.After the Marawi City siege, the AFP identified 32 bodies of foreign nationals who fought for the Islamic State.Most of these foreign nationals were from Indonesia, Malaysia but others came from the Middle East and Europe.With the extreme difficulty of identifying all dead bodies in the Marawi City siege, it was assumed that there could be more FTFs who died during the siege.

In the aftermath of the Marawi City siege, entries of FTFs to the Philippines continue unabated.Since January 2018, the Bureau of Immigration (BI), with the intelligence information coming from the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), has arrested and deported several foreign nationals believed to be working for the Islamic State.These foreign nationals carried Egyptian, French, Iraqi, Spanish, Tunisian, and Yemeni passports, among others.On September 22, 2018, BI denied the entry of a Pakistani national for his alleged involvement with the activities of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia.

While Philippine immigration authorities have arrested and deported some FTFs associated with the Islamic State, others were able to get through successfully to Mindanao using the backdoor.According to military intelligence sources, FTFs used two major routes to enter using the backdoor.The first route is from Manado, Indonesia to Davao City.The second route is from Sandakan, Malaysia to Tawi-Tawi.

Two major routes of foreign terrorist fighters in Mindanao.

Immigration Route

Most FTFs, however, were able to enter Mindanao not through the backdoor but through the immigration route.Based on the tactical interrogation report of Muhammad Ilham Sayaputra, an Indonesian militant arrested on November 1, 2017 in connection with his participation in the Marawi City siege, many FTFs who joined the siege were able to enter the Philippines using budget airlines landing in Manila or Clark International Airports.Sayaputra claimed that most of them were already in Mindanao as early as 2014 when the Islamic State declared the existence of the Caliphate.Sayaputra entered the Philippines in 2015 passing through Manila International Airport.

In fact, recruitment of FTFs to the Philippines was considered an organized crime.The arrest of Karen Aizha Hamidon on October 11, 2017 disclosed that she systematically recruited foreign fighters to the Marawi City siege.Hamidon was the widow of AKP leader, Commander Tokboy.The arrest of Hussein Azo Alddhafiri and Rahaf Zina Dhafiri on March 25, 2017 also revealed the financing of FTFs entering the Philippines.Aldhafiri was the brother while Dhafiri was the widow of the Islamic State No. 2 man Abu Muhammad al-Adnani who died in Syria in a precision air strike launched by the coalition forces in August 2016.

There are three main reasons why FTFs go the Philippines, particularly to Mindanao.First, the Islamic State has declared Mindanao as the “new land of jihad” because of existing Muslim rebellions.Thus, the Islamic State systematically recruited FTFs for the Philippines, instead of Syria that suffering setbacks as a result of intensified military operations by the Coalition Forces.

Second, FTFs have considered Mindanao as a safe haven because of the strong support of several pro-Islamic State groups there.

Third, FTFs have regarded Mindanao as an alternative home base, particularly to those FTFs who could not return to their home countries due to aggressive law enforcement pressures.As argued by Colin P. Clarke of RAND:

In many ways, the Philippines could prove to be an appealing destination for ISIS fighters to relocate and establish a home base. The geography of the country – the Philippines is an archipelago consisting of more than 7,600 islands – makes counterinsurgency and maritime security difficult for the Filipino government. Moreover, the presence of longstanding insurgent groups that already embrace a radical Islamist agenda could allow ISIS to gain a foothold as it works to champion local grievances. Muslim insurgents in the area often clash with Christian militias, which would provide ISIS with the sectarian angle it often seeks to exploit in countries where its affiliates have been fighting.

No reason to be complacent

The liberation of Marawi City from the Islamic State last year was no doubt a great achievement in countering terrorism.However, there is no reason to be complacent as threats from the Islamic State have not been totally eliminated in the Philippines.There are still armed groups in the Philippines, particularly in Mindanao, with strong intentions and acquired capabilities to sow terror on behalf of the Islamic State.

Though these groups have smaller membership compared to the pre-Marawi period, they continue to recruit followers in the post-Marawi period.These groups still believe that an Islamic State province in East Asia can be established in the Southern Philippines with the support of local and foreign jihadists. The Islamic State itself spreads the narrative that it has a wilaya in East Asia that is based in Mindanao.

The Islamic State in the Philippines is down, but it is not yet defeated.As such, the Islamic State in the Philippines is not yet a spent force.In fact, it continues to be a lethal force with its capabilities to mount terror attacks anywhere in the Philippines.The Islamic State in the Philippines is broken with the liberation of Marawi.But it is not yet dissolved.Its followers continue to wreak havoc a year after the Marawi liberation.

Rommel C. Banlaoi, PhD is the Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR) and President of the Center for Intelligence and National Security Studies (CINSS) based in Manila.He is currently a Professorial Lecturer at the Department of International Studies, Miriam College, and former Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the National Defense College of the Philippines where he also served as Vice President.

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