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Hidden hand of the Islamic State announcing its presence in SE Asia
**Butig was a Maute stronghold until late 2016
As we enter the third week of the Marawi City crisis, a thorough examination of the situation and its implications is called for. The initial information that petered out through military, government, and media sources proved to be woefully off the mark. As we pointed out in our initial assessment within the first 24 hours of the crisis, the facts indicated that this incident was significantly more complex than we were being told. That was a gross understatement. Now, with two weeks behind us and the crisis continuing onward, the time is ripe to examine the facts and draw some sound conclusions as to what is happening in the Southern Philippines.
The realities on the ground show that the organization and coordination behind this incident developed over a considerable period of time. Contrary to the story put forward by the media, which was based largely on reports from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), this incident did not evolve out of a response to the attempted AFP arrest of the militant leader Isnilon Hapilon. As explained in our initial assessment, the scale of the incident defied such opportunistic causes; it was simply too organized to have evolved out of a reaction to circumstances (link1) (link2).
This incident exhibits meticulous planning and preparation, indicating that it was conceived long before the attack began. The logistics, supply chain, weapons, munitions, food, recces, tactical deployment of the initial fighters, jail breaks, and reinforcements were all too coordinated for this not to have been the case. The time spent on each element of the attack must have required months of detailed planning, extensive intelligence-gathering, and preparation. This was not an ad hoc incident by any stretch of the imagination.
Importantly, this incident is a clear indicator that the Islamic State has been embraced not only by militants in the Philippines, but also by those further afield in SE Asia and beyond. So far, there have been confirmations of participation by foreign fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Pakistan, Turkey, Yemen, and Morocco. It is plausible – perhaps even expected – that additional foreign fighters will be identified from yet other countries as the crisis continues to unfold.
This report will examine the sequence of events leading to the incident in Marawi City. It will then examine the Maute group, covering basic facts such as the organization’s origins, structure, and affiliations, before examining military successes that have been won against the group as well as accumulative losses suffered by the group. It will then provide analysis into the issue of foreign fighters infiltrating the Philippines over the past 12 months.
One prevailing narrative of the events in Marawi City states that President Duterte’s focus on his anti-drug campaign somehow allowed a disconnected and dysfunctional rag-tag group of disparate Islamic militants in Mindanao to group their capabilities under the banner of the Islamic State and launch an assault to take and hold a provincial city, unnoticed by the Philippine government and other regional neighbours. While there is clearly a degree of truth in this perception, the idea that distraction caused by President Duterte’s anti-drug campaign is to blame does not fit the facts. The country’s intelligence services missed what was emerging under their noses long before Duterte came to power, and their failure to monitor the inflow of foreign jihadists should be addressed. Quite simply, the government and the intelligence agencies failed for years to recognize the changes occurring in the southern region’s militancy landscape.
The foundations for this change were laid some five or six years prior to the attack. The government, hyper-focused on the specific threat posed by the Maute Group, failed to realize that the Maute were not the only risk they faced. As such, initial blame for the Marawi incident centered on the Maute, but this conclusion is proving to be misguided.
The decision of the previous administration and the new Duterte government to label groups collectively, such as ASG, as bandits merely cloaked the reality of the transition that was in play. Maute has been transforming during the past five to six years away from a criminal terrorist organization into an inspired jihadist group. Whilst ASG drew significant attention, Maute and several other smaller groups following the same transitional path as Maute had been laying the foundations for their emergence as a force of change. The group is one of many operating in Mindanao. The maps below cover the different groups and the areas in which they have historically operated or held tactical areas of responsibility (TAORs). They help to demonstrate the longevity and scale of the problem in Mindanao, as well as reinforce the historical nature of the problem that has been gravely underestimated and has allowed the current situation to evolve as it has.
Maute Group – Basic facts
Marawi City Attack: Further context
The current Marawi City crisis is not the first such incident involving terrorist organizations fighting against the AFP. In fact, there is substantial historical precedent for such operations in recent years. Some examples follow:
The scale of the issue: Tactical Areas of Operation for militant threat groups
Figure 1: Philippines current terrorism risk
As illustrated in Figure 1, the Philippines’ highest concentration of terrorism risk is in Mindanao. While the level of risk is not uniform within each administrative division demarked in the figure, the empirical evidence clearly identifies concentrations of high risk and large areas of heightened activity.
In simple terms, non-state actors are behind the violence and risk in the province. Broadly speaking these actors fall in to three movements:
Figure 2: Philippines historical terrorism hotspots
Dispersal of the threats
As represented in Figure 1, the highest threat concentration is found in Cotabato (especially the northern part) and the eastern part of Maguindanao. When this concentration is cross-referenced to the representation of the group’s primary tactical areas of responsibility (TAOR) seen in Figures 4 and 5 below, the inherent complexity of the security landscape owing to both sheer numbers and overlapping spheres is self-evident.
Figure 3: Historical Communist Insurgency Hotspots
In this specific area of risk concentration, the multiple Islamist groups (MILF, al Khobar, BIFF and pockets of MNLF and ASG factions) have historically operated without tactical cooperation and, at times, shown blatant rivalry. Under this backdrop, the underlying commonality of purpose has been routinely misread.
Compounding the levels of violence is that, in several areas of central Mindanao, overlap between the Islamist groups runs parallel to several de-centralised CPP-NPA command operations. Each of these looks to compete for recruits, as well to justify their existence to the local populations. For the main part, these groups, at the operational level, display a complex makeup of religious extremism, political confrontation, terror-criminal territorialism, and ideological expansion.
Figure 4: Primary Tactical Areas of Operation (TAOR) by group, 2016-17
As ISS Risk has examined, historically, the evolving levels of cooperation between groups which have similarly pledged allegiance to ISIS (such as ASG’s Basilan faction with Maute Group, KIM and BIFF) have been apparent at the operational level since late 2015.
Yet in the main, these groups’ actions and operations lend themselves to being categorised as a complex made up of criminal territorialism, ideological expansion, religious extremism and political confrontation. While they all espouse an Islamic orientation and aspiration, in reality, they were historically disjointed and predisposed to indigenous requirements and competition for funding channels. As recent events show, however, this does not to take away from the shifting emphasis of the Islamic groups to a consolidated ideological and ultimately cohesive approach to their aspirations.
Yet, as much as ethnic lines can be a root for collaboration especially if meaningful common denominators to actions are present (examples: the intensification of AFP campaigns in Mindanao since mid-2016, pledging to ISIS and recognising Hapilon as emir), rivalries can also be continually reinforced. The rivalry between the two largest Muslim armed groups in Mindanao, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has severely impeded the overall peace process for the region. However, the differences are more territorial- and legitimacy-based than ideological.
Figure 5: Highest concentrations of Muslim ethnic groups in Mindanao and the Sulu
[Ref: Birte Brecht-Drouart, 2011]
With the recent engagement of MNLF assistance in supressing Maute and foreign fighters in Marawi, that ideological aspect may take on a new emphasis. MILF have been notably quiet in their response to this marriage of convenience. Similarly, with the MNLF – MILF rivalries impacting the ARMM (see Figure 6) and Bangsamoro Autonomous Region framework and transition, internal rivalries within the CPP-NPA have done much in 2017 to affect repeated stops-and-starts in the ceasefire and road to the peace process. The unpredictability of Duterte’s current strategy does little to assuage the concerns about implementation of the ARMM. This adds to the prospect for increased violence.
Figure 6: ARMM and proposed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region
The Marawi incident should serve as a wake-up call not just to the government of the Philippines, but to regional governments across Asia.
This incident is the result of months of planning with clear and unambiguous objectives. This brings to light the following:
It is worth noting that the Philippines’ geographical proximity and shared maritime routes with Malaysia and Indonesia present it as the perfect springboard for Jihadists regionally. Coupled with the fact that the Philippines have a far less effective intelligence and security apparatus than other regional neighbours dedicated towards their extremist problem, the ripple effect across Southeast Asia is painfully clear.
The fact that the AFP have been caught so off-guard by the scale and ferocity of the militants is indicative of a lethargic attitude towards this entire problem, but this problem is not restricted to the Philippines. Other countries face a similar threat and risk and willfully have their heads in the sand regarding these threats. Denial serves the purposes of political expediency or political correctness, but it does not help to deter the real enemy; rather, it aides and abets them.
The time for casual observation, sitting on the fence, and retrospective analysis based on solid empirical evidence that things are changing is over. The events in Marawi City are all the empirical, retrospective information one needs to acknowledge that the time has come to address these threats head-on. Political expediency and correctness exacerbate the problem, and sitting on the fence waiting to say, in hindsight, that we maybe thought this was going to happen no longer cuts it. Anyone with a modicum of analytical wherewithal should have been looking at the events unfolding inside the first 24 hours in Marawi City and called this significantly, more than an’ isolated, responsive to circumstances’ terrorism event.
Yet, the AFP and the government still bandy around differing numbers on those involved, the groups involved, and foreign fighter number estimates. Frankly, unless the AFP are conducting ‘audits’ diligently counting the terrorists and differentiating their nationalities this information is merely speculative. Neither they, nor anyone outside the instigators of this incident, truly know from the situation on the ground how many fighters they face, how many of those are foreign fighters, and what stockpiles they have.
What is the intention of these fighters? What is the plan for Mindanao? Who other than the local commanders are directing this? Why now? Why here?
The Caliphate in Syria is shrinking and is in decline. This is not a surprise to anyone; the efforts against the radicals have been intense. The physical sustainability of the Caliphate in Syria-Iraq was always in question. Are ISIS lashing out in response to this as some would suggest? This, what we are seeing from Marawi to Indonesia, to Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan, Russia, Manchester and many other places and cities. This is not ’lashing out’; it is part of a systematic spread of the insidious ideology espoused by ISIS. What we are witnessing now is the Virtualization of the Caliphate, the expansion of their global strategy to engage on multiple fronts to draw draconian responses. Those draconian responses are precisely what they want. They serve as their greatest recruitment agents, fueling the supply chain of supporters, fighters and radicals for a decade or more to come and thereby bringing sustainability to their vile aspirations.
It would be lazy and disingenuous to fall into the trap of labeling the Marawi City incident ‘contained and manageable.’ This incident is a precursor to sustained radical Islamic penetration and growth in Asia. It is a rallying call, an inspirational action that will spur on support and growth of ISIS in Asia. The people behind the Black Flag Movement in the Philippines are not just terrorist extremists, because this is not two or three groups acting in unison. This is a movement, a collection of groups and intellectuals with a specific agenda they have been pursuing for years, certainly since the start of this second decade.
The timing of this incident is also no coincidence. The Philippines government is struggling to resolve two major insurgencies, a communist and Islamic separatist insurgency. Both are faltering, one is about to escalate, the other may follow suit, then the AFP will be fighting on multiple fronts, Communist rebels, Islamic separatists and Islamic fundamentalists taking advantage of the rapidly deteriorating security environment and a very stretched security apparatus. The Philippines’ terrorism problem is about to get a lot worse.
Annex 1: MAUTE GROUP ‘Losses’: February 2016 – May 2017
April 22-25: AFP 3-days raid on large Maute Camp in Piagapo (Lanao del Sur) 37 Killed
May 15 – 11: House raid captures Maute members 11 Arrested
May: 39 Maute members killed in second-wave operation in Lanao del Sur 39 Killed
March 17: 4 Maute members arrested in camp raid 4 Arrested
March 2: Maute fighters killed in anti-narcotics operation 4 Killed
February 24: 2 Maute fighters killed in PNP operation 2 Killed, 1 arrested
January 2: Airstrike and artillery fire on Butig Maute camp – ASG Hapilon targeted Several Killed
November 26 – December 2: Butig town capture by Maute, followed by a 6 day siege 61 Killed, 12 Wounded
November 10 : Davao City bombing suspect surrender 1 Surrender
October 7: 3 Maute members arrested in connection to Davao City bombing 3 Arrested
August 22: 8 Maute group members arrested by PNP 8 Arrested / Escape
May: AFP’s PAF claims 30+ Maute killed in airstrike 30+ Killed
February 20 – March 2: Eleven-day military campaign against Maute 54 Killed
Annex 2: Combat Indicators Philippines Foreign Fighters Timeline – April 2016 onwards
May 26, 2017
DI (Maute-ASG): 6 Foreign Fighters identified amongst dead militants in Marawi City
Solicitor General Jose Calida in a press conference with Palace officials and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Davao City said “… Malaysian, Indonesians from Singapore, and other foreign jihadists” were identified amongst the militants killed in Marawi City since May 23.
May 16, 2017
ASG: Hearings in Australia for 6 men plotting to become foreign fighters in Philippines
Six Australians faced a committal hearing that will determine whether they should stand trial charged with making preparations for incursions into foreign countries to engage in hostile activities. The six men were allegedly trying to sail from Cape York to join ASG.
May 10, 2017
ASG, Maute, BIFF: AFP confirm at least 8 Foreign Fighters in Philippines
AFP Spokesman Brig. General Restituto Padilla in a media release said that foreign terrorists have allegedly been providing assistance to local terrorist and lawless groups such as the Abu Sayyaf, Maute, and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF): “most of the time, they have been staying with these groups who have provided them safe havens because [they fled] away from their countries as fugitives.” Padilla further detailed that foreign terrorists train local groups on how to make improvised explosive devices (IEDs), Padilla added.
He further went on to say that they were previously part of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Indonesia-based terror group with links to al Qaeda, but that they have been changing affiliations following the rise to prominence of the ISIS, which had put the JI to “oblivion.” Padilla said it is unclear when these foreign terrorists entered the Philippines.
April 26, 2017
ASG: POLRI confirmed AFP found Indonesian passports during raids against ASG
The Indonesian National Police (POLRI) confirmed the AFP found several Indonesian passports during raids in ASG’s TAOR. The POLRI spokesman said, “We have explained that the discovery of these passports does not surprise us. Among several terror suspects, Indonesian [extremists] have received training in the southern Philippines.” He added that they were extremists affiliated with ASG, and have purchased weapons from ASG. The statement also recognised that border controls were insufficient to prevent militants from travelling between Indonesia and the Philippines, specifically mentioning northern Sulawesi.
April 22-25, 2017
Maute, JI: 3 Indonesians and 1 Malaysian were killed on raid on a Maute Camp in Lanao del Sur, with a further Indonesian passport recovered by PNP
On April 22 the AFP launched a military operation against a major Maute camp holding approximately 150 fighter, in the town of Piagapo in Lanao del Sur. The Philippines Chief General Eduardo Año, stated that among the 37 Maute members killed were the remains of three Indonesians and one Malaysian who were believed to be all members of Jemaah Islamiyah.
January 7, 2017
AKP: Sudanese militant suspect in training in Philippines before deployment to Syria killed by AFP
Abu Naila, a Sudanese suspected to have had links to the Ansar Al-Khilafa Philippines (AKP), and his wife, Kadija, were killed in an AFP raid on 7 January in Maasim, Sarangani province.
Police data indicated that Naila was training in the Philippines before his deployment to Syria to join ISIS extremists.
ASG: Dir. General of PNP dela Rosa, stated the PNP are monitoring 5-10 foreign fighters in Philippines
Chief Dela Rosa said that Filipino intelligence operatives are having a hard time looking for the Malay-looking terrorists. He added that the PNP had received information that foreign terrorists are training in the country for deployment later in Syria.
ASG-KIM: Foreign fighters with KIM training ASG members in Lanao del Sur
A comment from the police intelligence community said that a foreign terrorist from the Khilafa Islamiyah Movement (KIM) was known to be training members of the ASG in guerrilla warfare in an undisclosed location in in Lanao del Sur.
ASG: Pledge of Indonesian and Malaysian militant to ASG’s Isnilon Hapilon
An ISIS video was posted on Youtube in June 2016, showing a Malaysian Rafi Udin, and an Indonesian Abu Walid, both pledging their allegiance to Isnilon Hapilon
Oct 10, 2016
ASG: Malay militant, a known ASG associate arrested in Basilan
The Philippine National Police‘s (PNP) Anti-Transnational Crimes Unit arrested Malay Amin Aklam, in Sumisip, Basilan. He was a close associate of ASG according to the PNP. He was charged with kidnapping with frustrated murder in relation to crimes committed in Jolo, Sulu.
AKP: Two of three AKP suspects killed by PNP-SAF identified as Indonesians
During a raid to arrest AKP’s then leader, ’Commander Tokboy’ three AKP suspects were killed by the PNP_SAF unit. Two were identified as being Indonesian nationals.
ASG: Moroccan trainer, killed in clash with AFP on Tipo-Tipo
Moroccan national and suspected militant Mohammad Khattab, was killed in clash with AFP on Tipo-Tipo. Khattab was apparently also a suicide bomb trainer, however during his time in Basilan no volunteers stepped forward. It appears that Khattab’s principal role however was to obtain further experience before deployment in Syria. Speculation was therein made that Khattab was in regular contact with ISIS in Syria, whilst working with ASG in Basilan and Mindanao.
Notable Malay and Indonesian militants embedded in the structures of ASG and AKP
ABU SAYYAF GROUP, ASG
Malaysian national Amin Baco alias Abu Jihad, has been embedded in ASG for some time. He works directly with Hapilon Isnilon, ASG-Basilan leader. He has been working between DI and ASG since the early 2000s and has been based since at least 2011 on Basilan. Known for training, recruiting, access to regional contacts, weapons deals, facilitating KMM members training in Mindanao he is also a key communicator between the ASG factions (ASG-Basilan Isnilon Hapilon faction with the non-ISIS pledged ASG Sulu and Taw-Tawi factions). He is reportedly married to a prominent ‘ASG family’ in Sulu (Tanum Group). Baco is Malay, and was part of the Darul Islam (DI) network based in Sabah. Although not member of JI he would certainly have strong links with members of JI and KMM. He was specifically referred to in January 2017 by the PNP Chief Dela Rosa as a serious threat.
Malaysian Muamar Gadafi, appears in a photograph taken in Mindanao with Mahmud Ahmad and Joraimee in front of an ISIS flag in 2015.
ANSARUL KHALIFAH IN PHILIPPINES, AKP
AKP well-known for links with many groups around Southeast Asia particularly with Indonesians and Malaysians. AKP’s former Commander Tokboy (killed late 2016) had two critically important connections that brought him directly in touch with ISIS in Syria. One was through the Indonesian, Saifullah Ibrahim alias Ibrahim Ali alias Sucipto (killed November 2015), and the second Mohamad Reza Kiram.
Sucipto was a conduit to MIT in Sulawesi (Santoso Group) and was a direct link to Katibah Nusantara, ISIS’s Malay-speaking Indonesian-led fighting unit in Syria.
Kiram was a lifetime member of JI and had progressed through their structure. He had previously served as the head of JI’s administrative structure in Mindanao. He also was a ‘structural JI’ asset (Ref IPAC, Report #33, 2016), who worked not just with JI’s long-term ally MILF, but was owing to his foreign nationality was ‘free’ to work with multiple groups.
Malaysians and Indonesians when free of local clan bindings that are a default given in the Philippine extremist group landscape, permit them to move around freely and collaborate with all. Therein, one has seen MILF elements and ASG work in operations with pivotal DI or JI members in Mindanao such as JI’s Kiram central. Kiram himself left sometime in 2014-15 for Syria – hence AKP’s direct link to Syria.