Hope Ajayi, MPA
Since May, based on the number of events and fatalities, the Philippines has had the third highest conflict event count in South and Southeast Asia behind India and Pakistan, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).
Abu Sayyaf and Maute: Two Jihadist Groups
The conflict in the Philippines is multidimensional and involves a host of actors. There are dozens of separatist groups. Abu Sayyaf and Maute are both notable sources of the complex conflict. Abu Sayyaf is one of the smallest and most violent jihadist groups in the southern Philippines. Its name translates into ‘bearer of sword,’ and directly correlates with their notoriety for ransom kidnappings, and hostage taking— both of which directly target tourists. The Maute group is one of the biggest and most deadly among IS groups in the region. Both separatist groups have increased in radicalism, and Abu Sayyaf has become more notable since the May death of Maute’s leaders. Abu Sayyaf’s original founder is stated to have been inspired by Osama Bin Laden and mentored by Al-Qaeda. The group has deep ties to prominent militant groups like Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and Jemmah Islamiyah (JI). In addition, there is also evidence that Abu Sayyaf has links to jihadist groups in the Middle East. Although many believe that the Maute group is finished following the death of their leader Omarkhayam Maute in the Marawi siege in May, the Philippine Daily Inquirer says the group is attempting to rebound.
From its start, Abu Sayyaf’s strategy involved assassination and kidnapping, including their role in a plot by Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to blow up eleven U.S. jetliners and assassinate the Pope, which was intercepted. Abu Sayyaf’s strategy is not intuitive, and now seems scattered at best. It appears that their continued relevance in the Philippines is tied to funding from Islamic networks, and kidnapping payouts by foreign governments. The Maute group is said to have wealthy connections.
Ties to the Islamic State
The founders of Maute, Omar and Abdullah Maute, aligned themselves with the leader of Abu Sayyaf, Isnilon Hapilon, who proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State group (IS). Potential increased violent extremist action, in addition to the threat of further Abu Sayyaf and Maute affiliation with the Islamist State, poses modest danger to U.S. economic interests in the Philippines, as well as the overall U.S. effort to defeat IS and promote democracy in the Philippines. The Philippines provides fertile recruitment ground for IS to gain a foothold in Southeast Asia, and the recent alleged deaths of Abu Sayyaf and Maute leaders will most likely spur increased attention from IS leaders. Increased terrorist activity means greater U.S involvement in the region, extra resources, intelligence monitoring, and counter-terrorist activities. The region has a potential to become as complex an international crisis as Syria.
The Future of Both Groups
The Philippines recently declared Marawi clear of IS backed militants. Due to this recent loss, and rebel groups’ history in Philippines of separating into new separatist groups, I postulate that the strategy for both Maute and Abu Sayyaf might be to to lie low for an extended period of time and then bounce back with a major attack on a notable area either in Mindanao or other Southeast Asian countries. Abu Sayyaf specifically may return as the same group, or may rebrand and begin calling themselves a different name. More kidnappings may occur in the next year as the group attempts to assert its continued influence as well as generate financial resources to relaunch their attack. Maute is smaller and weaker than Abu Sayyaf, and its future is more precarious. While it remains to be seen if Abu Sayyaf will revert back to operations, onlookers should remain skeptic that the Philippines is free from IS influences. In reality, Abu Sayyaf will be hard to defeat.
Following the recent IS defeat in Marawi, it is also possible IS may ramp up recruitment efforts. Rebel groups in the Southern Philippines could coalesce and garner additional support for foreign fighters, and separatist groups in the Philippines could join in their larger fight to claim territory. Due to recent (yet still unproven) reports of Abu Sayyaf and Maute leaders’ deaths, new leaders may emerge. If the IS caliphate in Syria is truly vanquished, new IS leaders will look towards the Philippines as well as other parts of Southeast Asia for active support.
If this occurred, remnants of Abu Sayyaf may regroup to configure new strategies for recruiting additional followers. A ‘defacto’ leader may emerge out of necessity, which along with increased numbers and the use of brutal terrorist activities could cause Abu Sayyaf to emerge as an IS stronghold in the Philippines. Experts warn that as IS suffers setbacks in Syria and Iraq, hundreds of fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia will seek opportunities to fight elsewhere, and Abu Sayyaf’s loyalty pledge to IS provides incentive.
In addition to the humanitarian crisis occurring with the displacement of the Rohingya population and persecution by Buddhists, international actors should focus their attention on the Philippines due to violent extremist related killings, the high risk for the emergence of violent extremist organizations, and the potential for IS to gain a substantial foothold.