A nexus of nomadic militants, propaganda and criminal organizations pose a threat
by KEVIN KNODELL
The Philippine military is embarking in a “shock and awe” campaign in its fight with Islamist militants. The move comes not long after Indonesia asked the new Philippine government — headed by the controversial President Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte — to ensure security in the Sulu Sea.
Seven Indonesian sailors were recently abducted by militants in the area. Abu Sayyaf, a Philippines-based terror organization, is believed to have kidnapped the sailors and a Norwegian tourist. The group beheaded two Canadian captives this year.
Abu Sayyaf, once an Al Qaeda affiliate, has switched its allegiance to the Islamic State.
The Philippine military estimates that Abu Sayyaf numbers around 300–400 active members scattered in the Sulu archipelago and the southern Philippines, according to O.E. Watch, the monthly newsletter of the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office.
Manila has battled Islamist militants for years with the help of U.S. commandos. In 2012, the largest rebel group — the Moro Islamic Liberation Front — agreed to lay down its arms and renounce its ties to Abu Sayyaf. Since then, the U.S. military has reduced its footprint in the island nation.
But violence has not stopped. In January, a disastrous operation led to the deaths of 44 Philippine police commandos in a bloody ambush on the island of Mindanao.
Abu Sayyaf is generally regarded as the most dangerous terrorist group in Southeast Asia. Its membership includes extremists from around the region, including Indonesians and Malaysians.
A recent Islamic State video featuring Rafi Udin, a Malaysian militant currently in Syria, showed the jihadist speaking Malay and telling viewers, “If you cannot go to [Syria], join up and go to the Philippines.”
“This video comes at a time when Furat Media, an ISIS-affiliated media agency, published the first edition of Al-Fatihin, a newspaper meant for speakers of the Malay language who have migrated and joined the terrorist group, which is dedicated to the creation of an Islamic State in Southeast Asia,” O.E. Watch noted.
There are some signs that the group’s influence may be creeping into other conflicts around the region. There have been an escalation in bombings in southern Thailand, where local Thai Malay Muslims have long had a troubled relationship with the government in Bangkok.
This week, a wave of bombings wounded four people in Thailand’s southern region. It’s unclear who was behind the bombings, and the Thai National Police attributed the attacks to “local sabotage.”
However, some Thai militants have begun using the Islamic State flag in propaganda posts on social media. It’s unclear what ties, if any, active Thai militant groups actually have to the Islamic State. The Pattani United Liberation Organization released a statement in February declaring that the group has no ties of any kind.
Yet local authorities are concerned about the flow of militants, the wider influence of propaganda and the connection between terrorism and pervasive criminal organizations.
Last year, Indonesian counter terror officials identified what they believed to be an Islamic State smuggling network for fighters going to-and-from Syria. This mixture of land and sea routes help militants avoid detection from government agencies. These sea routes are also popular with pirates and criminal syndicates.
Terrorist attacks have also broadened in scope geographically, although they are still in on a small scale with few casualties.
Militants planted a chlorine bomb in an Indonesian shopping mall in April 2015, but the attack resulted in no deaths or serious injuries. The Indonesian National Police’s Detachment 88, an elite counter-terrorism unit, tied the bombing to militants who recently returned from Syria and they apprehended the suspects without incident.
Islamic State militants attacked a Starbucks in Jakarta in January, killing three Indonesians and an Algerian-Canadian dual citizen. Four militants died in the siege.
On June 27, Islamic State militants struck Malaysia for the first time by bombing a Kuala Lumpur music venue as part of the group’s bloody Ramadan campaign that saw world-wide attacks.
The attack came not long after Malaysian authorities accused Muhammad Wanndy Mohamad Jedi, a Malaysian national and Islamic State fighter, of remotely directing the local terror network from Syria.
Worse, as the Islamic State continues losing territory in Syria and Iraq, the group has renewed an emphasis on carrying out attacks worldwide. Expect an escalation in the months ahead — and in unlikely places.