Is Islamic State Threat Shifting to Philippines?: QuickTake Q&A

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Philippine soldiers near the frontline in Marawi on June 19.

Photographer: TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Under assault in Iraq and Syria by a U.S.-led coalition as well as Russia and Iran, Islamic State is losing ground in its original strongholds. While good news for Iraqis and Syrians, this has raised concerns that Islamic State, like al-Qaeda before it, will increasingly metastasize and grow more potent in other places. The seizure by an Islamic State affiliate of a city in the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines has focused that worry on the country’s southern Mindanao region, the site of a Muslim insurgency for the past four decades. Investors have largely shrugged off the threat so far, in part because it hasn’t spread to Manila -- the nation’s capital and financial center.

1. How present is Islamic State in the Philippines?

Four insurgent groups, each from a different part of Mindanao, have pledged their allegiance to the movement and appear to have formed an alliance with each other. Philippine authorities now refer to them as a collective. The most well-known is the Abu Sayyaf Group, which earlier had declared itself an al-Qaeda affiliate. Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon was named Islamic State’s emir, or leader, in the Philippines. The Maute Group, led by brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute, formerly petty criminals, spearheaded the capture of Marawi, the largest Muslim-majority city in the Philippines. Then there’s the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the least known Ansarul Khilafah Philippines (AKP).

2. How do the groups operate?

They are all notorious for bombings, killings, extortions and abductions for ransom. Abu Sayyaf beheaded two Canadians last year after ransom demands weren’t met. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation offers a $5 million reward for information leading to the capture of Hapilon in connection with the kidnapping of three Americans. The BIFF and another group killed 44 police commandos during a botched anti-terror mission in 2015. Maute guerillas in September bombed a street market in Davao City, hometown of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

3. What was their plan for Marawi?

Rebels linked to Islamic State were planning to burn down Marawi City on May 26, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, according to the nation’s top government lawyer, citing military intelligence reports. The plan was to spark additional uprisings across Mindanao with the ambition of establishing a province there under Islamic State rule. Apparently, the rebels advanced the attack by three days when law enforcers tried and failed to capture Hapilon. On May 23, about 500 insurgents with Islamic State flags marched on Marawi, burned buildings, occupied offices and freed more than 100 inmates from jail. While the military has found no evidence that local groups received direct orders from Islamic State leaders in the Middle East, President Rodrigo Duterte said that foreigners from Syria, Indonesia, Malaysia and some Arab nations had joined the fight in Marawi.

4. How have authorities responded?

Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao (and threatened to extend it to the whole of the Philippines), and authorities requested U.S. military assistance to confront the rebels. According to the U.S., its special forces provided intelligence and training. Australia is also sending two spy planes for Mindanao surveillance. While the Philippine constitution bars foreign combat troops from the country, the government welcomes the help of other nations as long as the law allows it, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said on June 23. After four weeks of fighting, the rebels held less than 10 percent of Marawi but the military had called in reinforcements. About half the city’s population had fled. A total of 257 rebels, 62 troops and 26 civilians have been killed.

5. How have investors responded?

They’ve barely blinked. As of June 19, the Philippine benchmark stock index has risen 1.7 percent since martial law was declared in May. The peso appreciated 0.6 percent before slipping when the U.S. Federal Reserve increased interest rates. The economic impact of the crisis will be minimal and short-lived, with Mindanao’s contribution to growth remaining positive unless violence escalates markedly, Moody’s Investors Service said on May 31.

6. What explains decades of insurgency in Mindanao?

While an estimated five percent of the Philippines’ 101 million people are Muslim, they make up 20 percent of the Mindanao population. Government policies dating back to the 1930s encouraged Christian migration into regions traditionally populated by Muslims. Christian communities received government services superior to those provided to native Muslims. And many Muslims lost their rights to property when the government declared all unregistered lands in Mindanao to be public land.

7. How might Islamic State’s rise impact the peace process?

Not at all, as far as the government is concerned. The IS-linked rebel groups are splinters from the main Muslim insurgency groups that have been negotiating peace with the government. Ex-President Fidel Ramos signed a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front in 1996. Former President Benigno Aquino also signed a separate peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a breakaway group, in 2014. Duterte has vowed to continue the peace process with Muslim and Maoist forces and said he won’t negotiate with terrorists.

The Reference Shelf

  • The Philippine Solicitor General filed a pleading detailing the rebel groups’ agenda starting with the siege of Marawi.
  • The Counter-Extremism website has a detailed brief on the Philippines.
  • The FBI profiles Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon.
  • The Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium describes the Maute Group.
  • The Asia Society explores the origins of the Muslim insurgency in the Philippines.

— With assistance by Clarissa Batino

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