On July 31, a man drove up to a checkpoint outside of Lamitan town on Basilan Island in the southern Philippines and detonated a bomb, killing 10 people, including himself. The dead included a soldier, five paramilitaries and three civilians, among them a woman and a child.
We should note that the Armed Forces of the Philippines vigorously denies that the attack was a suicide bombing or that it had any ties to the Islamic State (IS), attributing it to a failed extortion attempt.
This seems very unlikely, and follows a pattern of Philippine denials of IS influence, which we have consistently seen since 2014. With the five-month siege of Marawi, they should no longer be in denial. But once again, they appear to be deflecting attention from internal security lapses.
While the Philippines is no stranger to terrorism, suicide bombings are a rarity. The last occurred in 2002 when a suicide bomber drove a motorcycle laden with an explosive device that killed a member of the U.S. Special Forces outside a restaurant frequented by troops in the southern city of Zamboanga.
There has not been one since, even during the siege of Marawi when they were expected. Anytime one crosses that Rubicon, it is significant. But the bombing has significance for a host of other reasons.
New fronts and foreign fighters
First, while the Philippine military was quick to pin responsibility on the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Islamic State has claimed credit for the attack.
The leader of the ASG’s Basilan operations, Furuji Indama, was one of Isnilon Hapilon’s top deputies. Hapilon was one of the first in Southeast Asia to declare his allegiance to the Islamic State in mid-2014. He would later travel to Lanao del Sur where he joined forces with the Maute brothers and perpetrated the Marawi siege in May 2017.
Indama was left in charge of Basilan operations and his forces have remained doggedly resilient in the face of government offensives. BenarNews has reported that the operation was done by one of Indama’s trusted lieutenants.
The bombing happened at a time when IS is in serious need to go on the offensive. It has lost significant territory in the past year, and recently had to reorganize into two “wiliyat” or provinces, down from 22. While it will not abandon its goal of a caliphate, its losses have been too great to dismiss.
IS is clearly laying the theoretical groundwork to go back to a global insurgency. So new fronts are important.
There were mixed signals last week about whether IS had declared a wilayat in East Asia. IS’s Amaq News Agency announced one, but then seemed to walk it back.
Regardless, it is clear that militants in Southeast Asia are trying to escalate the violence to attract the attention of the IS leadership, in order to attain wilayat status.
Second, IS’s Amaq News Agency announced that the bomber was a Moroccan, “Abu Kathir al-Maghribi.”
This in itself is interesting for a few reasons. Since 2014, IS has told followers that if they could not travel to Iraq or Syria to join the caliphate project, that they should join the fight in Mindanao, the only place in the region where IS groups have a hope of holding territory, or at least making the region significantly ungovernable. This was a central theme of their 2017 video on the Marawi siege, part of their “Inside the Caliphate” series.
Foreign militants flowed into the country in larger numbers ahead of the Marawi siege. Philippine officials estimated their number to be more than 80. Militants from Indonesia and Malaysia, and as far as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Chechnya, were killed.
In 2017, Philippine authorities arrested Middle Easterners and a Spaniard suspected of ties to terrorist groups. Some of the most important IS cells in neighboring Malaysia have been logistic cells in Sabah state, responsible for moving people in and out of the Philippines.
Foreigners hold important positions, beyond being contacts who can bring in resources or certain skill sets. They can often transcend some of the parochial divides among the alphabet soup of pro-IS cells that rarely cooperate with each other.
In general, foreign militants have eschewed the ASG cells in Sulu, which are renowned for their kidnapping for ransom. Their commitment to IS seems fleeting: it is only Western hostages that they place in front of IS flags, or use IS-style messaging to command higher ransoms. And although they have beheaded hostages in the past, it has only been after ransoms went unpaid.
The third reason the attack was significant was that it could indicate “learning” or cross-fertilization.
Bombs have different designs, compositions and detonating devices, commonly referred to as their “signature.” Philippine authorities have revealed that the composition of the Basilan bomb was ammonium nitrate.
Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) tend to reflect what is readily available and within the terrorists’ technical means. Most IEDs in the southern Philippines are built using artillery or mortar shells, since there are so many of those around.
While ammonium nitrate has been used in the Philippines before, it is not that common. Moreover, the use of a car-bomb is highly unusual in the Philippines, though motorcycle-borne IEDs are more common.
Fourth, the attack comes just a week after the Philippine Congress finally passed and President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law that implements the 2014 peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
This attack is an attempt to spoil the peace process and, as such, we should expect more of them.
Groups that have pledged allegiance to IS were originally part of the MILF, and now accuse its leadership of siding with the “kuffir.” Such attacks are not just an attempt to derail the peace process, but an attempt to wrest leadership of the Moro away from the MILF leadership, which they view as having sold out.
Indeed, the attack came just a few days after Duterte publicly offered a “peace process” with the ASG.
Fifth, with the death of Hapilon and the Mautes in Marawi, there has been a dearth of leadership. No one person has risen to the top from the vying groups. One of the ways that groups compete is a process of “outbidding,” perpetrating more violent attacks than others to attract followers and outside support.
How far they would go
Finally, there are different ways to think about whether the attack was a sign of strength or weakness.
The AFP wants to show that their concerted offensives forced the ASG to go on the run, and thus they are now resorting to desperate measures.
But I am immediately drawn to the May 2018 suicide bombings in the Indonesian city of Surabaya that saw three families – including women, and children 8 to 19 years old – launching one unsuccessful and four successful bombings.
Those attacks were horrific, and the only thing that I can come up with to explain how parents could do this to their children is that they were trying to set an example for others, showing how far they would go, sacrificing their entire family, for the sake of defending their religion.
And that would make sense in this case, if the real intention of the suicide bomber was not to inflict casualties but to inspire others to follow his lead.
The attack reiterates just how tenuous the situation is in the Southern Philippines, and cautions against attempts by the government to deflect attention.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.