Terrorism and insurgency are not new to the Philippines. But what is surprising is that over the years, and despite the influence of Jemaah Islamiyah militants from Southeast Asia and al-Qaeda operatives and trainers, Filipino militants never embraced suicide bombing as a tactic. That is no longer the case.
Since July 2018, there have been six individual suicide bombers in the southern Philippines. Three additional suspected would-be bombers – they had pipe bombs sewn into vests – were killed in a shootout with security forces last week, according to officials. Security forces recovered 16 additional pipe bombs two days later, suggesting another wave of attacks.
Not all of the bombers have been Filipinos. Indeed, the majority of the suspects had been foreigners.
The first bomber detonated explosives inside his vehicle at an army checkpoint in Basilan in July 2018, killing 10. He was believed to be a Moroccan. In January 2019, an Indonesian couple, who had tried to enter Syria, but were deported by Turkish authorities, blew themselves up at a cathedral in the southern Philippine town of Jolo, killing 23, and wounding more than 100 during a Sunday Mass.
In June, two men – the first Filipino bombers – detonated their explosives outside an Army camp in Sulu, killing five, including themselves, and wounding 22 others, authorities said. Most recently a woman, believed to be an Egyptian, blew herself up at the gate of a military base in Jolo, though causing no further casualties.
In last week’s clash, two of the three suspected would-be bombers are believed to be the Egyptian bomber's husband and their son.
But there have been at least two Filipino suicide bombers, so that genie is out of the bottle. And they are likely to inspire others.
So why are we seeing suicide bombings in the Philippines?
In part, we are seeing much more suicide bombings in the region, as well as by Southeast Asians outside of the region.
In Indonesia, there were only nine Jemaah Islamiyah suicide bombings between 2002 and 2011. Since 2014, there have been at least 10, with several suspected suicide bombers arrested, including at least three women. In Iraq and Syria, there were around 20 Southeast Asian suicide bombers, including some 13 Malaysians, the country’s first.
This clearly speaks to the radical and nihilistic ideology of the Islamic State. Its ubiquitous propaganda has made such attacks mainstream.
And unlike Malaysians and Indonesians who travel to Iraq and Syria in much larger numbers, giving them both more direct contact with the Islamic State, as well as opportunities to develop and shape the propaganda for their home audience, there were far fewer Filipinos.
While Islamic State propaganda spoke of many militants from the Philippines being part of Khatibah Nusantara, I only have firm evidence of one, Mohammad Reza Lahaman Kiram, whom Philippine authorities believe was responsible for a 2012 bus bombing in Zamboanga.
Alongside Malaysian Mohamad Rafi Udin and Indonesian Mohammed Karim Yusop Faiz, Kiram appeared in a June 2016 beheading video, which got a lot of play in Southeast Asia. Kiram has not been confirmed dead, and his whereabouts are unknown.
Does the advent of suicide bombings in the Philippines matter? Yes, for four key reasons.
First, it clearly shows that Islamic State’s ideology is taking root. Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi may have been killed, but his ideology is not going anywhere. Over the weekend, video emerged of pro-IS militants in the Philippines pledging allegiance to the new caliph and Islamic State leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qorashi. Allegiance is to the ideology, not the man.
Second, the fact that the majority of suicide bombings have been done by foreign militants reminds us of just how important the Philippines is to militants, both from the region and abroad. As the Islamic State continues to implement its global insurgency model, the Philippines remains an important front. With the loss of much of its caliphate, the death of al-Baghdadi, and the chaotic situation in Syria, it is hard to imagine the Islamic State pulling many militants from Southeast Asia at the current time.
Already, through its media organs, the IS had called on militants from the region to travel to Mindanao. That shows no signs of abating. Indeed, Malaysian authorities have increased the resources of their security forces in Sabah state, a key transit point.
Third, there is a concept in the terrorism literature of “outbidding,” whereby terrorist groups, factions and cells, try to achieve dominance by waging a bloodier campaign of violence. This proves their devotion to the cause, while portraying their competitors as weaker, and less ideologically fervent.
If these attacks are indeed being orchestrated by two Abu Sayyaf leaders in Sulu and Basilan, Hatib Hajaan Sawadjaan and Furuji Indinan, who seek to lead the Islamic State of East Asia, will other groups such as Islamic State Lanao (the Mautes), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Ansuar Khalifa Philippines, or others, have to escalate their level of violence to compete?
Finally, at the tactical level, suicide bombings have a disproportionate impact. People are so surprised by suicide bombings, because it is so seemingly irrational. And when it does happen, it garners so much more media attention, while spreading more fear.
Suicide bombings are here to stay.
The question is: Can the overextended Philippine security services manage the new threat, and can the fragile new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao prove to be a successful and viable alternative to peel away support for the Islamic State’s Philippine recruits?
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.