Philippine Militants Trying to Unite with Other IS Support Groups

Commentary by Rohan Gunaratna
2016.05.16
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160516-PH-drone-620.JPG In this image taken from a video disseminated online by IS Lanao, a young person plays with a shot-down Philippine military drone.
BenarNews

The militant group Islamic State (IS) Lanao has claimed that it shot down a drone operated by the Philippine armed forces as it flew a reconnaissance mission over Lanao del Sur, on the southern island of Mindanao, in early May.

The group also released an online video showing in-flight images taken by the drone’s camera as it took off and came down, as well as footage of an IS Lanao fighter playing with the small unmanned aerial vehicle after it fell to the ground.

In the video titled “Allah is the Best of Those who Plot,” narrator Abu Hafs al-Mashriqi (alias Abu Hafs from the East) greets IS fighters in the Philippines in Arabic and urges Muslims to pledge allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

This move by IS Lanao to reach out to other threat groups and seek unification with them reveals an emerging IS centric threat landscape in the Philippines. If the disparate IS support groups link up, the threat posed by IS in the Philippines will be resilient and sustained.

Seeking acceptance

Islamic State Lanao is led by Abdullah Maute (alias Abu Hasan), a graduate of al-Azhar University in Egypt. The group was previously known as the Khilafah Islamiyah Movement (KIM).

Under the supervision of the Office of the Chief of Philippine National Police (OCPNP) a Task Force officially known by the acronym TFMKI was created in 2013 to dismantle the group.

Of the IS support groups, Islamic State Lanao is one of the groups that pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but IS Central, based in Raqqa, Syria, has not accepted IS Lanao.

The Philippine group is not a part of the country’s official IS branch, IS Philippines, which consists of three groups: al Harakat ul Islamiyah Basilan, led by Isnilon Hapilon; Ansar Khilafah Mindanao, led by Muhammad Jafaar Maguid (alias Tokboy); and Jund ul Tawhid, led by Amin Baco.

In its video, IS Lanao is reaching out for acceptance to IS Central and IS Philippines.

Mohd Najib Husen (alias Abu Anas Al Muhajir), who was appointed as head of the Ansar al-Sharia of the IS Philippines, was killed in a firefight with the Philippine military in Basilan in December. A Malaysian, Najib operated with other Malaysians.

These personalities and groups in the Philippines seek to emulate IS Central by attacking government forces, incarcerating Filipinos – including Muslims – and beheading “spies” and Christians.

In April, Islamic State Lanao took six Philippine sawmill workers hostage and demanded the release of an IS Lanao fighter captured two months earlier by the Philippine army. The group emulated IS Central by parading the men in orange jumpsuits. Thereafter, IS Lanao beheaded two of the men whom it branded as “disbeliever spies.”

Diffused groups

The IS threat in the Philippines is decentralized, diffused and evolving. There is no one central group. The Philippine government did not take the threat of IS seriously until the threat grew and expanded.

The reporting of the threat was both by government security agencies but also by the Filipino journalist Mohommad Saaduddin, who wrote about the emergence of the IS threat in the southern Philippines.

Those operating with IS support groups in the Philippines include other Southeast Asians and Arabs. A Moroccan fighter, Muhammad Khattab Al-Maghribi Al-Muhajir, who wore a black shirt bearing the IS logo, last month was killed in a clash between Philippine forces and IS Philippines.

Another group harboring foreigners is Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which also pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi. Although IS Central did not accept BIFF. The group, led by Ismael Abubakar, and Rajah Solaiman Movement, led by Ahmad Santos, hope to unite and work under the IS black banner.

In Maguindanao, BIFF hosted Malaysians Amin Baco and Zulkifli Bin Hir (alias Marwan) and Abdul Basit Usman (the special operations group leader for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front [MILF]) prior to the killing of 44 members of a police tactical unit in Mamasapano in January 2015. It was a sad moment for the nation.

In Mindanao, the potential for threat groups to cooperate is high. Some MILF commanders have family connections or other ties to the key personalities in IS Lanao. Abdullah Maute is the cousin of Jannati Mimbantas, the present base commander of the MILF Northeastern Command based in Butig, Lanao del Sur.

Some members of IS Lanao have links with the late Umbra Kato, the founder of BIFF. Fortunately for Manila, the MILF, under Haji Murad, opposes IS.

After Haji Murad assumed leadership, MILF’s relationship with the Abu Sayyaf Group and Jemaah Islamiyah was severed. Unlike his predecessor Hashim Salamat, Haji Murad considered ASG, JI – and now IS –as strategic liabilities. The mainstream MILF cut ties with ASG and JI, but splinter groups within MILF, such as BIFF, have maintained links and hosted foreign fighters.

A win for IS

The downing of a drone operated by the Armed Forced of the Philippines (AFP) is a victory for IS.

Islamic State Lanao is likely to share the technical capability with other threat groups. Because IS support groups in Southeast Asia are linked, they are likely to know about the technical capabilities of drones.

To fight against IS-centric threat groups, the AFP will have to study the operational failures and carefully plan and prepare operations. The Philippine government generated accurate intelligence reports but its military failed to act decisively.

Weeks before the May 9 presidential election, reports pointed to the “the terror group in Lanao” continuing to consolidate its position and planning an attack against government troops on election day.

On the eve of the election, the group attacked the local power grid. Similarly, IS Lanao operated a training camp in Jabal Uhud in Butig. However, the Philippine military was not able to dismantle the facility but only disrupt the training.

A larger body of highly trained troops willing to dominate the terrain, where IS has now established a presence, is now needed.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.

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