The most significant battle by a group associated with the Islamic State (IS) in Southeast Asia occurred on the island of Basilan, Philippines, on April 9, 2016, although the government did not acknowledge it as a fight between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and an IS group led by Isnilon Hapilon.
The battle left 18 troops dead and 53 injured, a significant loss for the government.
Hapilon is former deputy leader of Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the IS designated leader in the southern Philippines. His former members of ASG based in Basilan pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in 2015 and joined forces with other groups associated with IS.
The 125 men led by Hapilon demonstrated they can hold ground and fight AFP. Exploiting the recent successes, IS is likely to declare a wilayat in the Sulu Archipelago.
If the Philippines is determined to prevent IS rise in Mindanao and with it implications for Southeast Asia, it should take the threat seriously. Rather than denying IS existence, the government should make fighting IS a national security priority and step up cooperation with counterparts in Southeast Asia to contain and isolate the threat.
IS increases capabilities in the Philippines
The IS has been steadfastly influencing and building capabilities in northern, southern and western Mindanao in the Philippines.
In northern Mindanao, Tawhid Wal Jihad has renamed itself as Islamic State of Lanao in Butig. Although IS central in Syria and Iraq has not acknowledged the Butig-based group as an official branch, it presents a major threat as members have fought AFP and hold several civilian hostages.
In southern Mindanao, Ansar Khilafa Mindanao has fought with AFP and conducted IS-style beheadings. The group was involved in arms transfers to IS Indonesia and hosted Indonesian bomb making instructor Ibrahim Ali Sucipto who was killed on Nov. 26, 2015.
The most significant of the IS entities is Hapilon’s Basilan-based unit of former ASG members. The unit, considered the IS-designated official entity in the Philippines, came to the forefront when Hapilon unified with a handful of fighters from Malaysia.
$5 million offered for killing or capture of Hapilon
The April 9 AFP operation aimed at capturing Al Barka, the IS base, releasing foreign hostages and killing or capturing Hapilon who is subject of a $5 million U.S reward.
AFP was supported by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which has maintained a ceasefire with the government since March 2014. The MILF relationship with ASG deteriorated after the MILF joined the peace process and ASG Basilan joined IS.
The MILF informed AFP that the IS base was five kilometers from the MILF community in Sitio Bohe in the the village of Macalang. AFP had requested MILF leave the area and as their fighters and families moved out, IS, forewarned and exceptionally well prepared, confronted the AFP. During the 10-hour firefight in the village of Tipo-Tipo, the AFP did not anticipate IS’s preparation.
Julie S. Alipala, writing “Hell in Basilan: Landmine Blast Followed by Gunfire Everywhere,” April 10, 2016 in Inquirer Mindanao, highlighted the army’s failure to prepare adequately to fight IS. Among the injured were the 44th Battalion Commander Col. Tommy Crosby and other officers.
The AFP recovered the body of Moroccan fighter Mohammad Khattab, an explosives expert.
IS issues propaganda after battle
In a release titled: “100 Killed from the Philippine Crusader Army in Operations by Soldiers of the Caliphate in Philippines,” dated 5 Rajab 1437 (April 13, 2016), “The Islamic State, Philippines” stated: “Soldiers of the Caliphate were able, by the grace of Allah the Almighty, to repel attempts by the Philippine Crusader army to seize control over positions of the mujahideen in Philippines.
“By the grace of Allah, seven troop carriers were blown up and those inside were killed, and there were also clashes with the enemy, killing another number of its soldiers, and the rest fled, defeated and disgraced, by the grace of Allah. The result of the operation reached nearly 100 killed and dozens wounded from the Crusaders, and three brothers from the mujahideen were martyrs, we consider them thusly and Allah knows them best.”
IS has territorial control in Philippines
The IS has established territorial control and established training bases in the Philippines. The fight against IS requires a higher level of commitment and leadership. Rather than deploy general purpose forces, it is imperative for the special operations forces to spearhead the fight.
With their best intelligence assets, the Special Operations Commander of AFP should move to Basilan and remain in the Sulu Archipelago until all the groups that pledged allegiance to IS are dismantled and their leaders are captured or killed. There is no better moment to mobilize and mount an uncompromising intelligence led military operation at this point when the nation will rally around AFP for their monumental sacrifice.
Otherwise, IS influence will slowly and steadily spread and its capabilities will grow, a phenomenon witnessed since last year. With a new government in Manila coming soon, the new president will have to confront the rise of IS.
Manila should continue to work with MILF in a range of prevention and preemption operations to keep IS from spreading and growing. The governments in the region should support Manila and keep IS out of their countries and the region. The fight should be decisive and this should become the government’s priority vision and mission.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.