On April 11, Philippine security forces disrupted attacks mounted by the East Asia Division of Islamic State (IS) in Bohol in the Central Philippines. Four militants were killed, including Muammar Askali – a college-educated English speaker who had acted as a spokesman for the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in high-profile hostage negotiations. Askali, also known as Abu Rami, is the senior-most IS member to be killed in the Philippines to date.
The incident, though clearly a success for security forces, demonstrates three ominous developments. First, IS is spreading northward from Mindanao in the south of the Philippines. Second, disparate IS groups have united to form a common operational platform. Third, IS is in the final phase of declaring a wilayat (province) in the Southern Philippines.
The emergence of IS since 2014 has provided a framework for unifying threat groups in the southern Philippines – alliances once deemed unlikely due to tribal differences.
In Western Mindanao, Isnilon Hapilon, the deputy leader of ASG and in charge for Basilan, assumed leadership of the IS East Asia Division (Dawlatul Islamiyyah Waliyatul Mashriq). In Sulu, Askali formed Kateeba Ma’rakah Al-Ansar. Askali dispatched a representative to attend an oath-taking ceremony to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi held in Basilan in late 2015.
In Central Mindanao, Hapilon linked up with Islamic State Lanao (ISL) led by Omar and Abdullah Maute; Bangasamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters led by Ismael Abubakar (alias Bongos); and Ansarul Khilafa Philippines (AKP) led by Mohammad Jaafar Maguid, (alias Tokboy). After Philippine forces killed Tokboy in January 2017, the groups started working together even more closely.
After raising awareness of the IS-led caliphate, Hapilon documented the oath-taking ceremony of different groups, unified the groups, and consolidated their assets. By early 2016, Hapilon had been recognized as the emir of the East Asia Division of IS by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Despite massive military offensives on Sulu and Basilan in the Sulu Archipelago and Butig in Lanao del Sur, IS expanded from Western Mindanao to Maguindanao on the Mindanao mainland. They mounted attacks throughout Mindanao, including in Davao City, the home of President Rodrigo Duterte.
On Sept. 2, 2016, IS bombed the night market, killing 15 and maiming and injuring 70. The government had received intelligence in the third week of August that ISL had planned to bomb Davao City but they could not disrupt the terrorist operation.
Beginning in December 2016, intelligence reporting showed that further plans were afoot. In December 2016, Askali met with other militants in Maimbung, Sulu, including Edimar Isnain – who was killed in Bohol – and Amin Baco, a Malaysian terrorist leader. In February 2017, 28 fighters in Sulu volunteered to join strike teams in mainland Mindanao.
The militants who participated in the Bohol raid came from three groups: IS Sulu, Ansarul Khilafah Philippines (AKP), and Islamic State Lanao (ISL). The group set out from Indanan, Sulu, and stopped to pick up other militants in Central Mindanao. They landed in Inabanga, Bohol aboard three motorized outriggers, disguised as fishermen, on April 10.
The target of the aborted attack may have been resorts full of foreign and local tourists vacationing during the Christian Holy Week – or an Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit (ASEAN) meeting scheduled in Bohol province later this week.
This wanted poster disseminated by Philippine authorities shows photos of suspects slain during a raid by militants in Bohol, Central Philippines, and other suspects at-large, April 11, 2017. [Government of the Philippines]
At 5:20 a.m. on April 11, government forces and armed men who had landed in boats exchanged fire. Initially, government forces suspected there were “70 ASG” members. At 1 p.m., soldiers and police killed four militants and two civilians related to the group. Three soldiers and one police officer were killed.
Askali, the attack team leader, was educated in computer engineering at a college in Cebu. A spokesman for ASG in the 2014 kidnapping of German nationals Stefan Okonek and Henrike Dielen in Palawan, Askali was also implicated in the kidnapping of Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani and trained in bomb making by Bali bomber Umar Patek and Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir (alias Marwan).
One of several militants who escaped was Joselito Melloria (alias Abu Alih), a member of AKP. A native of Inabanga, Melloria had converted to Islam through marriage and may have succeeded Tokboy as the AKP leader. Immediately after landing, Melloria used the home of his mother and his aunt and uncle, Constancio and Crisanta Petalco, who were later killed in the firefight.
On April 9, 2017, the U.S. Embassy, Manila warned its citizens against traveling to “Central Visayas, which includes Cebu and Bohol provinces.” The “five eyes” were aware of the threat. In the lead up to Easter, troops were alert but public vigilance was central in detecting and neutralizing the incursion.
Without government forces containing, isolating and eliminating the threat groups in the south, the threat will grow. The capability of IS to either use Bohol as a beachhead to reach Cebu or a target demonstrates an expanding threat.
With IS recruiting Muslim converts in both the Visayas and Luzon, the Philippines government is concerned about the threat to Metro Manila and other areas in the north and the center of the country. People like Melloria offer safe havens in new territory and access to new social networks. Policing an archipelago of 7,700 islands remains a persistent challenge. Flush with ransom funds from European governments and private companies, both ASG and IS are capable of mounting long-range terrorist operations.
Moreover, the IS operation in Bohol demonstrated a convergence of threat groups. Had the Philippine people and government not responded swiftly, the East Asia Division would have succeeded and IS may have declared a Wilayat in the Philippines. The creation of an IS nucleus in the Philippines presents not only a domestic but a regional and an international threat.
Rohan Gunaratna is Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technology University and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore. He interviewed members of Philippine threat groups including from the Abu Sayyaf Group.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.