The Islamic State (IS) likely will create a branch in the Philippines and declare the southern island of Mindanao a Wilayat (province) in 2016.
After various local militant groups spent a year in 2014-15 discussing pledges of allegiance to the self-appointed caliph of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, they united and formed a council of representatives (Ahlus Shura) that appointed Isnilon Totoni Hapilon as the overall leader of an IS branch in the Philippines.
Hapilon heads the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Basilan, an island-province that lies off Mindanao.
Al-Naba, an official IS newspaper, reported about the unification of at least four groups (“battalions’) of God’s fighters (“mujahidin”) in the southern Philippines, and referred to Hapilon as “Sheikh Mujahid Abu Abdullah al-Filipini.”
It described him as of “one of the senior figures of the Mujahideen in the Philippines.”
“His jihad against the Crusaders began more than 20 years ago when he was a leader in the Abdul Razaq Abu Bakr Al-Janjalani Movement, commonly known as Abu Sayyaf Group. He was the Amir of Abu Sayyaf Group in Basilan for five years before he became the deputy leader for six years,” al-Naba said.
The choice of a highly experienced and a notorious leader in Hapilon to lead IS’s future province in the Philippines presents a long-term threat to the stability and the security of Southeast Asia.
An oath in the jungle
In January 2016, IS announced the unification of four of these battalions in the Philippines and the allegiance of their leaders to al-Baghdadi.
The four battalions are Ansar al-Shariah, Ma’rakah al-Ansar, Ansarul Khilafah Philippines, and al- Harakatul al-Islamiyyah, which is based in Basilan.
Abu Anas al-Mujahir, who leads Ansar al-Shariah, represented the various battalions as they took an oath in which they swore allegiance to IS’s caliph.
Abu Anas Al Muhajir is a Malaysian who is also known as Mohammad bin Najib bin Hussein. His battalion is in charge of laws and other matters pertaining to jurisprudence. He intentionally did not mask himself during the oath ceremony, which was videotaped.
Considering the importance given to a Malaysian by Hapilon, the ASG leader, Malaysians are likely to travel to Mindanao to join IS.
Ma’rakah al-Ansar battalion leader Abu Ammar could not attend the event, but sent someone in his place. Abu Harith, who represented the battalion in Ammar’s absence, is from Sulu, where ASG supremo Radulan Sahiron is based. Sulu is an island in the Sulu Archipelago between Mindanao in the Philippines and Sabah in Malaysia.
The appearance of Abu Harith, a former ASG member, reflected a split within the ASG, in which a small but important faction had defected to IS.
In addition to ASG, a new group, Ansarul Khilafah Philippines, joined the Islamic State. Based in South Cotabato province, Sarangani province and General Santos City, Ansarul Khilafah Philippines is headed by Abu Sharifah, who is fluent in Tagalog.
A total of 31 armed Filipinos and Malaysians met in Basilan and took part in the ceremonial oath presided over by Hapilon. Previously, the four battalions had pledged to serve IS individually, not collectively.
In addition to members of Ansarul Khilafah Philippines and the Malaysians, most of those present were members of the ASG. Its ranking members who were on hand included Talha Tanadjalin, an experienced combat tactician and the brother of Suhud Tanadjani, the sniper-trainer for the Basilan-based ASG.
After Hapilon and his group pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi, IS publicized the event in the Philippines.
“The unification of the Mujahideen under one leadership and banner of the Caliphate is seen as a huge threat to the tyrants of the Philippines and is an important step in order to liberate areas in Southeast Asia in general. It has a huge significance in the spreading of tawhid (monotheism) in the region, fighting the Christians, Buddhists and other polytheists as well as establishing the religion of Allah in this part of the world,” IS announced through al-Naba and online dissemination of the video of the mass oath-taking ceremony in Basilan.
“The Philippines is an archipelago that consists of many islands located in the Pacific Ocean. For centuries, it was occupied by the Christian Dutch and Americans who forced many of the inhabitants to revoke Islam and embrace Christianity,” IS said.
“Today, the Christians govern the Philippines and its capital Manila. Nevertheless, jihadi movements have spread in the country’s various remote islands, and jihad against the Christians has continued for decades.”
A potential regional threat
Since 2014, the Islamic State has engaged the threat groups in the Philippines with the aim of building an ideological and operational capability in the region.
With preparations now under way to proclaim an IS branch in the southern Philippines, IS’s influence and ideology is likely to grow, affecting both the southern Philippines and eastern Malaysia.
Furthermore, IS will likely create a safe haven in Basilan and mount operations from the Sulu Archipelago into both the Philippines and Malaysia.
In addition to enforcing the supplanting of the local practice of Islam by IS’s radical interpretation of the religion, IS-type beheadings and attacks bringing mass casualties and fatalities are likely.
The most enduring threat will be the creation of terrorist training camps, which will lure not only Southeast Asians but people from other regions. Recent developments indicate that Uyghurs who could not travel to Syria to join al-Nusra or IS in the Middle East travelled to Indonesia.
The nationalities undertaking training in the new IS province will pose a threat to their home countries. Since 1994, when Jemaah Islamiyah established its first training camp, Hudaibiyah, the Philippines became the training ground for Indonesians, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Thai Muslims and Arabs.
Most of the instructors were non-Filipinos trained by al-Qaeda. In addition to moving its officers to implement the IS brand of Islam, it is very likely that IS will dispatch its explosives experts, combat tacticians and other operatives to Southeast Asia.
IS plans for declaring a state for itself in Mindanao presents a real threat to the stability and security of Asia, a region that has hitherto enjoyed political stability, social harmony and economic growth.
For its part, the government of the Philippines made significant gains in engaging the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in a peace process that proved a success. However, the ASG and a few smaller groups continue to fight to create an independent Moro homeland.
The Philippines lacks political leadership and military operational capability needed to dismantle the insurgent and terrorist infrastructure in Mindanao, especially in the Sulu archipelago.
The IS-initiated merger of the various battalions and the unification of their leaders will present an unprecedented challenge to the government in Manila. In their new role as the “soldiers of the Caliphate” in the Philippines, the local IS branch will mount operations that gradually will mirror the core of IS in Syria and Iraq.
There is no better time for the Philippines to act.
But if President Aquino procrastinates as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, IS ideology will spread in his country, damaging a commendable and hard-won peace process.
The four "battalions" of IS will grow in strength, size and influence, as well as and pose an enduring challenge to his successors. Soon, IS will declare a satellite of the caliphate in Sulu.
Ideally, Aquino should try and preempt such a declaration by IS. To win Muslim hearts and minds and undercut Muslim support for IS, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) should pursue a mandate of promoting economic development in impoverished Basilan and its surrounding areas, rather focusing its strategy solely on isolating and eliminating the Abu Sayyaf Group.
Finally, to preempt the imminent declaration of an IS Wilayat in the Philippines and a local branch of IS, the Philippine military should deploy in strength in Sulu, Basilan and Tawi Tawi.
If the armed forces of the Philippines can dominate the Sulu Archipelago, IS will fail in declaring, operating and expanding an satellite province in the country and a base in Southeast Asia.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.