Not long ago, the Abu Sayaff were deemed too weak to even be considered a “terrorist group” and were instead dismissed as a decrepit bunch of bandits operating in the lawless corners of Mindanao. This week, a top official from a foreign country made the grave threat that these very “bandits” could establish the next stronghold of the Islamic State (IS) after the group had been driven out of their territories in the Middle East.
The warning came from Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop who discussed intelligence reports that hundreds of South-East Asian IS fighters are returning to the region after the radical Islamist group’s positions were obliterated in Syria and Iraq. Bishop disclosed that these fighters could be looking at the Far East as the group’s new stronghold, and Mindanao could be their premier choice.
These threats do not seem unlikely given that the Abu Sayaff, who have been operating in the country for decades, have already pledged allegiance to IS. Their leader, Isnilon Hapilon, was declared IS emir in the Philippines. Despite these obvious connections, the links between the local terrorist group and to the Islamic State were downplayed by the previous Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.
Incumbent Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has done a better job of identifying the threat posed by these terrorists in the country, correctly predicting that “the nation’s biggest threat in the immediate future is terrorism” in a recent public statement. However, the problem has arguably exacerbated during his reign as Chief Executive with recent beheading of several foreigners held hostage by the group. There are more than a dozen foreigners currently detained by the Abu Sayaff, and the business of kidnapping foreigners for ransom has proved to be a lucrative endeavor for the group – raking in huge sums to sustain their insidious activities.
Aside from a steady flow of income, the group have also proven that their influence extends even outside the Philippines. One of their high-ranking commanders was recently slain in Malaysia after a clash with that country’s military, while last month a British national was held by their authorities for plotting to join the Abu Sayaff. The ability of the group to recruit members outside of their borders is reminiscent of the Islamic State, which boasted members from different countries in Europe and in Asia.
Clearly the group’s clout is growing and can no longer be downplayed, but the Duterte administration has expressed difficulty in dealing with the danger they pose. His Defense chief, Delfin Lorenzana, has admitted that the Abu Sayyaf “have better boats than us [Philippine Navy].” That admission is embarrassing to hear for Filipinos and demoralizing for members of the Armed Forces. The lack of capability in dealing with the group has forced President Duterte to look to foreign military for help, floating the idea of a joint maritime patrol with Malaysia as well as inviting China to help patrol borders.
The desperation for foreign help is a testament to the deplorable state of our armed forces (AFP), despite modernization efforts of the past few years. Duterte also appears hypocritical with his plea, since he initially campaigned on a hardline nationalist stance that criticized his rivals’ dependence on foreign powers which he saw as “colonial”. The ordeal also exposes the gap left by American soldiers who were once stationed in Mindanao for intelligence gathering; their contributions are badly missed it seems.
The urgency of the danger at hand should make the President swallow all pride and to find help where it presents itself. If the Islamic State declares their new headquarters in the Philippines, not only will it be a huge security risk but it will also put off much-needed tourism and foreign investment revenues. This impending crisis needs to be averted.