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Could Militants in the Philippines Make a Comeback?

9 MINS READApr 24, 2018 | 08:00 GMT
Philippine lawmakers continue to wrangle over passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, adding to political uncertainty in Mindanao that could help Islamist militias there redevelop their strength.
(Jes Aznar/Getty Images)

Soldiers being deployed to the frontline in June 2017 inside the besieged Marawi City.

  • Militant attacks, piracy and kidnapping continue to threaten the southern Philippines six months after the end of fighting in Marawi City.
  • Although that threat has diminished, slow movement on the political front gives the threat more time and space to grow.
  • Regional interconnectedness means that militant safe havens in the southern Philippines will continue to pose a threat to Malaysia and Indonesia.

Six months have passed since the Armed Forces of the Philippines officially wrapped up operations against Islamic State-aligned militants who had occupied Marawi City on the southern island of Mindanao. Liberating the southern provincial capital yielded a significant peace dividend for the Philippine government. President Rodrigo Duterte continues to enjoy high popularity in the southern Philippines, local Moro leaders continue to support security forces in keeping the jihadist militant threat at bay, and despite anti-U.S. rhetoric emanating from Manila, cooperation with the United States on security matters has continued to grow. But the militant threat in the southern Philippines lingers, and underlying grievances driving the militancy remain largely unaddressed. At some point, the goodwill generated by the militants' defeat in Marawi City is going to run out, and the tenuous peace currently presiding over Mindanao will be tested over the next few months.

Many of the security trends that were playing out in October 2016 as security forces were eliminating the final militants in Marawi City remain in place. With the disintegration of the Maute group during the battle of Marawi City, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) have continued to be Mindinao's most active militant group with Islamic State ties. Its activity is concentrated in Maguindanao province, situated between Davao and Cotabato City. The group, with an estimated 200 to 300 members, has carried out regular attacks against security forces. On March 11, Philippine troops killed scores of BIFF fighters, but 10 days later, the militants responded with an attack on a police station. Despite military defeats and other setbacks, BIFF continues to pose a threat in Maguindanao and surrounding provinces. Despite its preference to operate in more rural areas, its proximity to urban centers like Davao and Cotabato City means that an attack against those cities cannot be ruled out.

The Big Picture

Philippine forces chased away the last of the Islamic State-linked militants who had seized Marawi City in October, but the jihadists have continued to linger on Mindinao and could potentially rebuild. The more time and space that the militants are given to regroup in the southern Philippines, the greater threat they will pose to neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia.

A map showing the militant landscape in the southern Philippines

According to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, remnants of the Maute group are re-forming farther north in Lanao del Sur, in the rural areas outside Marawi City. What those militants lack in numbers — their strength is estimated to be around 200 fighters — they make up for in resources. Abu Dar, a militant who survived the Marawi City siege to succeed Isnilon Hapilon as leader of the Islamic State in the Philippines, reportedly escaped the siege with tens of millions of dollars worth of cash, gold and jewelry looted from the city. Abu Dar is thought to be using the riches to recruit young, disenfranchised fighters to join the jihadist cause and pick up where the Maute group left off. Malaysian authorities, however, have a different take, claiming that one of its citizens, Mohd Amin Baco, is the leader of the Islamic State in the Philippines. Regardless, reports of militant activity around Marawi City are scarce, suggesting that if militants are regrouping, they are doing so cautiously.

The Philippines is also home to the militant group Abu Sayyaf, which stretches out along the Sulu Archipelago. Its members continue to harass security forces at about the same rate as they did before and during the Marawi City siege: however, the Abu Sayyaf gangs that ran maritime piracy operations under the Islamic State flag have been largely unsuccessful over the past 12 months, at least compared to their activities in 2016 and 2017. Abu Sayyaf pirates captured dozens of hostages in 17 successful attacks on maritime targets from April 2016- April 2017. Since then, the groups have not managed any successful attacks. In large part, an increase in naval patrols by the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Australia can be credited for thwarting their attempts. Response times to distress calls are now measured in minutes instead of hours, and patrols have even managed to pick up on preoperational surveillance runs, stopping attacks before they even happen. But pirates in the area continue to pursue attacks, and sooner or later, they will be successful again. Shipping interests, resorts and other commercial interests in the Sulu and Celebes Sea region would be well advised to continue to guard against the threat of kidnappings.

Barriers to Success

There are a couple of political challenges ahead for Manila as it strives to fulfill its the promises to establish an autonomous region in the area most affected by the Marawi City siege and, at the same time, rebuild Marawi City. The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) has been touted as the framework for undermining jihadist grievances in the southern Philippines by handing over more control to local Muslim leaders. Local leaders, supported by their communities, have repeatedly sought such authority, and since taking office, Duterte has promised to grant it to them. 

But despite optimism that the Marawi City siege would finally attract enough political support to push the law through Congress, the Philippine Senate has missed deadline after deadline since October, threatening to undermine the Muslim leaders who have called for peace, and bolstering the jihadists who espouse that independence is the only option and autonomy under the Philippine government is a false promise. As of now, the Senate is aiming to pass the BBL by early June — around the time of the first anniversary of the May 23 attack on Marawi City that kicked off the five-month-long siege. Duterte, however, appears to be less optimistic about that timeline and is talking about passing it by the end of the year. Symbolically, commemorating the first anniversary of the attack on Marawi City without further progress on the BBL will be awkward; but if the legislation has not passed by the first anniversary of the end of the siege in October, it will severely test the local support Manilla and Duterte have enjoyed so far.

Eradicating militancy — or containing it, at the very least — is integral to the security of the southern Philippines. However, the potential for spillover into the rest of Southeast Asia raises serious concerns.

As national and local leaders struggle to rebuild a political arrangement to address the long-term militant threat in the southern Philippines, Marawi City is undergoing a much more literal reconstruction. Manila has approved more than $300 million to rebuild the city and, as anticipated, the specifics around the reconstruction are causing strife. Five Chinese firms are among the consortium involved in the reconstruction, a point that has led to a measure of protest by residents who are only now finally starting to return home. Not only does Chinese involvement raise concerns about reconstruction funds benefitting foreign instead of local interests, cooperation with China tends to inflame nationalist sentiments in the Philippines. The involvement of China — despite it being among the Philippines' largest trading partners and home to the kinds of engineering and construction companies capable of such projects — will create its own political issues. Public backlash against yet another plan for Marawi City has centered on the Philippine military's plans to build a base within the city limits — a move that locals fear would make them a target for further attacks but which the military sees as critical to securing the area. Large reconstruction projects are bound to miss deadlines, run over budgets and offend local sensibilities. If those pressures build on top of a stalled deal for political autonomy, the popular backlash would be potentially more damaging than the improvised bombs and small arms wielded by guerilla jihadist groups.

Are Militancies Contagious?

Finally, what transpires in the southern Philippines over the course of the year will affect the jihadist threat in the rest of southeast Asia. For at least the past two years, the southern Philippines have been the most permissive environment for Southeast Asian militant operations. As militants were planning and carrying out their attack on Marawi City, Indonesian and Malaysian security forces were at work dismantling other extremist groups such as Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and disrupting plots linked back to Muhammad Wanndy Jedi before he was killed in Syria. Their success against Islamic State supporters, coupled with the failure of Philippines security forces to dislodge militant groups from Mindanao, helped draw hundreds of foreign fighters into the Marawi City fight. For militants from Indonesia and Malaysia, attacks at home proved too difficult and travel to Iraq and Syria too harrowing — but jihadist networks were more than capable of smuggling fighters from Malaysia's Sabah and Indonesia's Kalimantan provinces into the southern Philippines. As Malaysian and Indonesian authorities continue to disrupt militant plots, they are finding that most schemes have some link back to the Philippines, either in the form of weapons, training, personnel or planning. As long as jihadism simmers in the Philippines, it will continue to pose a terrorist risk to the broader region.

As 2018 wears on, it will be important to watch for signs of increased threats from the southern Philippines. A more active threat in Maguindanao, either in the form of an urban attack or successful raid on security forces would be signs of a stronger BIFF. Likewise, increased aggression from the remnants of the (allegedly) wealthy militant survivors of the Marawi City siege farther north would be an indicator that security forces are struggling to keep them from regrouping. Further piracy activity in the Sulu and Celebes seas, including an eventual successful attack or a kidnapping that draws more attention is likely. Stability in the southern Philippines will also be closely tied to the progress of both the BBL and the rebuilding efforts in Marawi City. While all of these developments are, of course, integral to the security of the southern Philippines, the security situation there will have spillover potential into the rest of Southeast Asia as well. A pacified Mindanao will reduce the threat in Malaysia and Indonesia, while a resurgent militant threat will put more pressure on neighboring security forces to contain it.

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