The Real Goal of the Philippines' Jihadists

3 MINS READFeb 27, 2017 | 20:49 GMT
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The Real Goal of the Philippines' Jihadists

In the Philippines, concerns are mounting over the proliferation of Islamic State affiliates on the southern islands of Mindanao. Jihadist groups in the region have been coalescing under the extremist group's flag since the head of Abu Sayyaf, Isnilon Hapilon, declared his allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014. Less than a decade earlier, Mindanao's various Islamic State affiliates were a jumble of local gangs engaged in criminal activity under the dubious banner of jihad, even operating under al Qaeda in the 1990s and early 2000s. By adopting the Islamic State's moniker and mimicking some of its tactics, Hapilon and other jihadist leaders in the Philippines have gained legitimacy, along with notoriety, as part of a well-known, transnational movement. But beyond that, the benefits of taking up the Islamic State banner have been marginal.

Mindanao, after all, was a hub for transnational jihadist groups well before the Islamic State got there, in large part because of its location. Its islands are positioned along the maritime boundaries between the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, making them an attractive destination for Indonesian and Malaysian jihadists on the run from security forces in their home countries. The archipelago's isolated geography and rugged terrain, moreover, make it difficult to govern. Smuggling operations route international fighters to jihadist camps in the southern Philippines by way of the Malaysian city of Kota Kinabalu.

The vast majority of attacks in Mindanao still target Philippine security forces and local communities that object to their hard-line brand of Islam. The strikes exhibit the same level of terrorist tradecraft that has long characterized jihadist attacks in the region as well. In September 2016, Abu Sayyaf bombed a market in Davao City, a notable soft target but one that yielded only a modest number of casualties regardless of the Islamic State's backing. Bombings in Leyte and Cotabato City in December 2016 employed artillery shells detonated remotely with a cellphone — a tactic jihadist groups in the Philippines have been using since long before they took up the Islamic State banner.

Even after two years of affiliation with the militant group, Mindanao's jihadists are still focused on everyday criminal activity. Fighters acquire weapons by raiding Philippine military posts or taking them from slain Philippine soldiers. Political figures in Mindanao have even been caught diverting weapons and materiel to supply jihadist fighters in the region. The local Islamic State affiliate groups do well for themselves financially, too. Abu Sayyaf militants on the island of Jolo conduct a brisk kidnapping-for-ransom trade in the Sulu and Celebes seas that raked in an estimated $7 million in 2015 alone. Mindanao's jihadist groups are so self-sufficient that they function without support from the Islamic State core. Compared with such profitable endeavors, coordinating spectacular terrorist attacks is not jihadist groups' primary goal in the southern Philippines.

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