Revenge attacks by pro-ISIS groups ‘very likely’ after Baghdadi killing – analyst

JC Gotinga

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Revenge attacks by pro-ISIS groups ‘very likely’ after Baghdadi killing – analyst


The death of ISIS' top leader in the Middle East may shift extremists' attention closer to home as they try to avenge his death and assert their influence, says leading terrorism analyst Rohan Gunaratna

MANILA, Philippines – Filipino terror groups linked to Islamic State (ISIS) will “very likely” attempt violent attacks to avenge the reported killing on Sunday of ISIS top leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a leading terrorism analyst told journalists on Monday, October 28.

“As you know, in the Philippines itself, more than 3 dozen groups pledged allegiance to Islamic State. In Southeast Asia alone, there are more than 100 networks that pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. So it is very likely that at least some of these groups will mount revengeful attacks, or what they call retribution attacks,” said Rohan Gunaratna, professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technology University in Singapore.

Although al-Baghdadi was a central figure in the ISIS lore that drew a following of tens of thousands of extremists from different parts of the world, the group’s relative decline in the Middle East and the emergence of its “provinces” elsewhere such as in the Philippines means its ideology, influence, and malevolence lives on.

“I think it was important that he was killed. He was a very ruthless and a very cruel leader. And he created a very effective legend, that he was the caliph, the leader of the Islamic State,” Gunaratna said.

“It has been shattered. But he has invested a lot of time and energy and organization to mobilize tens of thousands of people around the world. And now the world has to deal with those people,” he added.

The loss of al-Baghdadi, Gunaratna said, will further decentralize ISIS and push its regional tentacles to organize on their own.

ISIS in the Philippines

Several extremist groups based in Mindanao have pledged allegiance to ISIS since it came to prominence for its ruthlessness and destructiveness in the Middle East in 2014.

The Maute group, named after the family that formed it, laid siege to Marawi City in May 2017. The 5-month battle with government forces killed more than 1,000 people, and marked the undeniable entry of ISIS ideology – the attempt to carve out an Islamic territory based on a brutal interpretation of the religion – into the Philippines.

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters faction led by Esmael Abdulmalik a.k.a. Abu Torayfie – the Dawlah Islamiyah Torayfie Group – has been blamed for several bombings and attacks in central Mindanao.

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) faction in Basilan province led by Furuji Indama carried out what was believed to be the first suicide bombing in the Philippines, according to the military. On July 31, 2018, a “foreign looking” suspect drove a van by a paramilitary checkpoint in the outskirts of Lamitan City, where it exploded, killing 10 people.

Another faction of the ASG based in Sulu province led by Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan was responsible for a series of suicide bombings in the province earlier this year. Attacks on a Catholic cathedral in Jolo town in January, a Philippine Army camp in Indanan town in June, and a military checkpoint also in Indanan in September, have killed a total of 32 people, including the bombers.

One of the suicide bombers in the June 28 attack in Indanan was Filipino, an unprecedented case according to the police and military.

Sawadjaan is known to be the leader of ISIS in the Philippines. Security officials earlier said he was harboring at least 7 foreign extremists in his hideout in Sulu to train suicide bombers, if not to do it themselves.

Attacks unlikely?

Philippine security officials on Monday welcomed the report of al-Baghdadi’s death. US President Donald Trump on Sunday said the ISIS leader detonated a suicide vest when he was cornered in a raid by US Special Forces in northwestern Syria.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said it was a “severe blow” to terror groups around the world. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said as much, but added that al-Baghdadi’s death was “just a momentary setback” for ISIS.

The military downplayed the threat from local terrorists, saying it “seriously doubts” there would be retaliatory attacks, according to AFP spokesperson Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo.

Nevertheless, government forces on the ground were “ready for any eventuality,” Arevalo added.

Although the leaders of local ISIS-linked groups will likely feel the impact of al-Baghdadi’s loss, their “rank and file” fighters probably know too little about him to get the urge to avenge his killing, said AFP Western Mindanao Command chief Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana.

Sobejana said he ordered troops under his command “to intensify their intelligence operations, monitor the hostile plans of the ISIS-inspired groups here in the area, and take proactive measures so we do not just take it for granted…but there is no cause for alarm.”

ISIS and Al Qaeda

Although some local extremist groups are linked to ISIS in the Middle East by ideology, Gunaratna said they are mostly able to finance and organize their own operations, and are unlikely to feel the pinch should the mothership tank.

Moreover, al-Baghdadi’s rivalry with Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was pretty much the only thing that prevented ISIS and Al Qaeda from joining forces.

“When these leaders die, the younger leaders have no problem with cooperation and collaboration,” Gunaratna said, and wiith al-Baghdadi gone, the two terror organizations will likely “come together.”

That means local ISIS-linked groups may soon join forces with Al Qaeda-linked ones. For example, Sawadjaan’s faction of the ASG might absorb the broader group led by the aging Radullan Sahiron, who rejected ISIS.

ISIS-inspired groups in Southeast Asia could pair up with the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah, which is linked to Al Qaeda.

With ISIS losing territory in Iraq and Syria, its leadership dispersing, and now, its apex leader killed, extremists in other parts of the world have less reason to fixate on the Middle East, and will likely shift their attention closer to home.

Terrorism is “morphing” and terrorists are “changing their format,” Gunaratna warned.

“They are now returning to their own home countries, and they will build a new generation of fighters…. Governments will have to be prepared for that,” he added. –

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.