4 PH terror groups link up with pro-ISIS fighters in region

MANILA, Philippines – A Jakarta-based think tank warned of "more deadly violence" in the Philippines after it traced direct links between 4 pro-Islamic State (ISIS) groups in Mindanao and extremists in neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia. 

"ISIS has brought an ideological justification for unity that has turned into operational collaboration: the 2 September Davao bombing is evidence," according to the Institute for Policy Analysis of Confict (IPAC) in the report "Pro-ISIS Groups in Mindanao and Their Links to Indonesia and Malaysia."

ISIS setbacks in the Middle East – where the international terrorist group wants to establish a caliphate – could divert fighters in the region from Syria to the southern Philippines, the report said.

The report was released Tuesday, October 25. It was based on interviews, trial documents, and other primary source material. (Read the full report here.)

"The Philippines is important because as far as the ISIS leadership is concerned, it is the extension of the caliphate in the region," according to the report. (READ: ISIS to declare a province in Mindanao?)

"While it has not been formally declared as a province or wilayat, ISIS has endorsed an Abu Sayyaf leader, Isnilon Hapilon, as amir for Southeast Asia, and Southeast Asians in Syria have pledged their loyalty to him," the report added.

The report showed how the following groups received funding or training from pro-ISIS "operatives" in Indonesia and Malaysia, and in turn provided refuge or supported activities of their counterparts.

"It means that more deadly violence in the Philippines involving alliances of pro-ISIS groups is a matter of when, not if. It may also increase the possibility of cross-border extremist operations," the report added.

The report said that the ties of the members of the Filipino terrorist groups to their Indonesia and Malaysian counterparts go back more than a decade. Some of them have fought together in conflicts that erupted in the region while others have been in prison together.  

Davao City bombing

The IPAC report supports investigations by Rappler executive editor Maria Ressa on the links of local terrorists groups to foreign jihadists. (READ: Who is beind the Davao bombing?)

IPAC said the September 2, 2016 bombing of the night market in Davao City is a "case in point" of the linkages. (READ: Defense chief: 3 Davao bombing suspects arrested)

"Basilan has provided the example of the transformation of the urban terrorist group into a pro-ISIS group being trained by a Moroccan, assisted by Malaysians and almost certainly funded from outside. The AKP shows us the importance of prison bonds forged in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines and how easily those bonds extend into Syria," the report said.

"Omar Maute's own family ties to Bekasi, fluency in Indonesian and knowledge of social media may have given him a wider international network than the Philippines government has even begun to suspect," the report added. 

The military and the police have arrested 3 suspects. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana described them as "students of Marwan," referring to the late Malaysian bombmaker Zulkifli bin Hir who was the target of a controversial police operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, in January 2015. 

Spike in activities of extremists

A separate report by Philippine-based conflict monitoring group International Alert shows a spike in violent incidents associated with these extremist groups in the past 5 years, resulting in hundreds of deaths. 

DATA ON VIOLENCE. International Alert country director Francisco Lara presents data from the monitoring of violence in Mindanao.

Rappler photo

"The data shows the number of incidence of violence that are related to these different groups – the Maute Group, Ansarul Khilafa, the BIFF and the ASG. It indicates a spike in violence associated to these groups contrast to their activites in previous years. The years 2014 and 2015 have been particularly virulent," said Francisco Lara, country manager of International Alert. 

International Alert data shows the BIFF is responsible for at least 463 deaths, ASG for at least 482 deaths, and the Maute Group for at least 86 deaths. 

The same data links Indonesian-led Jemaah Islamiyah to at least 10 deaths in 2015. 

International Alert on Tuesday launched "Conflict Alert," a monitoring system covering 15 provinces in Mindanao.

The data spanning 5 years show that most conflicts in Mindanao are caused by common crimes and shadow-economy related violence, but most deaths are caused by political and identity-based conflicts such as rido

Conflict Alert seeks to provide data to guide policy formation. 

Mindanao: 'Next best option'

IPAC director Sydney Jones said extremists find Mindanao as the "next best option" to establish a caliphate as it becomes harder for them to go to Syria. 

“Over the last two years, ISIS has provided a new basis for cooperation among extremists in the region....  That cooperation could take on a new importance as ISIS losses in the Middle East increase and the incentive to undertake violence elsewhere rises," Jones said. 

"As getting to Syria becomes increasingly difficult for Southeast Asian fighters, Mindanao may be the next best option.... The difference is that it's easier to get home," Jones added.

The ISIS brand has allowed the terrorist groups to recruit university students. "There is some evidence that the Maute group and the AKP have been able to use the appeal of the ISIS brand to attract university students. The more extremists in Mindanao can attract educated and computer-savvy cadres, the greater the likelihood of cross-regional contact," the report said. 

Both IPAC and International Alert highlighted the importance of completing the peace proces with the MILF to address the threats in Mindanao. 

"A workable peace with the MILF remains an important barrier to the spread of extremism," said IPAC.

"Peacebuilding and development actors must develop effective peacebuilding  strategies that address the links between multiple causes of violence ot prevent the morphing of conflict causes," said Lara. – Rappler.com