MANILA, Philippines – One month after the Resorts World attack in Manila, terrorism experts tell Rappler they believe the Philippines prematurely dismissed claims by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, IS, ISIL or Daesch, and asked for an investigation into its claim the Resorts World gunman was a recent convert to Islam.
The June 2 attack was “at the very minimum sanctioned – if not directed – by the Islamic State,” Veryan Khan, editorial director and founder of Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC), told Rappler. TRAC is a digital intelligence repository focused on global terrorism and political violence.
“It isn’t true that ISIS has a history of claiming others’ attacks as their own,” added Jones. “There’s usually a basis for it, even though their media departments don’t always get the details right.”
Khan and Jones are echoed by Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside al-Qaeda and the head of the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research.
“The propaganda organs of ISIS such as Amaq exaggerate but do not falsely take credit for attacks mounted by other entities,” said Gunaratna, who, based on his study of ISIS, warned Philippine authorities of possible attacks a month before Resorts World and Marawi. (READ: ISIS planning more attacks in PH and region - terror expert)
Experts who closely track the Islamic State agree: an ISIS claim of responsibility usually means the attack might have been planned, funded and directed by ISIS or inspired by the group's sophisticated propaganda.
In its section listing its global operations for the month, "Military and Covert Operations," ISIS includes Resorts World, referring to it as "an inghimasi attack." On June 8, ISIS’ glossy magazine, Rumiyah featured Resorts World on its cover with the title: "The Jihad in East Asia."
Based on ISIS' internal files translated and analyzed by the US military's Combating Terrorism Center, an inghimasi is a "suicide fighter" or "those who submerse in enemy's line with no intent to come back alive." Its 10th edition was released in 9 languages: English, Uighur, Pashto, Kurdish, Indonesian, Bosnian, Russian, German and French, and focused on attacks on "Crusader soil" including Manchester in the United Kingdom and in Marawi in the Philippines.
This follows ISIS’ 4 claims within about 24 hours of the June 2 attack:
"Given that Amaq and Nashir claimed the attack as well as Rumiyah 10, there is no doubt that the Islamic State had some hand in the event," concluded TRAC's Khan.
"Often they offer details that were never released by security forces, and they have a reason to not lie," added Khan. "They would lose support if they went around claiming things they were only mildly certain of."
Gunman converted to Islam?
The video shows a man calmly walking through Resorts World setting gambling tables on fire before, finally, setting himself on fire.
On Sunday, June 4 – two days after the attack, Philippine police categorically ruled out any links to ISIS.
On June 8, the Filipino ISIS operative in Marawi posted again, claiming Carlos adopted the Muslim name “Khair” after converting to Islam 4 months earlier.
"Our connections in Manila 1 week before the attack we already know his plan to destroy the casino because it is HARAM and making his life difficult because of the practices of gambling by the kufar [non-believers]," reads the message.
"That is why 10 minutes after his go signal to us we already posted a 'LONEWOLF attack was conducted by the soldier of the caliphate.'"
Semion Almujaheed is the Telegram account used by this Filipino ISIS operative. It gained credibility by providing daily updates of the ongoing battles in Marawi. This account posted the photos and video of the Marawi Catholic priest held hostage on May 30, and was first to claim the Resorts World attack for ISIS within minutes of the first gunshot.
Almujaheed was also the first to refer to Carlos as a shaheed, someone who dies deliberately for his faith.
“It makes sense that a disgruntled employee with this man’s background could be vulnerable to recruitment and conversion,” said IPAC’s Sidney Jones. At this time, no evidence of radicalization or conversion exists apart from this ISIS claim. Studies do show that, among other factors like increasing alienation, as radicalism increases, family influence decreases.
Intelligence officials from the Philippines approached by Rappler after June 23 say they have yet to look into this ISIS claim. One said this was the first time he heard about it, echoing official sentiment.
“ISIS has no credibility,” Armed Forces of the Philippines chief General Eduardo Año texted Rappler on June 10. “It was a case of a gambling addict who was heavily indebted. He went berserk and tried to steal gambling chips. When confronted by the PNP [Philippine National Police], he realized it was too late and committed suicide.”
“When the account said he put chips in his backpack, end of story agad 'yun (That was the end of the story),” Año continued. “[A] terrorist will never do that. And he never shot at people.”
Yet, hours before his death, Carlos may have done exactly that.
On June 23, the Manila Police District said that Carlos is the only “person of interest” in the killings of two people, a lawyer and an ex-cop turned casino financier, a few hours before the Resorts World attack. Both were shot in the back of their heads inside a car. (READ: Resorts World gunman possible suspect in BMW killings – MPD)
Again, CCTV video shows a man who could be Carlos crawling out of the back of the car. If it is him, this could reinforce the theory of a man gone crazy, but could also show a possible new convert who killed before committing an act that some terrorist writings claim would cleanse his sins.
“Philippine authorities should investigate the Islamic State claim that Jessie Javier Carlos converted to Islam and was recruited by ISIS,” cautioned Gunaratna from Singapore. “Until that line of inquiry is completed, government should be careful of dismissing the ISIS claim.”
This isn’t the first time the Philippine government has denied terrorism: in 2004, investigators initially ruled the Superferry bombing was an accident. The details we had then at CNN, including an early claim to the attack as well as an extortion letter, allowed us to report it had the hallmarks of terrorism.
It took about 8 months before the government admitted it was a terrorist attack, the largest maritime attack in Southeast Asia, carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah, then al-Qaeda’s arm in the region. There has always been a nexus between terrorism, crime, and drugs.
“I hate to speculate what the Philippine government is thinking,” TRAC’s Khan said. “I do know in other places like Bangladesh, when the government has adamantly denied Islamic State attacks even in the face of attacks claimed, often it’s been to either try to assuage the general fear of the citizens or protect their tourism industry.”
"It's well known to have been directly planned from ash Sham [Syria]," added Khan.
There are clues to what may be behind the Philippines' denial.
On June 19, an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court said the government deliberately painted a different picture from reality because of "psychological operations" against ISIS.
To justify the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, authorities admitted government lied on May 24 when a military spokesman repeatedly said the military was in "full control" in Marawi and that "the armed men we are dealing with are not ISIS but members of a local terrorist group."
Solicitor General Jose Calida quoted Año that “there had been a directive to all AFP spokesperson and personnel to downplay any news or information pertaining to this collective group” (referring to ISIS).
These statements “were made to encourage foreign investments and maintain confidence in the Philippine economy.” (READ: AFP downplayed ISIS threat as part of psychological ops – Año)
This strategy, though, leaves the public vulnerable.
Western governments issue terrorist alert warnings for the public good. They see it as a responsibility: citizens must be aware of threats so they can protect themselves. It has a legal responsibility: for example, an American citizen caught in a terror attack could file a case against the government if it had prior knowledge of a plot and failed to inform the public.
It’s a delicate balance between the public’s right to know and national security, part of the reason terrorist alert warnings are often vaguely worded.
About a month before the Resorts World attack, ISIS claimed two consecutive weekend attacks in Manila on April 28 and May 6, both denied by Philippine officials. (READ: ISIS planning more attacks in PH and region - terror expert)
While the British government warned its citizens to avoid the Quiapo area on the same day as the May 6 blasts, the Philippine government ordered telecommunications companies to shut down cellular networks but gave no warning to its citizens.
Was this also part of psychological operations?
It becomes a crucial question after the Filipino ISIS operative's ominous warning:
"My message to the Philippine government denying the fact our soldiers conducted the attack, just wait. By Allah's permission another strike will come and believe me you will never see it coming."
PH inspiration for global jihadists
We need to examine the continuing evolution of the ideology which transformed al-Qaeda linked homegrown groups to ISIS in the Philippines. As early as 2011, we reported on the first black flag and the training camps in central Mindanao, which would later become the base of the Maute Group. (READ: ISIS’ global ambitions and plans for Southeast Asia)
“The longer term concern is that extremist ideology has taken root in the Philippines, and that will be much harder to eradicate,” said IPAC’s Jones. “There will be blowback to the rest of the region.”
“Until now the main fear has been that foreign fighters could return home from Syria and Iraq,” added Jones. “No one thought that the bigger threat would be foreign fighters who never set foot in the Middle East coming back from a conflict much closer to home.”
On January 13, 2017, the Malaysian government announced it had dismantled a Sabah cell to funnel ISIS fighters to Marawi. (READ: Filipino millennial joins ISIS in Syria)
That cell was allegedly receiving instructions from Isnilon Hapilon in the southern Philippines, the former Abu Sayyaf leader who has successfully united disparate homegrown groups and held ground in Marawi. (READ: ISIS to declare a province in Mindanao?)
In Rumiyah 10, Hapilon gains new status in ISIS’ ranks and is given a new name – with an entire section devoted to an interview with the "Emir of East Asia" Shaykh Abu "Abdullah al Muhajir."
This “elevates Hapilon’s status not only in the Pacific Rim but globally,” said TRAC’s Khan. “Hapilon seemingly has won the political battle for who will run ISIS Pacific Rim, a competition for attention from ash Sham [Syria] that has been raging for at least two years.”
This video was posted in April before the attack on Marawi and Resorts World. It plants the ISIS flag on the Philippines, and in Filipino declares, “Ang mga Sundalo ng Khilafa sa Silangang Asya” or the Islamic fighters in East Asia.
The graphics are followed by video of training and fighting in central Mindanao – including the Maute Group’s brutal beheading of two Filipino sawmill workers in April 2016.
Indonesian extremists shared the video and were pushing each other to travel to the Philippines, with one saying in a chat room, “Don’t be a lion in the virtual world and a rabbit in the real world.”
Now that chatter is global.
“TRAC has seen evidence that the success in Marawi has the attention of Indonesian ISIS supporters and serves as an aspiration to them,” said Khan. “Even ISIS supporters in Germany have started creating German language CGI propaganda posters to celebrate the success story of Marawi City.”
“The Philippines is now acting as a catalyst for Islamic State propaganda to distract from battlefield losses in ash Sham [Syria].” – Rappler.com
Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.