[ANALYSIS] What Islamic State East Asia looks like post-Marawi

On September 24, 2017, the Islamic State’s Al-Hayat Media released a video titled “Hijrah Will Not Cease” in which a Singaporean fighter “Abu Uqayl” beckoned the ISIS (Islamic State) faithful to do their duty and travel to East Asia, specifically highlighted as opposed to other destinations.

This is nothing new: since the Marawi siege that began on May 23 and continues today, the Philippines – known as Islamic State East Asia – has dominated ISIS media coverage (Western corporate media has largely ignored Marawi and its implications for IS globally). The Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC) counted 99 attack claims (press releases) from Amaq Media Agency from late May to late September, more than twice the number of claims from any other country or region outside of Iraq and Syria during the same period. Indeed, nearly 70 claims came out of Marawi, which not only created the perception of an Islamic State East Asia, but reflected a true and tangible, highly capable ISEA fighting force.

While the battle for Marawi continues and Al-Hayat Media even released a special Nasheed for it on October 12, the last Amaq claim was on September 27. Three weeks is by far the longest dry spell since the first claim in May and reflects what TRAC calls the middle endgame period – the early endgame period began in August when claims were no longer released every 3 days or so.

New hijrah destination 

As ISIS claims for attacks in Marawi dwindled in August, claims from other areas in the Philippines came out more frequently. Another group of jihadis, a faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) called Jamaatul Mujahideen Wal Ansar (JMWA), were engaged in a series of clashes with the government-allied Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) roughly 250 kilometers south in eastern Maguindanao province. MILF went about dislodging JMWA from several enclaves (designated MILF peace zones) after the group raised the IS flag in Datu Salibo in early August. Islamic State media claimed 16 JMWA-based "Islamic State soldier" attacks purported to have more killed than 100 MILF fighters from August 2 to September 27.

Claims just from Datu Salibo 

ISEA converge on Datu Salibo

Credible sources confirm what TRAC analysis discerned from ISIS claim trends: a post-Marawi Islamic State relocation to the MILF-and-BIFF-controlled areas of the Maguindanao-North Cotabato border (Mag-NC). The destination of the Islamic State’s jihadi pipeline is no longer Marawi city, where they have been funneling (or failing to funnel) fighters and bomb-makers since December 2016 if not before. Both militants from abroad and Maute members escaping from Marawi have found their way to the JMWA bases in Datu Salibo. 

A joint operation of Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the MILF Task Force Ittihad engaged JMWA on September 27. Reports coming out after AFP and MILF forces captured the JMWA base in Barangay Tee claimed 5 Iraqi nationals, 10 Singaporeans and an unspecified number of Malaysians and Indonesians were among a group of roughly 150 local and foreign fighters assembled in the area on 23 September to plot attacks.

The September 27 raid also confirmed a direct connection between the Maute Group in Marawi and BIFF-JMWA, which AFP spokesmen have since underlined. A senior member of the Maute Group was killed during the battle in Barangay Tee along with at least five other JMWA fighters. The slain Ansari Alimama, an ethnic Maranao from Butig, Lanao del Sur, was reportedly close to leaders Omar and Abdullah Maute.

JMWA an ISEA-inspired creation

Unlike the Maute Group, Abu Sayyaf and BIFF (but more like the defunct Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines), JMWA did not exist before ISEA. JMWA is run by Esmael Abdulmalik (aka Abu Toraife/Toraype) an influential cleric and skilled bombmaker said to be a student of infamous Malaysian bomber Marwan (Zulkifli bin Hir), killed in March 2015 along with 44 soldiers in the Mamasapano massacre, near Datu Salibo. Marwan also serves as a common link between Abdulmalik and the 3 Malaysians most responsible for shuttling fighters and funding to Marawi city, Darul Islam Sabah members Dr Mahmud Ahmad, Muham­mad Joraimee Awang Raimee and Mohd Najib Husen – the latter two recently killed in Marawi.

Abdulmalik and several other clerics – Salahudin Hassan, Bashir Ungab, Nasser Adil and Ansari Yunos – broke away from the IS-linked BIFF Imam Bongos/Abu Mama Misry faction in October 2016. And yet reports suggest coordination between JMWA and its old BIFF crew as of late September 2017. At the same time that Iraqis and Singaporeans were entering Datu Salibo (23 September), the BIFF Bongos faction converged on a secluded barangay in nearby Guindulungan and engaged in firefights with several AFP detachments until they were dispersed by artillery fire. Also, while the raid on JMWA was occurring in Barangay Tee on September 27, two IED blasts were triggered along the road of an army training camp in nearby Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao, wounding a policeman, a soldier and two village officials. The attack was sophisticated in that the second bomb targeted responders to the first bomb. Indeed, security sources have noted that the BIFF Bongos faction is attempting to avenge comrades killed in the JMWA vs MILF war.

As recently as October 9, government forces conducting “anti-ISIS” operations against "20 IS-inspired BIFF" uncovered a cache of explosives, weapons and shabu (crystal methamphetamine) at the border of Talitay and Datu Anggal Midtimbang, Maguindanao, which surround Guindulungan town. It is worth noting how military-based media reports have begun to feed into the Islamic State narrative by referring to fighters not by BIFF factions but in terms of their ISIS affiliations.

The above suggests that through its media/propaganda wing, the Islamic State continues to unite foreign fighters and regional jihadi networks under one banner in Central Mindanao, even as the government has eliminated more than 600 fighters and re-asserted control in most of Marawi.

Destination: North Cotabato

Pushed out of out of their Maguindanao strongholds, Abdulmalik and his Islamic State allied cadre have moved toward Midsayap, North Cotabato, along the Mag-NC border. AFP detachments have been staking out BIFF lairs since late September when troops discovered a 60mm mortar in Talayan, Maguindanao, meant for transport to a BIFF operational base in Barangay Nabalawag, reportedly run by a Mando Mamalumpong (alias Commander DM).

On September 25, government forces in Nabalawag captured BIFF militant Muslimin Ladtugan (alias Commander Mus), connected to Abdulmalik and JMWA. Ladtugan is said to facilitate the movement of high-powered firearms and war materials, such as the 60mm artillery, for BIFF factions. Officials claim Ladtugan was planning a bombing spree to divert the AFP offensives in Maguindanao.

Security sources say troops, monitoring militant activity on September 28, discovered a temporary Islamic State base in Poblacion 7, Midsayap, ran by the Dilangalen clan, who are active in the nearby municipality of Pikit as well and have links to Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines (AKP) in South Cotabato and Sarangani.

On October 4, a 6-hour blackout occurred in areas of North Cotabato and Maguindanao due to the IED bombing of a key National Grid and Power Corporation (NGCP) tower near Carmen, North Cotabtao. The news headline “AFP considers Maguindanao and Cotabato as most threatened areas” ran on October 6 (UNTV News and Rescue) after military officials cited groups there involved in helping the Maute Group in Marawi. A security source claims to TRAC “the IS are gaining momentum in North Cotabato.”

On October 10, 3 soldiers were ambushed and injured in Nabalawag by “ISIS-inspired armed men” (as referred to by the Philippine News Agency).

The return of Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines (AKP)

In addition to the AKP connections of the Dilangalen clan in North Cotabato, on September 28 2017, Al-Khalifa Philippines (AKP) was reportedly conducting recruitment activities in Polomolok, South Cotabato. The group is operating in Sarangani Province and attempting to lure minors, reportedly through the Nilong family, longtime MILF members and training camp facilitators. However, this "AKP South" is said to consist of only 5 members.

In January 2017, after its leader and ideologue, Sarangani-based Mohammad Jaafir Sabiwang Maguid (alias Commander Tokboy) and other ranking members were killed in a police raids, the AKP lost its cohesiveness. It soon merged with the ISIS United Cyber Caliphate.

Zaidon Nilong was arrested on January 17, 2017, as a potential new leader of AKP. On February 10, he gave an interview to local media from the South Cotabato Provincial Jail. He was reported as [according to translation] “emotional in saying that he never dreamed to be the leader of the terrorist group such as al-Khilafah which he said is against the rules of Islam.”

Conclusion

The power of the Islamic State movement and banner to unite and mobilize an array of extremists and sympathizers in the Philippines should not be exaggerated. ISIS propagandists might not be the only ones with an interest in presenting the post-Marawi perception of a serious unified ISIS threat. It can also be used to justify martial law throughout Mindanao.

Marawi is a unique situation but has at least one clear lesson for those jihadis paying attention: The Islamic State helps those who help themselves by earning the right to use its propaganda machine for their own recruitment and organizing purposes.

The future of ISIS in Mindanao depends largely on one thing: reliable sanctuary. Sanctuary is guaranteed by winning either the support of the local community or the local elites – such as a MILF commander. Recently, after the clearing of the Islamic State group JMWA from Datu Salibo, authorities brought in Islamic theologians to de-radicalize those people who had been under the thumb of cleric Esmael Abdulmalik. The narrative framing of the Marawi siege-and-response among Muslims will likely play a big role in whether ISIS continues its toehold in Central Mindanao. – Rappler.com 

Michael Quiñones is a Research Associate for TRAC: Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium who specializes in jihadist activity in the Pacific Rim, Middle East and Turkey. TRAC is a digital intelligence repository on political violence and terrorism can be accessed at http://www.tracterrorism.org/ or follow us on Twitter at @TRACterrorism