Eighteen soldiers were killed after a 10-hour clash with a faction of the Abu Sayyaf militant group in the Philippines’ Basilan province on April 9th. Observers were quick to declare it the first major Islamic State (ISIS) attack in the country. But, aside from a communique of acknowledgment from the Middle East-based group, there is little evidence of actual operational involvement by ISIS. Unfortunately, even speculation of foreign terrorist activity in the wider Mindanao region risks derailing an already stalled peace process, particularly as the Philippines heads toward a presidential election on May 9th.
The soldiers were ambushed by an estimated 100-120 Abu Sayyaf fighters in the village of Tipo-Tipo, with the clash also killing 26 of the militants. Despite their own losses, the army considered the engagement a major blow against Abu Sayyaf, which was well established in the adjoining town of Albarka. Among those killed was Moroccan national Mohammad Khattab, who was described as a jihadist preacher and bomb-maker, allegedly in the Philippines to link up local militants and international terrorist networks.
The ISIS claim of responsibility exaggerated the outcome as involving the destruction of seven troop transports and the killing of nearly 100 soldiers. The army, however, has not suppressed online images that show just three damaged vehicles, none of which suffered the catastrophic damage claimed.
Abu Sayyaf has long sought to exploit the ISIS brand and obtain the group’s formal recognition. The Basilan-based faction engaged in the recent fighting was led by Isnilon Hapilon, who gained notoriety for pledging allegiance to ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in July 2014. Hapilon’s faction reiterated its pledge on January 4 this year, and the militants have begun to operate under the moniker of Jund al Tawhid Battalion, which was speculated as being a precursor to the declaration of an ISIS wilayat, or province, in Mindanao, the restive, Muslim-heavy southern region of the Philippines.
In reality, Hapilon latching onto the ISIS brand is due more to the loss of influence his own group has suffered over the past decade or more. In 2002, United States special operations forces were deployed to Mindanao through Oplan Balikatan (“shoulder-to-shoulder”), a joint military capability-building exercise with the Philippine army. As a result of the offensives this operation launched, Abu Sayyaf’s presence in Basilan was deemed negligible by 2006. From its peak strength of around 1,200 fighters, it was estimated to have just 400 armed members by 2015.
The army casualties sustained in the recent attacks are seen by some as reflecting Abu Sayyaf’s re-energized capabilities. However, such conclusions discount the long violent history of Basilan, particularly in Albarka and Tipo-Tipo. In 2007 and 2011, Tipo-Tipo and Albarka were the site of two large skirmishes against Muslim armed groups that claimed the lives of 23 and 19 army member respectively.
The use of powerful improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the April 9th ambush gave a similarly false indication of ISIS involvement, since Abu Sayyaf has been known to use IEDs since its inception. Despite their more common association with Middle Eastern extremists, IEDs have also been commonly used by many other Filipino insurrectionists, including communist guerrillas from the New People’s Army in non-Muslim Luzon, and secessionist rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, who have long fought for autonomy for Mindanao.
In reality, Abu Sayyaf remains a relatively weak and localized militant group. Difficult terrain and the convoluted local politics of Basilan localities often pose more of a challenge to military operations against it than do the group’s own material capabilities. Local intertwined social and kinship networks also provide Abu Sayyaf with advance knowledge of military operations. All able-bodied men in these communities are expected to take part in pintakasi, or ganging up on security forces seen to be invaders. However, individuals engaged in pintakasi mostly use the violence as an opportunity to acquire spoils of war, such as firearms from military units.
Allegations of an ISIS involvement in the Basilan attacks clearly serve that group’s own propaganda purposes, as well as those of Abu Sayyaf. They come at a time when ISIS is suffering major setbacks in its Syria and Iraq territories, and its members and supporters are eager to claim any foreign violence.
Regardless, the very idea that ISIS has established a presence in Mindanao does not bode well for the ongoing peace process in the southern Philippines. Since 1997, the government has held on-and-off talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim secessionist group in the country. After protracted negotiations, the two parties signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in 2014, which then led to the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). This legislation was intended to grant meaningful political autonomy to Filipino Muslims and usher in peace in Mindanao, but unfortunately its passage has been stalled.
Even a false specter of ISIS in the region will empower those opposed to the peace process and who instead favor pursuit of a military victory against local Islamists. The issue is also being dragged into the election campaign. The emerging narrative is on how the administration of President Benigno Aquino has ignored the purported ISIS threat. This will likely gain greater traction among opposition politicians in the run-up to the May polls.
None of the presidential candidates have laid out specific measures to address the threat of ISIS. Some candidates, such as Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, have used the issue as an argument for rejecting the BBL and establishing a federalist system of government in the Philippines. Other aspirants are even more confrontational, with Senators Grace Poe and Miriam Defensor-Santiago claiming that the BBL is “contradicting sovereignty” and a gateway to “secession.” Only Mar Roxas, a member of the Aquino administration, has expressed the need for urgency in passing the law. Whoever wins the election will need to deal with uncertainty surrounding the involvement of ISIS in the Philippines, which is currently sustaining the polarization between Muslims and non-Muslims that the extremist group craves.
Joseph Franco is an Associate Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.