The horrific bombing of the cathedral in Jolo last Sunday underscores the need for the Philippines government to understand more about the operations of pro-ISIS groups in Mindanao. The best way to get that information is to find, arrest, and debrief the perpetrators of violent extremist crimes.
Instead, the focus of the Philippines military, encouraged by US Special Forces, has been on killing, “crushing”, and bombing suspected hideouts via airstrikes – virtually ensuring that vital information is lost.
It is long past time to focus more on information-gathering and less on bombing the Abu Sayyaf Group to smithereens.
After the “liberation” of Marawi, the city that was taken over by a pro-ISIS coalition in May 2017 and held for five months, it was clear that several leaders had survived, and there was a good chance that the coalition’s components would disperse and regroup. They also were believed to have access to millions of dollars looted from Marawi homes and banks.
Throughout 2018 there were persistent reports of recruiting around Marawi in the Lanao del Sur province by Humam Abdul Najid, alias Owayda alias Abu Dar. Abu Dar, an ethnic Maranao, had been with the Maute brothers, leaders of the Marawi siege, until the very end. The Mautes were killed but Abu Dar has been fighting ever since.
Fighting also continued in and around Maguindanao province in central Mindanao by a pro-ISIS faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) led by Esmael Abdulmalik alias Abu Toraife, an ethnic Maguindanaon who never joined the Marawi siege but who has used fighters from other pro-ISIS components – reportedly including a few foreigners. He has kept up attacks to this day on fellow Maguindanaons in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and government forces.
Then there is the rash of bomb attacks:
- 31 July 2018: the Philippines’ first suicide bombing in Lamitan, Basilan, carried out by a man with dual German-Moroccan nationality with the nom de guerre of Abu Kathir al-Maghribi. He had come into Basilan from Jolo. The Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) on Basilan, led by Isnilon Hapilon who was killed in Marawi, was a key component of the ISIS coalition. Hapilon was the overall amir for the coalition, which called itself the “East Asia Wilayah”, or the East Asia province of Islamic State.
- 28 August and 2 September 2018: bombings in Isulan, Sultan Kudarat province of a night market and internet café respectively. Sultan Kudarat is home base to another element of the coalition, Ansar Khilafah Philippines (AKP). The AKP leader, Mohammad Jaafar Maguid known as Commander Tokboy, was killed in January 2017 but some of his fighters continue to cause trouble in the area. AKP traditionally had close links to Indonesian extremists. It also hosted training camps for pro-ISIS fighters in late 2014-2015, in the lead-up to Marawi.
- 16 September 2018: a bombing at a clinic in General Santos city wounded eight; there were no fatalities. Police said the suspects were remnants of the AKP working with a criminal gang called the Nilong Group.
- 31 December 2018: a bombing outside the South Seas Mall in Cotabato City killed two and injured 34. A young suspect linked to the Abu Toraife faction of BIFF turned himself in while another was being sought.
- 27 January 2019: the Jolo cathedral bombing. Three days later, government officials were making contradictory statements about whether the bombs were remotely detonated or suicide attacks and whether foreigners were involved. ISIS immediately claimed responsibility over its online media, and extremist Telegram sites circulated a graphic poster showing an ISIS fighter standing on top of a mountain of skulls, over a kneeling Duterte, as if ready to behead him. The caption read “The Fighting Has Just Begun #EastAsia”.
Instead of vowing to crush ASG, instead of setting huge bounties on the heads of key leaders to encourage their killing, and instead of relentless airstrikes that displace and alienate local populations, Philippine security forces should be making a concerted effort to capture pro-ISIS suspects alive so they can get information to connect the dots and answer some critical questions:
- To what extent is there communication and coordination among the different pro-ISIS components in Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Basilan and Jolo?
- Who in Mindanao is communicating with ISIS media outlets?
- What is known about the money trail from Marawi?
- What is known about the wives, daughters and mothers of top pro-ISIS operatives and their personal networks? The mother of the Maute brothers, now in prison, proved to be a critical figure in arranging support and refuge for her sons. Why hasn’t more attention been paid to women operatives?
- Who has replaced the Malaysian national Dr Mahmud Ahmad (killed in Marawi), as fund-raiser and chief recruiter for foreign nationals?
- How many foreign fighters are with different pro-ISIS components, where are they from and when did they arrive? (Estimates range from under ten to over 40 on Jolo alone.)
- What kind of explosives training is taking place and who are the instructors? In particular, where is Abu Nida alias Zacaria, an Indonesian in Mindanao since 2003 and with the ASG since 2005 who was an important trainer for ASG-Basilan and the AKP before the Marawi siege?
- How, if at all, are recent kidnappings linked to the surge in pro-ISIS activity?
- How important is the Sabah-based support network for different ASG factions?
Despite martial law in Mindanao, there have been relatively few arrests. As of this month, according to data from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology in Manila, the number of people arrested from pro-ISIS groups was only 44 – and that was down from 67 in July 2018 because many had been released on technicalities. 15 of the 44 were women.
At the same time, the Philippines army has encouraged many fighters to surrender, and the media is full of reports of ten ASG surrendering here, two or three teenage Maute fighters there. But it is not clear who debriefs them, how the debriefings are shared or who has the experience or interest to ask about cross-group, cross-regional ties – let alone ISIS links. Those with outstanding criminal warrants are supposed to be turned over to the police, but the police say they have little information about who is being held in military custody.
It is long past time to focus more on information-gathering and less on bombing the ASG to smithereens – because it is ultimately better intelligence that will help prevent another Jolo.