ISIS on the comeback trail

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Rafael M. Alunan III

To Take A Stand

On June 28, news filtered in from Indanan, Sulu that two suicide bombers had penetrated the headquarters of the Army’s 1st Brigade Combat Team. As of the latest reports, eight people were killed (the two bombers, three soldiers, and three civilians); while 22 were wounded (12 soldiers and 10 civilians). The Islamic State East Asia Province (ISEAP) allegedly claimed responsibility for the attack.

The suicide bombers, who were riding in tandem on a motorcycle, barged into the military camp and blew themselves up shortly before noon last Friday. Body parts were recovered inside the camp. One of the attackers detonated the bomb he was carrying near the Brigade commander’s parking area. A firefight ensued, backed by mortar and sniper fire from the suicide bombers’ support group that lasted around an hour.

Local sources say one of the two bombers was a Malaysian Tausug, from Sabah in all likelihood. Perhaps the other one was too. Both were vaporized but local intel reportedly knows their identities already. The firefight was carried out by support elements from “black flag” groups affiliated with ISEAP. After ISIS was decisively ejected from the Middle East, it turned its sights on Southeast Asia, mainly Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, calling this area its “province.”

Suicide bombing is a ruthless combat tactic that targets both combatants and non-combatants alike. It does not discriminate. It’s commonplace in the Near East, Middle East, and Africa. That’s where the influence is coming from, giving rise to local black flag groups manned mainly by youthful Muslim extremists and converts.

Adherents of the black flag movements are basically Salafis. The theology they espouse contains elements of Salafi–Jihadi Islam. They display the back flag with Arabic inscriptions. Black is used in an apocalyptic context (end of days symbology) signifying religious intolerance and violence against the Muslim and non-Muslim groups they label as non-believers.

There are two major black flag movements that provide ideological guidance:

1. Al-Qaeda — it still has various groups around the world affiliated to it such as the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Its Philippine footprint strengthened the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and the Rajah Sulaiman Movement that gave rise to many terrorist actions around the country.

2. The Daula Islamiyah (DI) also known as Daesh (IS) — an offshoot group from Al-Qaeda that stirred a hornet’s nest amongst different Salafi-Jihadi groups around the world. It mobilized fighters and supporters it recruited from among overseas workers, local malcontents, and religious scholars to create a puritanical “state.”

There are Black flag affiliated International Non-Government Organizations (INGOs) which provide support for propagation in Southeast Asia, especially the Philippines, such as the Muslim World League, World Assembly of Muslim Youth, International Islamic Relief Organization, Islamic Wisdom Worldwide, and the Benevolence/Mercy Foundation. There’s a quantum of intelligence briefs and from the 9-11 judicial proceedings showing the link between Black flag groups and INGOs.

Separatist Groups (SG) and Local Terror Groups (LTG) comprise the terrorist-separatist spectrum in the country that include factions affiliated to them. SGs are mainly the Moro National Liberation Front and the MILF. They operate in Northern and Southern Mindanao and ZamBaSulTa (Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi provinces). LTGs are the ASG, the Rajah Sulaiman Movement, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and IS Ranao. An above ground network supports the LTGs.

After Marawi, the surviving fighters allegedly dispersed to six areas: Luzon and Metro Manila; ZamBaSulTa; the Visayas; Central Mindanao; Soccsksargen; and Northern Mindanao.

It’s important to note the incidents that took place since the liberation of Marawi:

• the Magpet, North Cotabato bombing, May 2018;

• the Lamitan, Basilan checkpoint suicide bombing, July 31, 2018;

• the Sultan Kudarat bombing, Aug. 29, 2018;

• the Jolo Sulu Cathedral bombing, Jan. 27, 2019;

• the clashes with the Maute forces in Northern Mindanao last January;

• clashes with the Black flag groups in Maguindanao and Liguasan, November 2018 to February 2019;

• focused Military Operations in Sulu, February to the present;

• the Isulan Bombing, April 3, 2019; and,

• the Sulu suicide bombing, June 28, 2019.

Pre-Marawi, mostly from the turn of the century, the country experienced mass casualty incidents such as the:

• the Ipil massacre, April 4, 1995;

• the Rizal Day LRT bombing, Dec. 30, 2000;

• the Superferry bombing, Dec. 24, 2004;

• the Valentines Day bus bombing in Makati, 2005;

• the Bicutan attempted jailbreak, Feb. 15, 2005;

• the Makati bus bombing on Jan. 25, 2011; and,

• the Quiapo bombings on April 28 and May 6, 2017.

Given the modus operandi of foreign trained fighters and LTGs, and the shift of IS to the Far East, we can deduce that the Philippines will see increased terrorist activity in many forms around the country targeting population centers, military-police personnel, tourism areas, transport hubs, schools, events, and places of worship. Hit-and-run raids, lone wolf strikes, bombings, kidnap-murder, and variations of urban warfare are not far-fetched.

The war on terror is real, it’s truly alarming. And we better pay real attention to it because it’s escalating in our part of the woods in the post Iraq-Levant period. And there are extremist elements that are in tactical alliance with the CPP-NDF-NPA (Communist Party of the Philippines-National Democratic Front of the Philippines-New People’s Army), particularly in the employment of above ground support organizations, recruitment, tactics, and media savvy. It will require a whole-of-nation effort to defeat these threats to human security.

At the top of the list is intelligence and counter-intelligence to prevent acts of terror, and properly deployed anti-terror units backed by well-trained force multipliers. Additionally: audit the curricula of the madrassahs, create teams of religious scholars to counter extremist theology, intensify inter-faith dialogues, develop the economy, and strengthen security partnerships.

The underlay is good governance, backed by a mature and responsible society. We’ve neglected the mission to win back hearts and minds through teamwork amongst the civilian segments of government, the uniformed services, and organized elements of society. Every day we fail to transform our political culture, we extend the horrors of internecine warfare by another day. When will we ever learn?


Rafael M. Alunan III served in the cabinet of President Corazon C. Aquino as Secretary of Tourism, and in the cabinet of President Fidel V. Ramos as Secretary of Interior and Local Government.