World

Catholic Philippines in ISIS’ Crosshairs

Increasing cause for concern that Islamic State is moving into Southeast Asia

There is increasing concern that the Islamic State group is expanding its operations in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines.

The archipelago, which has a population that is 83 percent Catholic, has a strong Islamic separatist movement in the south. The Institute for the Study of War reports that three Islamist groups early in 2016 jointly pledged allegiance to ISIS.

But one group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), seems worried enough about Islamic State expansion that it formed a task force to counter ISIS recruitment, the ISW says. It notes that Southeast Asian jihadist groups are fragmented.

ISIS is using its safe haven and foreign fighter population in Iraq and Syria to expand influence in Southeast Asia, in pursuit of its grand strategic objective to rule all Muslim lands, the institute explains in a new report.

The government and the military of the Philippines, however, insisted recently that there is no ISIS presence in the southern region of Mindanao despite recent incidents of violence in the area, a Philippines newspaper said.

MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim said in a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Monday that ISIS was trying to establish a stronghold in Mindanao to capitalize on the growing frustration on the breakdown of efforts to end the Muslim separatist rebellion.

Congress failed to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which would be the legal basis for the creation of an autonomous Bangsamoro region in Mindanao in accordance with the peace agreement between the government and the MILF, The Philippine Star reported.

Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. dismissed Ebrahim’s comments as a ploy to revive the BBL for next year.

Nevertheless, a recent assassination of an anti-ISIS Saudi cleric while he was lecturing in the southern Philippines is worrying. ISIS did not claim responsibility for the shooting, but had called for the cleric’s assassination in the February issue of Dabiq, its English language magazine.

The Institute for the Study of War says that ISIS’s Syria-based Southeast Asian fighters are resourcing and directing local networks to launch attacks:

Competition between militant elements vying to lead the Southeast Asian pro-ISIS movement will likely encourage increased jihadist attacks in the short term, threatening urban areas and Western interests in the region. Support from ISIS’s safe haven may also facilitate the creation of an active, trans-national ISIS affiliate in Southeast Asia in the medium term. The U.S. has an opportunity to counter ISIS’ network in Southeast Asia before it develops further. … Early action against ISIS’ Southeast Asian supporters can limit ISIS’ ability to develop an affiliate in the area, particularly as those supporters face resistance from locally focused and al Qaeda-associated groups.

Rodolfo Mendoza, a senior analyst at the Manila-based Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research told Agence France-Presse that the various local groups that had pledged allegiance to ISIS were “planning big operations, like bombings, attacks or assassinations.”

“Their influence is growing stronger, and it is expanding,” he said.