Mindanao no place for a caliphate
The impending fall of Mosul and Raqqa have stoked concerns over the future of Islamic State (IS) fighters. As the coalition dragnet falls upon the so-called caliphate, it is expected that jihadists will try to escape, either returning to their home countries or coalescing into other conflict regions. Southeast Asia has recently been cast as the potential site for a replacement caliphate. Mindanao’s decades-long struggle with Islamist extremism has made it a constant trope for analysts seeking to portray the southern Philippines as the next epicentre for international terrorism.
Observers have pushed the narrative that an imminent IS province in Mindanao may ultimately lead to the establishment of a new Southeast Asia-based caliphate. This perspective neglects the distinct socio-economic realities in the southern Philippines. While it is true that jihadist camps were established in central Mindanao, they were intended as training camps for a small foreign cadre. No jihadist camp in Mindanao, whether occupied by foreign or Filipino militants, was permanently occupied beyond the need for tactical expediencies.
Armed conflict in Mindanao is a volatile mix of clan networks, political rivalries and the utilitarian use of religious narratives rooted in the history of the region. Collusion between local officials, tribal leaders and clan-centred private armies in organised criminal activities can be traced back to the Spanish colonial period, even before the foundation of the modern Philippine state.
Rather than providing a semblance of governance as seen in Raqqa, Filipino militants such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) subsist through criminal acts such as extortion and kidnapping for ransom. Since the death of founder Abdurajak Abubakar Janajalani, the ASG has lost its ideological moorings and instead regressed into the western Mindanao ransom industry. Reliance on criminal acts is symptomatic of the lack of ideological commitment by ASG members and the largely financial motivations that drive membership.
Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of the ASG Basilan faction, tried to gain the attention of the IS leadership by pledging allegiance to IS ‘caliph’ (spiritual leader) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014. The move was likely motivated by Hapilon’s desire to increase his influence vis-à-vis the ASG Sulu faction, which was always flush from successful ransom activities. In response the IS leadership, through its Dabiq publication, mentioned that it had accepted the pledge from Hapilon but had ‘delayed the announcement of their respective [wilayah]’.
The reluctance of the IS leadership to declare a wilayah (province) is probably due to the present inability of Hapilon’s faction to exercise de facto governance. But even if Hapilon could somehow control wide swathes of Mindanao, changes in the strategic priorities of IS may make it moot. There is speculation that IS may already have abandoned its wilayah-based expansion model. Instead of being declared an emir, Hapilon was referred to as a ‘wali’ or governor of an IS ‘division’, with the Philippines being considered part of ‘the land of jihad’ and not as the ‘land of the caliphate’.
Manila is presently trying to jumpstart the stalled Mindanao peace process by reconvening the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC). The BTC is tasked with drafting the basic law that will establish a new autonomous Bangsamoro government in Mindanao. It is hoped that meaningful political autonomy in Mindanao will insulate Filipino Muslims from extremist recruitment and diminish the attraction of IS propaganda.
The complexity of conflict in Mindanao is recognised by the overarching military strategy being pursued by the Duterte administration. The Armed Forces of the Philippines Development Support and Security Plan prescribes the use of intelligence-driven combat operations against terrorist groups like the ASG. Recent operations demonstrated growing military capability to conduct kinetic operations against the ASG.
But at the strategic level, Duterte’s perspective becomes ambiguous. The administration has oscillated from a hard-line to a soft approach and back. Duterte himself has referred to the ASG as desperate men driven by poverty to barbarity, men he literally intends to eat raw with vinegar and salt. These conflicting messages may harm efforts to construct a narrative against extremist groups as well as undertake development activities to address the roots of conflict. The sympathetic Duterte perspective where the ASG are seen as driven to desperation could legitimise the group’s extortion and kidnapping activities.
Beyond domestic audiences, Duterte’s colourful language may complicate multilateral counterterrorism cooperation especially with Western allies such as the United States. Duterte had no qualms using colonial atrocities in Mindanao from the early 1900s to underpin his anti-US opinions. It is difficult to imagine the redeployment of a US military advisory unit to Mindanao in such a political climate.
Closer to home, Duterte’s close affinity to China could also alienate ASEAN members who are critical to securing the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas. The tri-border area shared by the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia are prime target areas for ASG ransom activities targeting foreigners. The immediate solution was to strengthen regional cooperation. Joint maritime patrols to secure the Sulawesi and Sulu Seas were reinvigorated after the 3rd Trilateral Defence Minister’s Meeting in August 2016 in response to a series of kidnappings that victimised Indonesian and Malaysian citizens.
The idea of an IS caliphate is unlikely to perish with the retaking of Mosul and Raqqa. But the physical manifestation of the IS vision requires a confluence of history and socio-economic realities. It is irresponsible to assume that an illicit institution could be transplanted from the plains of the Levant to the jungles of Mindanao.
Joseph Franco is a Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.