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Abu Sayyaf Dominance or Desperation? Shifting Sands of Terrorism in Mindanao

Introduction

On August 24, 2020, the Philippines experienced another suicide bombing attack in Jolo amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic. The two-stage attack began with the bombing of an explosive-laden motorcycle beside a military vehicle. Authorities claimed that a Filipino female individual then proceeded towards the bombsite and detonated her suicide vest after a soldier stopped her from entering the cordoned-off area. The attack killed 15 and wounded 75 others. The increased complexity of the attack might hint at the Abu Sayyaf’s desperate attempt to even their odds against the military.

The Decline of the Islamic State in Sulu:

The Armed Forces of Philippines (AFP) has conducted multiple armed assaults against the Islamic State (IS) aligned Abu Sayyaf faction – otherwise known as IS Sulu – in Patikul, Sulu over the past few years. This led to the incapacitation of a 61-year-old de facto emir (leader) of the Islamic State in the Philippines and leader of IS Sulu, Hajan Sawadjaan, on July 8, 2020, who might have died a few days later. As Filipino jihadists mourn the death of Hajan Sawadjaan online, the AFP claims that his nephew, Mundi Sawadjaan, is poised to succeed in the leadership of IS Sulu.

The purported death of Hajan Sawadjaan has also left a void in leadership for IS in the Philippines. A faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) has sought this opportunity to fill the void as Ustaz Karialan – one of the leaders of BIFF – claimed leadership of jihad in Mindanao on social media. Other Islamist militant groups in Mindanao rarely challenge such claims of leadership, and we may observe the possible pivot of IS activities from the Patikul (Abu Sayyaf’s stronghold) to the Liguasan (BIFF stronghold).

Shifting sands of terrorism Philippines August 2020

Strikes at IS Sulu’s stronghold have also killed many of the militants in Sulu. AFP’s Western Mindanao Command (WESMINCOM) has also declared that foreign fighters’ presence was “no longer felt” in Mindanao on July 26, 2020. Compounded with travel restrictions due to COVID-19, it is unlikely for non-regional foreign fighters to enter Mindanao to join Sawadjaan’s group and this might be a severe problem for them.

As the Sulu Archipelago is the primary route for transit into Mindanao, IS Sulu’s mere presence along the island chain provided it with unparalleled access to foreign fighters compared to other groups in the region. Foreign militants played a significant role in supplementing the local fighting force in Mindanao. Without the new injection of non-regional foreign fighters, IS Sulu can only depend on recruitment from the local population to grow their militant base.

Finally, months after the attack, IS has still not claimed the attack through its media outlets. IS traditionally claim such attacks within a day of the attack. This was observed during the 2017 Marawi siege, the July 2018 Lamitan Attack, the January 2019 Jolo Cathedral attack, the suicide attack conducted by Norman Lasuca in June 2019, and the clash between Sawadjaan’s forces and AFP in May 2020. The absence of IS’ claims for this attack might imply that ties between IS Sulu and IS Central have been severed for some time after May 2020 – their last publication on operations in the Philippines.

Overall, the leadership transition, absence of non-regional foreign fighters, and apparent termination of ties between Sawadjaan and IS Central may signal the decline of IS Sulu. This is further reinforced by the AFP report indicating that the prospective leader of IS Sulu, Mundi Sawadjaan, had abandoned his stronghold and escaped Jolo island probably to seek refuge with other Abu Sayyaf factions or networks based in Basilan or Zamboanga. Hence, the August suicide bombing mission should not be misinterpreted as IS’ assertion of dominance in the Sulu Archipelago. Instead, it may highlight how IS Sulu is attempting to regain its place in the Mindanao jihadist landscape.

terrorist attack august 2020 Philippines

War of Attrition

IS Sulu has been waging a war of attrition against the AFP. Despite being severely weakened from recent developments, the group continues to be the most active Islamist militant organisation in the Philippines. Throughout this year, the pro-IS militants were able to kill AFP soldiers while incurring high numbers of casualties at the same time.

Hence, alternative tactics like suicide bombing would increasingly be adopted by IS Sulu. While suicide bombing was considered to be taboo in the past, it appeared to have traded militants for soldiers more effectively as compared to gunfights. IS Sulu appeared to have localised their brand of suicide bombings in Jolo; deploying non-combatants while preserving their local fighting force. Recent developments signalled the willingness to deploy women to the frontlines.

While suicide bombings became a staple for IS Sulu, there is no evidence supporting the spread of suicide bombings beyond Jolo island.

Apart from the adoption of suicide bombing, IS Sulu is expected to change their modus operandi to cope with their depleted militant strength. While they would continue using firearms to ambush or defend against AFP soldiers, the adoption of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as roadside bombs to target the AFP’s supply convoys is expected to increase.

Retreat and Regroup

After the suicide bombing, remnants of IS Sulu were said to have fled Jolo island to seek refuge either in Basilan or Zamboanga. This could potentially lead to the merger of the Sawadjaan’s group with the other IS-affiliated Abu Sayyaf faction led by Furuji Indama. However, the Basilan-based group has been relatively inactive, and a Philippines-based think tank claimed that Indama only has  20 armed militants under his command.

Counter-Terrorism operations in the Philippines
Counter-Terrorism Operations in the Philippines

Additionally, while travel restrictions may have halted the flow of non-regional fighters into Mindanao, both Indonesian and Malaysian fighters may still able to enter the Philippines. This is due to the absence of a customs or immigration checkpoint to regulate the flow of people, goods, and shipment between countries at the Sulu-Celebes Sea. Moreover, the archipelagic terrain of Sulu and the long coastlines of Sabah make the smuggling of militants challenging to detect by enforcement officers. It only cost PH₱4,000 (US$82.51) for IS sympathisers to smuggle themselves from Borneo island to Mindanao.

Conclusion

Evidence indicates that IS Sulu is severely weakened. The Sawadjaan group must manage a precarious leadership transition, a depleted militant force, and a possible severed connection to IS Central. To cope with this, it is likely that the group would adopt alternative tactics to wage the war of attrition more effectively.

Nonetheless, it seems like the Sawadjaan-led IS Sulu has regrouped with the main Abu Sayyaf Group led by Radullan Sahiron. Their escape northwards might lead to the merger of Abu Sayyaf factions and networks in Basilan and Zamboanga. Moreover, IS supporters from Borneo could still smuggle themselves into Mindanao for a cheap fee.

Hence, the AFP must capitalize on the weakened militancy and deny them the opportunity to consolidate their forces. The AFP must maintain military pressure on IS factions in Sulu, heighten border security to achieve these objectives while investing in post-conflict rehabilitation or reconstruction efforts for the locals to minimize terrorist recruitment.

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