Sunday, January 17, 2016

EDCA dissenters: Philippines may lose sovereignty

From the Philippine Star (Jan 18): EDCA dissenters: Philippines may lose sovereignty

A protester displays a placard during a rally at the US Embassy to protest the Philippine Supreme Court's decision on Jan. 12, declaring the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA as constitutional in Manila, Philippines, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. The Philippines' highest court ruled as constitutional a 2014 defense pact effectively allowing American forces, ships and planes to temporarily station in at least eight local military camps. AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

Upholding the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US means the Philippines gets to strengthen its defenses but loses its sovereignty, according to the four dissenting justices of the Supreme Court.

Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Arturo Brion, Estela Perlas-Bernabe and Marvic Leonen disagreed with the majority ruling of 10 magistrates on EDCA, arguing that it is a treaty by nature, expands the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and Mutual Defense Treaty, and needs Senate concurrence.

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago also criticized the decision, saying the high court failed to rise above its problematic ruling on the VFA.

“The Supreme Court contradicts the power of the Senate. The Constitution clearly states that without Senate concurrence, no treaty can become law. Now, the court is saying that the executive may call agreements by another name in order to bypass the Senate,” the lawmaker said.

Leonen opened his dissent with the line “Para kayong mga birhen na naniniwala sa pag-ibig ng isang puta” (You are all like virgins who believe in the love of a whore) quoted from the movie Heneral Luna. The scene showed General Antonio Luna rebuking those who believed that the US would respect Philippine independence.

“History will now record that in 2016, it is this Supreme Court that said yes to the EDCA. This decision now darkens the colors of what is left of our sovereignty as defined in our Constitution. The majority’s take is the aftermath of squandered opportunity,” the youngest magistrate lamented.

Leonen concluded his 58-page dissent saying the majority succeeded in emasculating the Constitution, effectively erasing the blood, sweat and tears shed by Filipino martyrs.

“I register more than my disagreement. I mourn that this court has allowed this government to acquiesce into collective subservience to the Executive power, contrary to the spirit of our basic law,” he lamented.

De Castro opined that EDCA “is entirely a new treaty” that needs Senate concurrence as required under Section 25, Article XVIII of the Constitution.

She believes the agreement that allows the construction of permanent buildings for US troops, bunkering of vessels, maintenance of vehicles and the storage and prepositioning of defense materiel proves the permanent nature of stay of the American forces in the country.

“While it is true that the Philippines cannot stand alone and will need friends within and beyond this region of the world, still we cannot offend our Constitution and bargain away our sovereignty,” De Castro reasoned in her 28-page dissent.

Brion said in his 65-page separate dissenting opinion that EDCA widened the scope of VFA and the Treaty of 1951. He suggested to have it suspended and to give the executive branch 90 days to get a concurrence. If the President fails to do so, then the majority ruling would be affirmed.

“To accord a lesser respect for our own Constitution is to invite America’s disrespect for the Philippines as a co-equal, sovereign and independent nation,” Brion stressed.

Although critical of the decision, Santiago said the Senate has to abide by the decision as she urged her colleagues to reiterate their position that the government must renegotiate or abrogate EDCA.

Airstrips Near Completion--New Towers, Construction on Subi and Mischief Reefs

From the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Jan 8): Airstrips Near Completion--New Towers, Construction on Subi and Mischief Reefs

In early September 2015, AMTI released images showing that China had effectively completed construction of its first Spratly Islands airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef, was continuing work on its second at Subi Reef, and was preparing to begin work on a third at Mischief Reef. Four months later, China has not only landed three civilian test flights on Fiery Cross, but is progressing even faster than expected with its work at Subi and especially Mischief. Construction of the Fiery Cross airstrip took at least seven months from the start of grading, which was visible by February 2015. Work at Subi, where grading began in June or July, seems to be proceeding slightly quicker. And at Mischief, where grading began in September or October, construction is already approaching completion just three to four months later. Meanwhile China is rapidly building out other facilities on both Mischief and Subi.
Developments on Mischief Reef

Mischief Reef sits just 21 nautical miles from the BRP Sierra Madre, which was deliberately grounded by the Philippines at Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 and is home to a contingent of Philippine marines. China has maintained a constant coast guard presence around Second Thomas since 2013 and attempted to prevent resupply of the Sierra Madre in March 2014. Mischief is also about 60 nautical miles from Reed Bank, where the Philippines hopes to drill for natural case deposits over China’s objections. This strategic location combined with its size(China has reclaimed twice as much land at Mischief Reef as it did at Fiery Cross and about 50 percent more than at Subi) makes developments at Mischief of particular concern the Philippines.

Mischief Reef as of September 8, 2015.

Mischief Reef as of January 8, 2016.


Airstrip Developments

The work on the runway at Mischief Reef is progressing considerably faster than it had at Fiery Cross or Subi. Preparatory work had started by the start of September, but the runway itself was not visible. A fully formed and compacted sand runway could be seen by October 19, and by December 5 the runway and apron had been covered with gravel and about 500 feet of concrete. As of January 8, concrete covered most of the runway, which appears to be nearing completion.

The southern end of the Mischief Reef runway as of October 19.

The southern end of the Mischief Reef runway as of December 5.

The southern end of the Mischief Reef runway as of January 8.

Other Progress on Mischief

The entire runway at Mischief Reef as of January 8.

The northwest side of Mischief Reef as of January 8, including a 1,900 foot seawall and newly-constructed infrastructure including housing, an artificial turf parade grounds, cement plants, and docking facilities.

The artificial island at the southern end of Mischief Reef, as of January 8, showing a newly-built seawall on its north side and a completed dock.

Developments on Subi Reef

Subi is at the northern end of the Spratlys, just 13 nautical miles from the main Philippine-occupied feature Thitu Island, which boasts a small civilian population. Subi is also less than 40 nautical miles from Taiwan’s only holding on Itu Aba, which is the largest natural feature in the Spratlys. Subi was the target of a much-anticipated freedom of navigation operation (which also passed near four other features not occupied by China) on October 26.

Subi Reef as of September 3, 2015.

Subi Reef as of January 8.

Airstrip Developments

Construction of the airstrip at Subi Reef is nearing completion after six or seven months of work. By November 19, the base layer of sand for the runway had been compacted and channels dug for concrete guides. By December 21, a base layer of gravel had been laid down across most of the runway and some concrete strips were visible on its northern end (lower portion of photo below). As of January 8, the southern end of the runway (not pictured) had been paved with concrete as had most of the runway and apron at the northern end, while the gravel base had been completed and concrete strips were visible in the central portion.

The center portion of the Subi Reef runway as of November 19.

The center portion of the Subi Reef runway as of December 21.

The center portion of the Subi Reef runway as of January 8.

The northern end of the Subi Reef runway as of December 21.

The northern end of the Subi Reef runway as of January 8.

Other Progress on Subi

A large freighter carrying temporary housing units passes through the channel into the Subi Reef lagoon on January 8. Dredging to deepen and widen the channel, which was ongoing in September, has been completed.

The main infrastructure located on the northwest side of Subi Reef, as of January 8. A seawall and docks have been constructed, and work continues on a number of hardened buildings.

An octagonal tower with a conical feature at its top, located on the northeast side of Subi Reef, was nearly complete as of January 8. The tower measures 40 feet on each side and 90 to 100 feet tall.

Palace: China heightening tension with new runways

From the Philippine Star (Jan 17): Palace: China heightening tension with new runways

In this satellite image released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, the the northwest side of Mischief Reef is see as of January 8, including a 1,900 foot seawall and newly-constructed infrastructure including housing, an artificial turf parade grounds, cement plants, and docking facilities. CSIS/AMTI

China's building of additional runways on the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef is a violation of international laws and would contribute to tensions in the region, MalacaƱang said on Sunday.

Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. stressed that the Philippines is determined to "assert the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight" in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

"The building of additional runways contributes to heightened tensions in the region," Coloma told state-run radio station dzRB.

"We reiterate that these actions by China violate not only pertinent international laws but also the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea of which China is a signatory along with the member countries of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)," he added.

In a report posted on its website, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) under Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies said China is progressing faster than expected with its construction works in Panganiban Reef and Zamora (Subi) Reef.

According to the AMTI, the Fiery Cross airstrip took at least seven months from the start of grading while the grading in Zamora "seems to be proceeding slightly quicker."

"At Mischief, where grading began in September or October, construction is already approaching completion just three to four months later. Meanwhile China is rapidly building out other facilities on both Mischief and Subi," the report read.

Panganiban Reef is located 21 nautical miles from the BRP Sierra Madre, the rusty ship that serves as headquarters of Filipino Marines at the Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.

It has been occupied by China since 1995. The Chinese government initially put up structures on stilts at the reef, supposedly to provide shelter for fishermen. The structures, however, were later on transformed into a garrison with powerful radars.

"This strategic location combined with its size (China has reclaimed twice as much land at Mischief Reef as it did at Fiery Cross and about 50 percent more than at Subi) makes developments at Mischief of particular concern the Philippines," the AMTI said.

"The work on the runway at Mischief Reef is progressing considerably faster than it had at Fiery Cross (Kagitingan) or Subi. Preparatory work had started by the start of September, but the runway itself was not visible," it added.

The AMTI said a "fully formed and compacted sand runway" could be seen by October 19 and by December 5 the runway and apron had been covered with gravel and about 500 feet of concrete.

As of January 8, concrete covered most of the runway, which appears to be nearing completion, the think tank added.

The AMTI also published photos showing a 1,900 foot seawall and newly-constructed infrastructure including housing, an artificial turf parade grounds, cement plants, and docking facilities on the northwest side of the Panganiban Reef.

China has also placed a powerful radar station on Zamora Reef, an islet 12 nautical miles southwest of Pag-asa Island, which is part of Kalayaan Island. A four-story structure, including a lighthouse, has also been built on the reef.

The AMTI said the construction of the airstrip at Zamora Reef is "nearing completion after six or seven months of work."

"As of January 8, the southern end of the runway… had been paved with concrete as had most of the runway and apron at the northern end, while the gravel base had been completed and concrete strips were visible in the central portion," the think tank reported.

Aside from Panganiban and Zamora, other Philippine-claimed areas that were covered by China’s land reclamation were Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Kennan (Chigua), Mabini (Johnson South), Burgos (Gaven) and Calderon (Cuarteron) Reefs. China’s reclamation program has been viewed as a potential threat to freedom of navigation in the region.

AFP vows to prevent IS from gaining Philippine foothold

From the Philippine Star (Jan 17): AFP vows to prevent IS from gaining Philippine foothold

Iriberri said yesterday efforts to contain the homegrown extremist groups trying to reach out to the Islamic State (IS) were continuing. AP/

The government will not allow any local group to establish a local base for the terrorist Islamic State, Armed Forces chief Gen. Hernando Iriberri has vowed.

Iriberri said yesterday efforts to contain the homegrown extremist groups trying to reach out to the Islamic State (IS) were continuing.

Even before a video emerged showing Filipino militants training with the black flag of IS in the background, Iriberri said the military had launched operations that neutralized the terror cell.

“We have always tried our best to neutralize the group,” Iriberri said.

He was referring to the Ansar Al Khilafa (AKP), whose camp in Palembang, Sultan Kudarat was raided by government troops last November. Eight militants including Indonesian Abu Al Patah were reported killed.

Iriberri also cited the operation last December against the Abu Sayyaf and bomb expert Malaysian militant Mohammad Najib Hussein, alias Abu Anas, in Al-Barka town, Basilan.

Anas and 25 Abu Sayyaf militants were killed and troops disrupted the training and captured the camp at Sitio Bohe Buug after a weeklong offensive which began Dec.12, Iriberri said.

He said the government suffered three dead and 26 owounded.

“Your armed forces are trying their best, every time we have the information we validate it and we take action just to make sure we will prevent whatever terror acts they are planning,” Iriberri said.

While the government is trying to prevent and disrupt any link and support from the IS, Iriberri maintained they have not established any direct link.

The local terror groups identified as AKP Ansar Al Khilafa in Central Mindanao, and the group from Basilan Dalw’tul Islamiyah W’liyahtul Masik have declared support to the IS or ISIS.

“But we have not established a direct link between them and the ISIS. Why? Because we have not received any report yet whether they are already taking orders from the ISIS,” Iriberri said.

A series of explosions hit Jakarta on Thursday, killing and injuring people. The IS reportedly owned up to the suicide attack.

IEDs discovered, disarmed off Zamboanga City

From the Philippine News Agency (Jan 17): IEDs discovered, disarmed off Zamboanga City

Troopers from the Western Mindanao Command (WMC) recovered and disarmed three improvised explosive devices (IEDs) off Sacol Island in Zamboanga City on Saturday.

Major Filemon Tan, WMC spokesperson, said the troops conducting security patrol recovered the IEDs from a floating and abandoned boat in the area at around 11:30 a.m.

Seized were three one-liter oil cans, of which two were packed with gasoline-soaked ammonium nitrate and assorted nails, three improvised blasting caps and three pieces of 5-inch wires with no batteries.

Tan said the IEDs were disarmed by operatives from the Naval Special Operations Unit 6.

Beyond Bombings: The Islamic State in Southeast Asia

From The Diplomat (Jan 15): Beyond Bombings: The Islamic State in Southeast Asia (by Zacharay Abusa)

To understand the group, look at its other tactics.

On 14 January, nine militants staged a barricade style attack at a Starbucks in central Jakarta.  Small IEDs were detonated, and the militants engaged security forces for almost two hours. Two civilians, a Canadian and an Indonesian were killed.  Five of the attackers were killed and four were arrested.  Fortunately Indonesian security forces responded quickly and professionally, mitigating what could have been a much more costly attack that appears to have been perpetrated by the Islamic State or Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The attack in Jakarta should not have surprised anyone; this type of barricade style attack has been seen from Mumbai to Paris. With low technical requisites and a high probability of spreading fear and garnering media attention, it has been the weapon of choice, including in Southeast Asia.

On 30 June 2015, a Malaysian court convicted a man and his son for fighting with ISIL and planning terrorist incidents at home. But it was not a wave of bombings they were plotting, but rather the kidnapping of politicians.  While hostage taking, executions and barricade style attacks garner less concern from security services than bombings, this is potentially an important development at both the tactical and strategic levels for Southeast Asian militants.  If we are to understand the real impact of ISIL on Southeast Asian militancy, it is this.

Hostage taking has become the face of ISIL terror in the Middle East. The grisly executions of orange-jumpsuited victims, mimicking Guantanamo Bay uniforms, have become more and more macabre. Dr. John Horgan called the recent execution videos “sadism at a clinical level.” These videos are instantly disseminated across a host of social media platforms, and rather than repulse people tend to broaden the group’s appeal as they try to outbid their rivals, equating sadistic violence with religious zeal.

Likewise, there have been a number of “barricade” style hostage taking events perpetrated by ISIL-inspired militants in Europe and beyond, most spectacularly on 13 November 2015 in Paris in coordinated attacks that left 129 dead.  And it is these barricade-style attacks that pose a serious threat in Southeast Asia.  As J.M. Berger explained, “Al Qaeda’s love of elegance was a distraction… But in reality, AQAP carried out only a handful of attacks, and at a languid pace, over the course of many years.”  But these low-tech, low-cost, and high probability of success attacks are tailor made for those who have fought with ISIL, but have little other experience than as front line troops.

The threat posed by ISIL in Southeast Asia is small but present. There are an estimated 800-1,000 Southeast Asians supporters of ISIS, including those who have traveled to Iraq and Syria, their family members, those killed in battle and arrested, as well as those returned by Turkish security forces.  It also includes the first wave that has already returned home to Malaysia and Indonesia. The Soufan Group estimates the number of Southeast Asian combatants to be 600, lower than official regional estimates of 900. Several have returned and plotted or executed attacks, including the first bombing plots in Malaysia and the first attempted chlorine bomb at an Indonesian mall.  Already, more Southeast Asians have joined ISIL and the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front than ever joined the anti-Soviet mujahideen.  ISIL has revitalized terror networks in Southeast Asia.

Yet, despite this concern as well as the previous wave of terrorism by the Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah, there has been very little use of hostage taking, beheading, or barricade-style attacks as a tactic by Southeast Asian militant groups.  That should be expected to change, with the success of ISIL, the proliferation of their ideology, and return of veterans from Syria over the coming few years.

A Look At Southeast Asian Militant Groups

The Abu Sayyaf

The exception to this is the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) that has routinely engaged in both kidnapping and beheading since the early 1990s. But even with the ASG, hostage taking comes in two forms: kidnapping for ransom to raise funds, and hostage taking with no ransom but the execution/beheading of its captives to try to demonstrate their limited ideological bona fides. As the group has become increasingly desperate, while at the same time influenced by ISIL, it has stepped up its threats of beheading to raise ransoms.

From the 1990s to around 2004, abductions were largely to raise funds. In 2001, they beheaded an American hostage. That year, they beheaded nine of 30 Christian hostages in order to force a halt to government offensive. But almost all other hostages were released after a ransom was paid or rescued.

From 2004-07, the ASG had reached out to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and apparently had enough international support that it all but stopped kidnappings. The hostages it did take in that period of time, it executed. In 2007, for example, it beheaded seven road workers on a USAID project on Jolo and 14 Philippine Marines on Basilan, without any ransom demands, but rather to demonstrate their Islamist bona fides.  The ASG did decapitate five Philippine Marines in 2011, but that was widely seen as an attempt to get the government to halt its offensive.

But since then, the group has devolved. There has been a steady stream of kidnappings, but ransoms have been paid and people have been released. Recently the ASG has increased the number of foreign hostages, but only because they pay more than local Filipinos, who garner ransoms in the $20-30,000 range.

The ASG routinely target Chinese and Malaysians – and Europeans when they avail themselves because they command higher ransoms. Since 2014, there have been a spate of raids into Malaysia’s Sabah state, including the kidnapping of a policeman; but the issue is only over how much of a ransom to be paid to secure his release. The usual demand for Malaysians and Chinese is 5 million pesos ($108,000). They had demanded 30 million pesos each for two Malaysians, whom they threatened to behead.  One paid and was released, the other was beheaded on 17 November. A former Australian captive reportedly paid $100,000 to secure his release.

One ASG leader, Isnilon Hapilon, made a YouTube oath of bai’yat to the self-proclaimed Islamic State caliphate.  But this was nothing more than a publicity stunt.  For example, soon after the oath, the ASG threatened to behead one of their two German hostages captured in April 2014 to force Berlin to leave the anti-ISIL coalition. Despite one of the hostages being photographed sitting in his own grave in front of a ISIL flag, those demands were instantly dropped with the alleged payment of $1.35 million in ransom, but with no concession by the Germans on ending their participation in the campaign in Syria. ISIL imagery and the threat of a beheading were solely to add a sense of urgency.

While recent kidnappings of locals – including women and children – has increased, all have been released with payment of ransom, most in relatively short periods of time; the ASG is simply “turning over the inventory.”  According to my open source dataset, between January 2014 to October 2015, there were 31 kidnappings, and in that time, 34 people were either released or escaped, including two children. The most recent case was of a Philippine mining executive, who was reported to have paid 1.3 million pesos ($27,600) to secure her release.

The ASG currently hold two members of the Philippine Coast Guard whom they have threatened to behead, but only if their ransom demands are not met.  Indeed, on 11 August, a village chief who was abducted along with them was found decapitated after the deadline for his ransom payment had expired.

On 21 September 2015, ASG gunmen staged a logistically complex but well executed raid on a luxury resort in Davao, kidnapping four, including three westerners and a Filipina.  On 13 October, the ASG released a video showing the four sitting in front of two ISIL flags in a jungle clearing on YouTube (since taken down).

The video was interesting for a few reasons.  First, it was the first time I recall seeing an ASG video with hostages, or certainly such a well-scripted one. Second, the hostages were on message: articulating what needed to be done to secure their safety and have ransom negotiations commence.  Third, though there was no mention of a beheading, one hostage clearly had a knife held at his throat.

What was most evident is that they have clearly been watching IS videos, which have set a new standard for propaganda and messaging.  The spokesman was very well-spoken and articulate, especially considering how poor and uneducated most run-of-the-mill ASG types are. This really looked as though it was the dress rehearsal for an ISIL-style on camera beheading.

But despite the ISIL imagery and influence, there is no ideological component to these abductions.  A second video, released on 3 November, simply stated the exorbitant demand of 1 billion pesos ($21 million) for the release of each of the four.  And it’s also important to understand that their use has much to do with which faction of the disparate ASG is responsible for the abductions. Only one or two cells have adapted ISIL-style propaganda and imagery.

In all, the ASG have beheaded roughly 40 captives since the early-1990s, all in an attempt to prove their jihadist bona fides. But at the end of the day, it is primarily about money.  The reality is that hostage taking is not a Philippine issue. It is really an ethnic Tausig issue, where kidnapping and piracy are culturally rooted.

While the ASG is mainly in it for the money, they remain a low level irritant, but can play a role in the regional spread of ISIL.  In December 2015 Philippine security forces killed a Malaysian member of ISIL – a known bomb maker and assistant to a top Malaysian ISIL operative – in a clash with the ASG. The constant inability of the Philippine government to secure its territory gives ISIL that important rear area to train.

There have been other kidnappings in the Philippines, but exclusively for ransom payments. The most notable group that did his was the Pentagon Gang in central Mindanao. There has never been consensus on whether Pentagon was simply a kidnap for ransom gang, a group that operated but kicked back funds to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), or themselves members of the MILF.  Regardless, once the peace process took root, the MILF became a responsible stakeholder and the Pentagon Gang all but ceased to operate. The MILF may have abetted or profited from kidnapping, but they officially condemned the practice as “un-Islamic.”

There is a concern that other Moro splinter groups are being motivated or have pledged allegiance to ISIL. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Front, which split from the MILF over the peace process, in 2007, has publicly pledged allegiance to ISIL, and routinely engages in sectarian pogroms, such as the Christmas 2014 attack in central Mindanao that left 14 Christians dead. Likewise, a new group, Ansar Khalifa Philippines, issued a recent video of a training camp, in which recruits trained in front of ISIL’s black flags. Again, this is most likely a way for a small and little known group to garner media attention, donations and recruits.

Jemaah Islamiyah

Other militant groups in Southeast Asia have largely eschewed hostage taking. The regional Al Qaeda affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, and its myriad of Salafist splinters, eagerly assassinated and bombed, but they never adopted hostage taking as a tactic.
In 2005, Noordin Mohammed Top broke off from JI’s leadership that had turned against targeting the far enemy and established “Al Qaeda in the Malay Archipelago.” But even as he started to emulate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, his cell never adopted the brutal tactic of hostage taking and beheading as practiced by Al Qaeda in Iraq.

In 2009-10, another JI cell tried to bridge the crippling divide between Top’s pro-Al Qaeda wing and those who advocated renewed sectarian violence, by pushing for low cost/high impact barricade style hostage attacks influenced by the Lashkar e-Taiba’s 2008 takeover of the Trident and Oberoi hotels in Mumbai, India.  This cell was broken up and more than 125 members were killed or arrested, its leaders killed and/or imprisoned, and nothing more came of it.  But it was embraced as a cost-effective, high probability tactic.

Another JI splinter beheaded three Christian schoolgirls in 2006 in order to provoke a new round of sectarian conflict.  The schoolgirls were not taken hostage, nor was this glorified in jihadist media or video-taped.  This group evolved into the Mujihideen Indonesia Timur (MIT), currently the most lethal of all the JI successor organizations, whose leader, Santoso, pledged bai’yat to ISIL in 2014.

On 17 September 2015, MIT beheaded three Hindu transmigrants in Central Sulawesi.  Again, there was no attempt to ransom the hostages. It was an act meant solely to terrorize; the bodies were the message to the community, not a gruesome propaganda video for the ummah’s consumption. MIT is clearly a group to watch as it is gaining attention in international jihadist circles. But for the most part, their attacks are very much directed at security forces or local Hindus.

Southern Thailand Insurgents

In southern Thailand, where some 6,500 people have been killed and nearly 12,000 wounded since 2004, the Malay insurgents have only taken one hostage, a Marine private whom they executed in April 2013. But there is evidence that this was a very personal and targeted attack. The marine was a Muslim who had been used to leak information to the insurgents that led to a failed attack, in which 16 insurgents were killed; their single most costly attack since 2004. Malay insurgents have never abducted anyone again. In part, the local community saw it as beyond the pale, but many saw the fierce reaction of the government and feared that such tactics could be counterproductive to the insurgency.

And yet, the insurgents – conservative Sha’afis, but not Salafists – do use beheadings as a tactic to terrorize the Buddhist community.  Since 2004, there have been over 40 beheadings, most recently in April 2014.  But the rate has dropped: there have only been 12 beheadings since 2009 according to my open-source database; and almost all have been decapitated after being killed. Likewise, insurgents frequently desecrate corpses by setting them on fire or mutilating them. For example, insurgents set two couples that they killed in incidents in April and May 2015 on fire.

But here again, these are done without any media attention and no one has been taken hostage; it is simply gratuitous violence to terrorize the Buddhist community.  Perhaps there is little reason to film or glorify these grisly acts as the insurgents remain so shadowy and unwilling to have a 21st century media campaign.

Moreover, in a series of author interviews conducted in October and November 2014 and February 2015, insurgents revealed that they are under pressure from both their constituents and Islamic clergy to stop the beheadings and desecrations. Militants found such attacks to be very effective in sowing terror amongst the Buddhist population that they seek to drive from the region, but have largely complied with the directive from religious leaders.

And while ISIL has absolutely no role in the insurgency, its propaganda is increasingly being shared amongst Malay youth in southern Thailand and now routinely includes Thai subtitles. There is a concern that younger militants frustrated with the pace and scope of the insurgency are showing a willingness to escalate the violence.

Assessing the Impact of ISIL

The success of ISIL since 2014 has revived the threat of terrorism in Malaysia and Indonesia. It has led to an estimated 600-1,000 Southeast Asians to travel to Syria and Iraq to gain jihadist experience and given a new generation of members a pedestal.
Some 169 Indonesians alone have been turned back by Turkish authorities, and many more cannot get to Syria and Iraq because of the logistical logjam caused by proactive measures by regional security forces.

But ISIL has increased the rate of indoctrination and induction. Importantly they have broadened the traditional base of JI’s recruitment, and have members representing the entire spectrum of society, including women.  Some, such as the MIT and Ba’asyir’s Jemmah Anshaur Tauhid (JAT), have publicly pledged bai’yat to ISIL. (In early January, Ba’asyir, through his lawyer, renounced his ties to ISIL, but that came just days before his 12 January court hearing to appeal for an early release for his 2011 conviction for supporting JI’s Aceh training camp).

And ISIL’s slick and Hollywood visual style propaganda, increasingly in Bahasa, has had great appeal and influence over Southeast Asian militants.  To date, Southeast Asian jihadists, other than the ASG, have never engaged in hostage taking, and no group has videotaped the act of decapitation or glorified it.  As ISIL videos are viewed and shared, the threshold lowers and their base of support no longer finds it to be anathema to Southeast Asian culture.

And as Charlie Winters has argued, what we see as grotesque barbarism in ISIL videos, its supporters see “triumphalism and vengeance” against those who have harmed their interpretation of Islam. “Islamic State’s most brutal propaganda serves as a vehicle by which to convey vengeance and supremacy,” says Winters.  And such acts are well suited to be disseminated through social media, which in Southeast Asia have some of the highest rates of use in the world.

There is a concern that the returnees from Iraq and Syria will have acquired the skills to carry out a new wave of bombings. One cell was in the final stages of preparing to bomb the Carlsberg brewery in Kuala Lumpur. Of greater concern, suspected returnees were responsible for an attempted chlorine bomb at a Jakarta mall in February 2015.  In September 2015, both the U.S. and Australian embassies in Kuala Lumpur issued very specific warnings of terrorist attacks, and a three man cell was arrested soon after.  It was the third active plot in Kuala Lumpur, which saw no active JI plots during that group’s reign of terror in the decade following the Bali bombing in 2002.

And while the specter of mass casualty bombings is not to be trivialized, focusing on it may miss the more immediate threat posed by ISIL cells or inspired individuals.  Most Southeast Asians fighting for ISIL have been used as cannon fodder, which is a point not sufficiently recognized or exploited.  Very few are going to return home with advanced bomb-making or terrorism skills.  Not everyone returns a Dr. Azahari. Yet most have sufficient training in small arms and a willingness to martyr themselves.
Thus, there is a well-founded fear that the spectacle of violence demonstrated by ISIL will take root, because of the low technical capacity of the returnees and the need to perpetrate bold attacks both to win over popular support and to assume the leadership of a dispersed, leaderless movement.

Hostage taking and barricade style attacks, are perfect for both the skill set and the short-term goals of ISIL. And unlike bombings, which are indiscriminate, kidnappings, executions and assassinations are very targeted.  Malaysian security officials have stated, though without providing evidence, that ISIL members are actively targeting senior politicians and security officials.

The case of Malaysians Murad Halimmuddin (49) and his son Abu Daud (25), who were plotting to kidnap politicians after returning home from fighting with ISIL, is a case in point.  But they were not alone; their cell included four others.

Another small cell that included one returnee from Syria, which Malaysian authorities broke up in July 2015, was also planning a wave of non-bombing terrorist attacks.  The cell intended to  target VIPs and engage in barricade-style attacks that have been recently used in Sydney, Paris and Tunisia.

More importantly, two Malaysians, Mohd Faris Anwar (20) and Muhamad Wandy Muhamad Jedi (26), were featured in in a grisly ISIL video of mass beheadings released on 20 February 2015.  Though it caused fear amongst the national leadership, the video was widely shared across social media platforms in the region. If people were shocked by the act, they were quiet about it, as there was little public backlash. Though Mohd Faris Anwar was killed in Syria in late 2015, his brutality remains widely disseminated on line.

In mid-December 2015, Indonesian authorities arrested six suspected members of ISIL and JI who were planning a wave of bombs and small arm attacks on Christian and Shia communities. The plot had direct funding from ISIL, according to Indonesian security officials.

Russian authorities have recently passed intelligence – though one certainly can question its veracity – to Thai authorities regarding an ISIL cell dispatched to Thailand to perpetrate barricade style attacks against Russian tourists.


Most Southeast Asians will never see hostage taking as a legitimate act.  Indeed, Malaysians look to the ASG kidnappings in Sabah as a sign of the lawlessness of the Philippines, not as anything part of a legitimate ideological struggle. Kidnapping has de-legitimized the group in the eyes of many.

Moreover, “disappearances” are things more often attributed to state security agencies across the region.  Most militants want to distance themselves from the practices of these instruments of state oppression.

But hostage taking and beheading could appeal to a certain segment inspired by or themselves returned from fighting with ISIL. As we saw in France on 26 June 2015, a single beheading of a captive, got enormous media attention.  And well executed barricade-style attacks such as in Paris on 13 November 2015 garner enormous media attention.

For a small cell with limited technical capacity to pull off a sophisticated bombing, including lone wolves merely inspired by ISIL, a kidnapping and beheading or barricade style attack is cheap, simple, easy to disseminate, and would instantly garner massive public attention. Moreover, it would help that group stand apart from rival militants by “out bidding” them through violence to prove their jihadist credentials; essential as Islamist militants have never been as fractured as they are today.

Security forces in the region may also have to brace for a wave of targeted assassinations of foreigners, as what happened on 28 September 2015 in Bangladesh, when ISIL militants gunned down an Italian aid worker. While not as headline grabbing as bombings, they are low cost, low risk, and effective.

ISIL is ultimately containable and their sheer brutality and limited governance arguably sows the seeds of their long-term demise.  And yet, in the short-run, their brutal tactics and savagery may be emulated by affiliates and groups hoping to outbid their rivals and consolidate leadership of the jihadist movement.  And as they continue to gain adherents and followers in Southeast Asia, their tactics will be replicated.

[Zachary Abuza is a Professor at the National War College in Washington, DC, where he specializes in Southeast Asian security and politics. The views are his personal opinions, and do not reflect the views of the National War College or Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAbuza.]

MILF: “The BBL will pass if Congress decides to pass it”

From MindaNews (Jan 17): MILF: “The BBL will pass if Congress decides to pass it”

“The BBL (Bangsamoro Basic Law) will pass if Congress decides to pass it. If they don’t, then it is finished, at least for the present Congress and the Aquino Administration,” the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) said in an editorial for January 16-23, published on its website,

For the MILF, however, the peace process is “never finished” as they will “persevere until our just agreements are implemented because that is what honorable and principled people do — they keep their word,” the editorial said.

At the All-Leaders’ Summit on the Bangsamoro held in Davao City on January 10, Mohagher Iqbal, chair of the MILF peace panel and the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) that drafted the BBL, said he still hopes that the law will be passed before February 5 but acknowledged there is “no assurance” it will pass “so let’s keep moving forward.”

LMILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal, also chairof the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, addresses the All-Leaders Summit on the Bangsamoro in Davao City on January 10. MindaNews photo by Carolyn O. Arguillas chair MILF

MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal, also chairof the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, addresses the All-Leaders Summit on the Bangsamoro in Davao City on January 10. MindaNews photo by Carolyn O. Arguillas 

Iqbal said that if the BBL is not passed, the peace process will continue, even beyond the Aquino administration, as they will continue to demand from government to implement the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) signed on March 27, 2014, which includes passing the BBL.

“Sisingilin namin ang gobyerno ng Pilipinas na (we will demand from government) that you have not complied with the agreement, you have reneged on your obligation,” he said.

Congress will resume sessions on January 18 (the congressional calendar published on the website of the House of Representatives earlier stated January 19, but it was recently changed to January 18) and will adjourn on February 5 for the election campaign.

Between January 18 and February 5 are only nine session days, from Mondays to Wednesdays.

Before Congress adjourned for the holidays on December 16, the House of Representatives had finished its period of interpellation and will now proceed to the period of amendments. The Senate, however, has yet to finish its period of interpellation.

Senator Juan Ponce Enrile is scheduled to continue his interpellation. The editorial said Enrile’s voice “is a significant voice because of his experience and stature as a senior senator” and that they “await Senator Enrile’s suggestions and recommendations on how to improve the BBL.”

“Given the shortness of time left to pass the BBL, we ask only that the Senate act swiftly on the proposed BBL,” it added.

Don’t delay

“Let us not delay… The Senate should not allow time to lapse without acting on the BBL. The Senate owes that favor to Filipino people and the Bangsamoro — that they will make a decision on the BBL before the end of the current session of Congress on February 5,” it added.

Addressing the House of Representatives, the editorial said they are asking the lawmakers to “reconsider, for the just and full implementation of the CAB, the return of the provisions that were deleted from the original draft of the BBL as submitted by the Office of the President and the BTC.

The BTC, composed of 15 commissioners from the government and MILF, submitted its draft BBL to Congress in ceremonial rites in Malacanang on September 10, 2014. This draft became House Bill 4994 and Senate Bill 2408.

The House of Representatives’ Ad Hoc Committee on the BBL and the Senate Committee on Local Government, however, filed their substitute bills, HB 5811 and SB 2994, both titled Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BLBAR) . But both substitute bills have been criticized for envisioning a Bangsamoro less autonomous than the ARMM it seeks to replace, the Senate version further reducing the Bangsamoro into a mere local government unit.

The editorial said the provisions the BTC included but which the House deleted “have a purpose and are needed to bring about peace and development in the Bangsamoro.”
It added that many of the deleted provisions in the substitute bill, HB 5811, were in fact, already granted to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Not less but more

The CAB provides for the creation of a new autonomous political entity called the Bangsamoro which will replace the ARMM. President Benigno Simeon Aquino III had earlier referred to the ARMM as a “failed experiment.”

“The BBL should enhance autonomy, not diminish it,” the editorial read.

It also stressed that for issues that may have questions on constitutionality, “it is better, in our opinion, to leave those to the wisdom of the Supreme Court which is, ultimately, the final arbiter of all legal issues.”

It called on Congress not to pass off the “great opportunity to end this sad part of our nation’s history and begin a new age of trust and cooperation.”

“Let not fear divide us. We must seize it and bring peace, not just to the Bangsamoro, but to the whole Philippines as well. Let us not be faint-hearted. Let us not fail to seize this singular opportunity. There might be no more of something like this in the future as the situation may even get worse as we will all be suck into the quagmire of the global conflict and extremist violence.  This opportunity we must seize,” it said as it urged lawmakers “not (to) miss the bus of peace and prosperity. For our people. For our children,” the editorial read.

The bottomline

Earlier, MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim told MindaNews that the ball is in government’s hands. “We have no control over what will happen so we are just holding on to the commitment of Malacanang especially the President that they will really push the original agreed BBL… hopefully the President can still do something to save the peace process.”

“The bottomline,” said Murad, “is the agreed version.”

The “agreed version” is the draft BBL that the BTC and the Office of the President finalized after a series of meetings between July and September 2014 and submitted to Congress on September 10 that year.

“Whatever is contained in the CAB, yun ang ide-demand namin na it has to be implemented because it is a finished agreement,” Murad said, adding it is “very clear to Malacanang that we will not accept a BBL that is not compliant with the CAB.”

The peace process between government (GPH) and the MILF has spanned four Presidential administrations – from Ramos to Estrada to Arroyo and Aquino .

On January 8 in Davao City, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III told reporters at the inauguration of the 300-megawatt coal-fired power plant here that he would meet anew with members of the House to push for the passage of the Bangsamoro law.

Last month, he also met with members of the House on December 8 in Malacanang to ask them to “seize the historic opportunity…” of passing the BBL.

Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, in a statement on January 13 said despite the challenges, “we have basis for real hope.”

“We still believe. We remain courageous in the face of challenges. We continue to work and pray hard so that in our remaining months in office, the peace process can move closer and closer – Insha’Allah – towards its successful conclusion, towards a bright new dawn of peace, of prosperity, of harmony, for the Bangsamoro, for Mindanao, and for the Philippines,” she said.

Above ARMM but CAB-compliant

In July and September, the BTC sent House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte and Senate President Franklin Drilon an initial list of 29 issues on HB 5811 and 87 issues on SB 2894 along with their comments on the changes on substantive provisions of the draft BBL, including the autonomy framework.

Iqbal reiterated that the law that will be passed must be CAB-compliant.

Asked if they would accept a BLBAR that will provide an autonomy “better than the ARMM,” Iqbal replied by first asking “What percentage ? 1%? 2% 3% 5% 10%?”

Iqbal explained that anything above the ARMM is better than the ARMM, but “the autonomy that has to be established, for it to be genuine and real has to be not below ARMM, not the ARMM, but it has to be above the ARMM pursuant to the letter and spirit of the FAB (Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro) and CAB.”

He clarified that while 0.5% or 1% is still “above the ARMM” the law should be “above the ARMM pursuant to the FAB and CAB.”

Going Global? Daesh ‘Intends to Establish Presence in Southeast Asia’

From Sputnik International (Jan 17): Going Global? Daesh ‘Intends to Establish Presence in Southeast Asia’
The recent terrorist attacks in Indonesia were financed from Syria, the country’s National Police chief said on Friday, after the Syria-based terrorist group Daesh claimed responsibility for the Jakarta blasts.

At least seven people were killed and another twenty six were injured in explosions and gun assaults which hit the Indonesian capital.

Daesh has previously threatened Indonesia. The latest attacks were the first major terrorist incidents in Indonesia's capital since the 2009 bombing of two hotels, which left seven people dead and more than 50 injured.

Steven Rood, the Asia Foundation's Country Representative in the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations, spoke to Radio Sputnik about the recent incident and how the government can prevent such attacks from happening again.

Rood said that although Muslims in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries are moderate, the governments must nevertheless win over communities in order to prevent their radicalization.

“It’s definitely [Daesh's intent] to reach out and establish their presence. There have been groups in the Philippines that are trying to claim allegiance to the Islamic State although that has yet to be reciprocated.”
Rood noted that it might look like Abu Sayyaf, a militant Islamist group based in and around Jolo and Basilan in the southwestern part of the Philippines, has degenerated into just a criminal group, but it adheres to Daesh ideologically.

Talking about how the government can prevent this from happening, Rood said, “The governments need the community to turn against the radicals in order to be able to manage the conflict. Lone-wolf attacks can still occur but generalized problem can be averted if the community is on your side,” the analyst said.
He added that the Philippines in the Southeast Asia may serve as a safe haven for radicals due to its geography, and that governments should pay special attention to their border security. "We need to tighten border security and there needs to be better intelligence-sharing throughout Southeast Asia," Rood concluded.

Of General Intel Interest: Intelligence sources show high involvement of Malaysians in Katibah

From The Star Online (Jan 17):  Intelligence sources show high involvement of Malaysians in Katibah

Increased security measures: The police K-9 unit conducting patrols near an entertainment outlet in the city.

Increased security measures: The police K-9 unit conducting patrols near an entertainment outlet in the city.

KUALA LUMPUR: The involvement of many Malaysians in Katibah Nusantara – the Malay speaking arm of the Islamic State (IS) – has put Malaysian police on the highest alert.

Intelligence sources have identified more than 200 fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia in the group.

“This splinter cell of the terror group has gained prominence in the IS hierarchy.
“Instead of being chosen for petty duties such as cleaning, fighters from Katibah are highly sought after for ‘specialised missions’, including as snipers and suicide bombers,” a source told The Star yesterday.

Katibah first came under the radar of intelligence agencies two years ago when it was called Majmu’ah al Arkhabiliy.

The unit, which started out with 100 members based in Raqqa, Syria, operated along the model set during the Afghanistan war.

“Malaysian and Indonesian fighters are placed in a complex of apartments along with their families.

“As it was during the Afghan war, militants from Malaysia, Indonesia and sometimes Singapore, banded together to form the South-East Asia faction because they spoke the same language,” said the source.

Katibah fighters made their encampment areas as “close to home” as possible.

“Their base in Raqqa depicts a mini-Malaysia or Indonesia. Not only do they speak the same language but they also cook similar dishes,” said another source fami­liar with Katibah’s operations.

New arrivals in Syria are usually given a month of weapons training.

“If they come with their families, their family members will be placed in flats while the men undergo mili­tary training,” added the source.

According to a study by the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Katibah has been expanding its recruitment drive through videos and leaflets published in Malay.

“The campaign has now reached new proportions with the use of young children in Indonesia and Malaysia to propagate IS’ cause, especially on social media.

“Katibah Nusantara is likely to gain importance in IS’ strategic goals of establishing a worldwide Caliphate,” noted the study.

It also indicated that Malay-speaking fighters were being orga­nised for several reasons.
These include the fact that they are from South-East Asia, home to a sizeable number of the world’s Sunni Muslim population. About 30 militant groups in the region have already pledged allegiance to the IS.

Intelligence experts have warned that militants who return home could play a pivotal role in expanding IS’ operations and attacks, similar to that which occurred in Jakarta on Thursday.

“It’s the returning fighters that the authorities have to watch out for.

“These seasoned militants are coming back with combat experience and their expertise will be fully exploited by IS,” said one intelligence source.

He said the weapons proficiency of returning fighters and newly recruited militants and sympathisers posed an even greater danger to the region.

Central to the threat is former Universiti Malaya lecturer Dr Mahmud Ahmad.

It has been reported that Dr Mahmud, who is high on the wanted list for involvement with the IS, planned to unite different terror cells in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, including the dreaded Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and other militant groups in the region, to officially form the South-East Asian wing of IS.

Bukit Aman Special Branch Counter Terrorism Division head Senior Asst Comm Datuk Ayub Khan said Dr Mahmud, also known as Abu Handzalah, was actively training with the ASG in addition to taking part in terror operations in the southern Philippines.

SAC Ayub said gathering reliable intelligence was integral towards preventing any attack on home soil.

“Katibah must not be underestimated. We are also monitoring to see if this splinter cell has been contacting or cooperating with any militants in Malaysia,” he said.

It was reported that Indonesian police killed one militant during a raid yesterday and detained three suspects for interrogation in connection over the brazen attack in downtown Jakarta that left seven people dead, including the five attackers.

The three Indonesian suspects being held for interrogation are alleged to be from a terror cell linked to Indonesian Bahrun Naim, a fighter with IS in Iraq and Syria.

Police believe Naim had been behind the attack, operating remotely from Raqqa.

Islamic State Branches In Southeast Asia – Analysis (By Rohan Gunaratna)

From the Eurasia Review (Jan 17): Islamic State Branches In Southeast Asia – Analysis (By Rohan Gunaratna)

Preparations are underway to proclaim an Islamic State branch in the Southern Philippines, while the Indonesian military has pre-empted IS plans to declare a provincial satellite in eastern Indonesia. Such a foothold will have far-reaching consequences for the stability of the region.

Southeast Asia and Islamic State

The so-called Islamic State (IS) is likely to create IS branches in the Philippines and Indonesia in 2016. Although the Indonesian military pre-empted IS plans to declare a satellite state of the “caliphate” in eastern Indonesia, IS is determined to declare such an entity in at least one part of Southeast Asia. Preparations to proclaim an IS branch in the southern Philippines reflect the growing influence of IS ideology in the region.

The latest act of terrorist violence in Jakarta on 14 January 2016 highlights the clear danger posed to Southeast Asia by IS. Though their identities and affiliation have not been determined the modus operandi of the terrorists in attacking a major shopping mall in the commercial heart of the Indonesian capital, suggests a close parallel with similar attacks in Istanbul and Paris by IS-related groups. Although the number of casualties has been limited, thanks to the prompt response of the Jakarta police, the attacks by guns and grenades indicate a scaling up of the terror tactics employed.

After a year-long discussion between the local groups that pledged allegiance to the self-appointed caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in 2014-2015, the Shura Council appointed Isnilon Hapilon to lead the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the Philippines.

Hapilon is the leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Basilan (the largest island in the Sulu Archipelago). If IS succeeds in creating a safe haven in Basilan and mounts operations from the Sulu Archipelago into both Philippines and Malaysia it will pose a threat to the entire region. The creation of training camps will lure not only Southeast Asians but other nationalities as well – from Australians to Chinese Uighurs, who cannot easily reach Syria. Considering the importance given to Malaysia by Hapilon, Malaysians are likely to travel and join IS in Mindanao. The nationalities trained in the new IS province to carry out the IS vision are likely to be a threat to their home countries. In addition to enforcing the IS brand of governance, IS type beheadings and mass fatality and casualty attacks are likely.

The Context

In January 2016, IS announced the unification of four battalions in the Philippines and the allegiance of their leaders to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the IS leader. The four battalions are 1) Ansar Al-Shariah Battalion led by Abu Anas Al-Muhajir; 2) Ma’rakah Al-Ansar Battalion led by Abu Ammar; 3) Ansarul Khilafah Battalion led by Abu Sharifah; and 4) Al Harakatul Islamiyyah Battalion in Basilan led by Isnilon Hapilon, who is the overall leader of the four battalions. Al Harakatul Islamiyyah is the original name of ASG. Referring to Hapilon as “Sheikh Mujahid Abu Abdullah Al-Filipini,” an IS official organ Al-Naba’ reported on the unification of the “battalions” of God’s fighters (“mujahidin”). The IS choice of Hapilon to lead an IS province in the Philippines presents a long-term threat to the stability and the security of the Philippines and beyond.

At the oath-taking to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the battalions were represented by Ansar Al-Shariah Battalion leader Abu Anas Al-Muhajir who goes by the alias Abraham. Abu Anas Al-Muhajir is Mohammad bin Najib bin Hussein from Malaysia and his battalion is in charge of laws and other matters pertaining to jurisprudence.

Mohammad bin Najib bin Hussein is an engineer and sundry shop owner. The other Malaysians present – Universiti Malaya comparative religion lecturer Dr Mahmud Ahmad alias Abu Handzalah and a former Municipal Council employee Muhammad Joraimee Awang Raimee – are on the Malaysian police wanted list since April 2014.

Although the leader of the Ma’rakah Al-Ansar Battalion could not attend the event, Abu Ammar sent a representative Abu Harith. The war battalion led by Abu Harith is from the island of Sulu (which is in the Sulu Archipelago), where the overall ASG group leader Radulan Sahiron is based. This demonstrated a split in ASG, where a small but important faction had defected to IS.

After pledging allegiance to IS, Ansarul Khilafah Philippines released a video threatening to deploy suicide bombers in the Philippines and make the country a “graveyard” for American soldiers. On two occasions, attempts by the group to transport weapons to Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT) were disrupted by the Philippine National Police working with their Indonesian counterparts. Based in South Cotabato Province, Sarangani Province and General Santos City, Ansarul Khilafah Philippines is led by Abu Sharifah, who is also fluent in Tagalog.

Emerging Threat

The Philippines has been an important arena for domestic, regional and global terrorist groups for 20 years. Since 1994, when Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) established their first training camp, Hudaibiyah, the Philippines emerged as the training ground for Indonesians, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Thai Muslims and Arabs. Most of the instructors were non Filipinos: they were either Indonesians or Arabs trained by Al Qaeda. In addition to the Sulu Archipelago transforming into a base for training and operations, the area is a strategic bridge linking the Philippines and Malaysia.

With the rise of IS, the ASG kidnapped hostages of various nationalities. While some hostages escaped, others were released after payment, and others were killed. The Malaysian businessman and engineer Bernard Then Ted Fen was beheaded in November 2015. The latest kidnapping by ASG was on September 2015, when a Canadian, Norwegian and a Filipina were kidnapped in Samal Island and transported by two seacraft to Basilan.

In addition to moving IS ideologues to implement the IS brand of Islam, it is very likely that IS will dispatch its explosives experts, combat tacticians and other operatives. The IS plans to declare a state in the Mindanao present a very real threat to the stability and security of Southeast Asia, a region that has hitherto enjoyed relative political stability, social harmony and economic growth.

Government Response

The Moro struggle for independence in Mindanao has been one of the world’s oldest. The Government of Philippines made significant gains by engaging the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in a successful peace process brokered by the Malaysian Government. Nonetheless, the ASG, as a separate and more militant entity, as well as a few smaller groups, continue to fight to create an independent Moro homeland. The Philippine military lacks an operational capability to dismantle the insurgent and terrorist infrastructure in Mindanao especially in the Sulu archipelago.

The Philippine military has dismissed the IS publicity on the unification of the four battalions as propaganda. The sense of urgency to prevent Mindanao from emerging as an IS epicentre is not shared by all. Until an IS declaration of a satellite state, and even attacks mounted in the name of IS, it will be business-as-usual for some in the Philippines.

Shortly, IS will declare a satellite of the caliphate in the Sulu Archipelago. Ideally, President Benigno Aquino should pre-empt the IS declaration. To win Muslim hearts and minds and prevent Muslim support for IS, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) should move not in a role of containing, isolating and eliminating the ASG, but with a mandate to economically develop the region. President Aquino has to mobilise national and international resources to help achieve this mandate.

To preempt the declaration of a IS satellite state (wilayat) in the Philippines and IS branch shortly, the AFP should deploy in strength in Sulu, Basilan and Tawi Tawi. If the AFP can dominate the Sulu Archipelago, IS cannot successfully declare, operate and expand its satellite in the Philippines with implications for Malaysia, the region and beyond.

[Rohan Gunaratna is Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of Security Studies (RSIS) and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at RSIS, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Straits Times.]

Of General Intel Interest: ‘200 in Malay-speaking IS terror group’

From The Malaysia Today (Jan 17): ‘200 in Malay-speaking IS terror group’

Report tells of fighters chosen specially for sniper work and suicide bombings.

Dr Mahmud Ahmad

KUALA LUMPUR: More than 200 militants from Indonesia and Malaysia are part of Katibah Nusantara, the Malay speaking arm of the Islamic State terrorist network, according to Malaysian police.

Fighters from the group are chosen for specialised tasks such as sniping or suicide bombings, according to an unidentified source quoted by Star Online.

The group, first called Majmu’ah al Arkhabiliy two years ago, began with 100 members based in Raqqa, Syria.

The Malaysian and Indonesians live in an apartment complex with their families. Militants from Malaysia, Indonesia and sometimes Singapore would usually band together because of shared language, culture and food.

New arrivals in Syria are given weapons training for a month.

The group, now called Katibah, has published videos and leaflets in Malay to expand their recruitment, and young children in Indonesia and Malaysia were being used to propagate the Islamic State’s cause on social media.

South-East Asia is home to a large population of Sunni Muslims. About 30 militant groups in the region have already pledged allegiance to Islamic State, according to a Singapore university study quoted in the report.

“It’s the returning fighters that the authorities have to watch out for,” according to an intelligence source quoted. “These seasoned militants are coming back with combat experience and their expertise will be fully exploited by Islamic State.”

A former University of Malaya lecturer Dr Mahmud Ahmad has previously been reported to be planning to unite different terrorist cells in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Dr Mahmud, known as Abu Handzalah, was training with Abu Sayyaf and taking part in operations in the southern Philippines, according to Malaysian counter-terrorism police.

Opinion: Jakarta attacks: Is ISIS presence in South-east Asia overstated?

Opinion piece by Scott Edwards in the Straits Times (Jan 16): Jakarta attacks: Is ISIS presence in South-east Asia overstated?

A series of deadly suicide bombings and shootings in Jakarta have killed at least seven people, and been claimed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

At first glance, this seems to confirm that long-held worries of a full-blown ISIS campaign in South-east Asia were well-founded but, viewed in context, the picture looks rather different.

ISIS is undeniably active to some extent in Indonesia and South-east Asia more broadly, and it is known to have recruited fighters from the region. It was recently reported that two suicide bombers who mounted attacks in Syria and Iraq were from Malaysia.

South-east Asia has an enormous Muslim population, and its states have long had trouble with separatist or terrorist Islamist organisations such as Jemaah Islamiah and Abu Sayyaf. That makes the prospect of a domestic struggle with ISIS in Indonesia all the more alarming.

Efforts to head it off are well under way. Malaysian police recently confirmed the authenticity of a leaked memo warning of imminent suicide attacks in Kuala Lumpur, while Indonesian police reported arrests of potential ISIS-linked militants planning to attack Jakarta around the New Year celebrations.

The police and world media alike have already speculated that these attacks may be in some way connected to that same intelligence.

Other countries in the region are concerned too. The Australian Attorney-General ominously announced that ISIS is planning to establish a "distant caliphate" in South-east Asia, which clearly would be a disaster.


This fear is fed by worries that young Indonesians are being radicalised and recruited by ISIS, especially through social media, where certain Malaysians and Indonesians fighting in Syria have won large followings.

The number of Indonesian fighters estimated to have joined ISIS in Syria is between 500 and 700; Malaysia follows with roughly 200, with an additional 120 arrested before they made it to Syria.

Elsewhere, Thailand is host to a separatist Islamic insurgency in its southern provinces and recent ISIS videos have emerged subtitled in Thai. In the Philippines, existing separatist groups such as Abu Sayyaf are increasingly being linked to ISIS.

To try and assuage his people's worries, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) has called for more resources to be dedicated to the issue of returning Indonesian fighters and agreed to regulations allowing for passports to be revoked. He has asked the military to be diligent against attacks and it has planned exercises in areas with groups potentially linked to ISIS.

He has also been pushing a "soft approach", focusing on how cultural and religious approaches should be used, and poverty tackled, to reduce radicalisation.


First of all, there is no sign that this is a mass insurgency waiting to explode. An estimated 500 to 700 fighters sounds like a lot as a raw number but, relative to the Indonesian Muslim population of roughly 200 million, it's vanishingly small.

While ISIS has now apparently claimed responsibility for the latest attack, the attack seems to be on a smaller scale than anticipated. ISIS still seems to have a relatively small impact on the region and seems to present only a minor threat.

This all recalls the heyday of Al-Qaeda, when much ink was spilled over South-east Asia potentially becoming another major front in the war on terror - something which never came to pass.

As (editorial fellow at The Atlantic) Edward Delman has pointed out, Indonesia's social and political cultures have plenty of capacity to fight back.

He points in particular to Nahdlatul Ulama, a large organisation that spreads ideas of compassion - an important bulwark against radicalisation. And as a Muslim-majority democratic country, Indonesia has the opportunity to make political space for people to vent their dissatisfaction. Even when ideas are relatively extreme, they can still be discussed and discredited within the normal political framework.

This isn't to suggest that complacency is acceptable, and that extends to security measures across Indonesia and South-east Asia as a whole. But the gap between fear and reality is not to be dismissed either.

We should avoid assuming the worst about the region just because it is host to large, Muslim-majority countries - or dismissing those countries' ability to fight violent radicalism themselves.

[The writer is a doctoral researcher in international relations, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom.]