From Mosul to Mindanao ISIS is Not Yet Defeated
When Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the Daesh chieftain, declared the Caliphate in Jun 2014 one of the prime reasons he could do so was the territory that he controlled in both Iraq and Syria. Aiding that was the finances he possessed through the looting of the Mosul treasury which gave him a reported 489 million US dollars. The royalties from the Mosul refinery and taxes imposed on the population of the territories under control gave Baghdadi enough financial security but also spoilt him for choice. For three years he held his own with fighters from all over the world coming to assist Daesh after being thoroughly influenced by the slickest psychological warfare campaign ever witnessed. However, the ability for a terrorist group to fight in conventional mode always remains a losing challenge and proposition. Thus evicted from its fortresses in Falluja and Ramadi in Iraq it was a matter of time before which its stronghold in Mosul would fall and Daesh would have to relocate elsewhere or simply decide to be a dispersed but networked entity with continuing lethality in the sting of its terror attacks. Demonstration of its capability, even while remaining under stress in Iraq and Syria, was amply projected through continuing attacks of varying intensity in Europe and elsewhere. The late May assault on Coptic Christian pilgrims in Egypt; the suicide bomber at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, the London Bridge assailants the following week; twin suicide bomb attacks that killed three policemen in Jakarta; twin attacks in Tehran and then the recent attacks in Spain and on the London Underground.
With all the attention in the west Daesh’s attempts to hunt for territory which it could call its own has limited options. A year ago it seemed that it would look at Afghanistan, Pakistan and through that territory towards Central Asia where the resources it seeks for financial security would be available in plenty. On target would be the gas resources of Turkmenistan and the drug networks of the Golden Crescent. However, over the last one year the efforts to obtain a foothold in western Afghanistan and in the Pakistani badlands haven’t succeeded the way they did in Iraq and Syria. The local terror outfits do not wish to yield space that they have painstakingly acquired over time and surrogacy isn’t something very popular with them.
Given all the above it seems Daesh has placed its eggs in Philippines commencing its campaign from the Mindanao region where fighting erupted in late May 2017 leading to the capture of Marawi city by approximately 600 Islamic fighters. It appears that Daesh leadership in Syria had sent considerable money to militants in the Philippines over the last year which has resulted in aiding their spectacular seizure of the southern Philippines city of Marawi.
A report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a research institute based in Jakarta, describes how Mahmud Ahmad, a high-level Daesh figure from Malaysia, who is based near Marawi, worked through the group’s chain of command to Syria to get money and international recruits to help local militants seize territory in the Philippines for the Caliphate. Thus while Daesh may not yet be completely down and out in the Middle East, holding on to some bastions in Syria, its focus does seem to be shifting towards South East Asia. In that focus the choice could have laid anywhere; Indonesia, Malaysia, Southern Thailand or the Philippines; all are nations or regions where a large segment of Islamic population resides in a given area. Why did Daesh select Mindanao in Philippines?
Jasminder Singh and Mohammad Haziq bin Jani of the high profile Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore have this to say in their analysis of the ISIS choice – “Terrorism in the Philippines is framed as a war between Muslims and the coalition of Christians, secularists and modernists. The establishment of Sharia Law is used as a rallying call for support for the Daesh, and to determine which lands are “occupied”. As it did in the Middle East, Daesh is retelling the history of the Philippines which was colonized by Spain and the United States”.
Marawi, the capital of Mindanao’s Lanao del Sur province has a mostly Muslim 200,000 population the biggest Islamic community in what is otherwise an overwhelmingly Catholic country. However, it is important to know that Philippines has long standing Islamic insurgencies among which the Moro insurgency in the south is the most important. This insurgency was triggered by the Jabidah massacre 0n 18 Mar 1968, which saw the killing of 60 Filipino Muslim commando trainees by the Philippines Army, on a planned operation to reclaim the eastern part of the Malaysian state of Sabah. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), an armed insurgent group was created with commitment towards establishing an independent entity composed of Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan. Over the successive years, the MNLF has splintered into several different groups including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which aims to establish an Islamic state within the Philippines. Besides anything else the terrain consideration by Daesh must have been an important factor in selection of the region where Daesh would attempt to establish its second coming. The string of islands contributes to the ability of militants to establish hideouts and presence of security forces cannot be ensured everywhere. That allows a certain physical operational space for the militants and comprehensive military defeat becomes well-nigh impossible. The Muslim separatist movements represented by the MNLF and a breakaway faction, the MILF, have been fighting a rebellion since 1973 making it one of the longest standing insurgencies in the world. Local conditions like economic marginalization, the root cause of Muslim dissatisfaction, remains a major influence on the situation in Mindanao where most of the violence related to this rebellion takes place.
So Mindanao it is, where Daesh is gravitating and sending signals of its intent. It appears that Daesh will attempt to reframe itself in two entities; a virtual one with extensive networks spread in Middle East, Europe and to an extent Africa where its other surrogates exist, Al Shabab and Boko Haram. It would continue to rally support for the Caliphate, create and retain the radical space within Islam and sponsor terror attacks wherever possible. The second entity would be the physical one so necessary for the retention of status as against that of Al Qaida which till today remains without territory. Perhaps another reason for Daesh to focus more closely on Mindanao well before its eviction from Mosul was the suspicion that the Al Qaida could well have its eyes on the same region.
South East Asia offers some other distinct advantages as a region. There are at any time as many if not more Islamic insurgencies in existence than any other part of the Islamic world. The feasibility of networking these into a larger movement under the Daesh flag worries no end the governments in the region. The huge movement of container traffic and fuel tankers through the region’s numerous sea channels and the existence of piracy could offer Daesh another area to look at for its economic sustenance.
Recent months have seen a flurry of meetings between political leaders of the ASEAN. The Daesh threat and the situation in Mindanao have been on the agenda of almost all these. A visit to Singapore and interaction with higher echelons of leadership and practitioners reveals deep concern for the emerging presence of Daesh. While Philippines and Indonesia offer terrain advantages to Daesh and therefore the feasibility of functioning as large entities capable of fighting even conventionally, a state like Singapore has to be even more concerned for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it is the only developed state in the region. Taking the strategy of what Daesh attempted to do in faraway Europe it can replicate the same in nearby Singapore. The important thing in such strategies is messaging, the ability to demonstrate capability to strike at will, inflict harm on a developed society and have nothing in response. Singapore, like the West European capitals remains vulnerable not to mass attacks or even the Mumbai type small team attacks but more likely to lone wolves. There is a 15 percent Muslim population in Singapore and interestingly 40,000 motorists enter from Malaysia into Singapore every day for work. Another estimate states that there are 15-16 million crossings from Malaysia into Singapore every year. Thus Singapore does have a problem. It has a professional police and a good motivated army but the sheer magnitude of the problem is actually over whelming especially when you have 16 million visitors coming in every year in a nation of 5.3 million people. Singapore has been anticipating a major terror act ever since 9/11 primarily because of its status as a developed state, the large number of western tourists who flock there and because it is the financial and trade hub of the east. However, through a prudent and very proactive adoption of counter radicalization and intelligence covering numerous institutions it has kept its security intact. It is after the advent of lone wolves that Singapore now feels relatively unsafe as induction of a sponsored lone wolf is not a problem and firearms or explosives are no longer the norm for terrorist attacks. It has a coast line which is vulnerable like all coastlines are. Therefore the sneaking in of a lone wolf suicide bomber is itself something which cannot be ruled out. Daesh’s messaging is dependent on sending signals of utter contempt for non-Islamic societies in which choice of civilian targets and use of horrific violence is not something which worries its sentiments. Besides Singapore there is still ample scope to carry out militant acts in other cities. Djakarta, Kuala Lumpur and other Indonesian and Malaysian cities are vulnerable too as Daesh bears no remorse in its campaign of terror. If Dacca was actually a Daesh sponsored attack it gives the modus operandi which could be employed in these cities too.
Moving back to the Philippines for a final assessment of the status of the Daesh sponsored militancy the situation in Mindanao remains tenuous. The research by Jasminder Singh and Mohammad Haziq bin Jani of RSIS states - “The reminder that Marawi is ard al-hijrahwa al-jihad (land of hijrah and jihad) reinforces its status in the view of Daesh terrorists and supporters. In the video “Inside the Caliphate”, AbulYaman al-Marawi called on Daesh supporters, specifically those in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand and Singapore, to migrate to Marawi for so-called jihad”. It is revealed that in Mindanao there are Islamic terrorists from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, India, Morocco, Turkey, China and Chechnya. It’s a situation quite akin to the Middle East or even what we witnessed in Kashmir in the early Nineties when transnational Jihadis of every hue were inducted by the ISI of Pakistan once these elements were free from and in fact no longer in use in Afghanistan.
The battle in Marawi has gone on for the better part of four months with over 500 Islamic militants killed. Currently it is learnt that only a small holdout exists with approximately 50 odd fighters restricted to a square kilometer. The Philippines Army has not exactly won accolades for the above because ostensibly it states that it prefers not to tackle this more robustly in fear of large scale civilian casualties. It however, has employed air power in the form of surgical strikes some of which has gone awry and caused casualties within the government troops and civilians. A state of martial law has existed in Marawi over the last few months.
The resurgence of the Rohingya issue in Southern Myanmar and the large scale violence both by government forces and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army ARSA) over the last few weeks gives Daesh the potential to focus its efforts towards another region where its presence can make a difference to the future hold of radical Islam in South East Asia. The 400,000 refugees created by this crisis have fled into Bangladesh itself a nation beset by issues concerning radicalism. It is also a nation where intelligence agencies such as Pakistan’s ISI seek opportunities. They may have little remorse in exploiting the Rohingya issue in conjunction with Daesh fighters to establish a stronghold and thereby create conditions to carry this turbulence into north East India. Daesh is awaiting opportunity in India too; an entry from the east could be quite unconventional after efforts at entry into India through south and north have not really succeeded.
Thus as much as it did in the Middle East Daesh is finding opportunities for its spread in South East Asia. It is fortunate that ASEAN is concerned about the combined security threats which are posed. Except on China ASEAN has a fairly good track regard on unity in dealing with security threats. India must keep its tentacles well spread; it is being sandwiched between two Daesh active regions and must not allow its territory or its people to get exploited in any way by the Daesh dreams.