Islamic State Operatives in the Philippines

The February 16 arrest in Manila’s Ermita area of an Egyptian national named Fehmi Lassqued, along with the seizure of illegal firearms and explosives, is a disturbing validation of concerns that the Islamic State, decimated and driven out of Syria and Iraq by combined western forces, is seeking to move its operations elsewhere.

Fehmi, who is said to have been attempting to recruit adherents among Muslim families in Manila, is the second IS combatant to be arrested recently in the Philippines. In January, a suspected Spanish terrorist named Abdelkhakim Labidi Adib was arrested in Basilan province, roughly 1,400 km south of Manila.

With the growing collapse of Islamic State, hundreds of defectors were reported to have massed on Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey in recent months, stripping off their gear and adopting civilian clothing in an effort to blend in with refugees fleeing the fighting.

Turkish officials, according to Sidney Jones, the Jakarta-based director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, have done an effective job of rounding up the fleeing former fighters and deporting them to their home countries to be incarcerated and that few have escaped the dragnet. Media reports say several dozen former fighters have made it across the heavily patrolled Turkish border. Reportedly scores of infiltrators have been shot dead by border guards.

Last June, Jones reported that in a Jakarta presentation that IS activists had created a video encouraging sympathizers from across Southeast Asia to go to the Philippines in the hope of recreating a Caliphate, or state under the leadership of an Islamic steward, in the Muslim-dominated areas of Mindanao island.

Indeed, foreign nationals from Yemen, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia are said to have been killed in the five-month-long struggle for the Mindanao city of Marawi, which was destroyed in bitter house-to-house fighting. The attempt to establish an Islamic government in Marawi was led by members of the Maute Group, a fundamentalist Islamic clan and ultimately cost the lives of more than 800 Islamic combatants, including the group’s leaders, as well as 160 Philippine Army troops and dozens of civilians.

Killed along with the Maute brothers were Isnilon Hapilon and Muamar Askali, both leaders of the notorious Abu Sayyaf gang, which law enforcement authorities describe more as a gang of kidnappers sailing under the false flag of Islam. Abu Sayyaf members have since been limited in their ability and intent to conduct offensive attacks against security forces although some have taken place.

Some 200,000 people were driven out of the destroyed city. The refugee population has dispersed across cities in Mindanao and other areas of the southern Philippines, with suspected combatants having blended in with the fleeing evacuees. It is unclear how many combatants escaped from Marawi, but some did, having looted the city’s banks and a wide range of other establishments including homes, making away with tens of millions of dollars, according to the military. They were said to have been led by Humam Abdul Najib, also known as Abu Dar, who is said to have used the money to recruit as many as 250 new combatants. Reuters, in a report last November, said hardened mercenaries are joining, lured by the promise of the looted money.

Across the southern Philippines, insurgent and insurgent and terrorist activity is fractured across several groups, according a report by Pacific Strategies & Assessments, or PSA, a Manila-based regional country risk firm, each with a typical geographic range of operations and different levels of capability, raising the risk of small-scale bombings resembling those in the Manila area of Quiapo in April and May of last year or in Davao in September 2016.

“In terms of intent, radical groups may continue to be motivated to conduct such small-scale bombing attacks to display their relevancy despite the end of the Marawi siege and the death of important Islamic State-affiliated leadership,” PSA said in a Feb. 13 report to paid subscribers.

Unlike the threat pattern in other parts of the world like the United States or Europe, the threat in the Philippines is not characterized by low-sophistication/high-impact methods such as vehicle ramming attacks or mass shootings, PSA said. “Suicidal attacks and suicide bombings have not yet been a feature of the threat environment in the Philippines. However, it remains to be seen how long the Philippines can be insulated from global trends in terror attacks, and the possibility of such attacks, or complex armed assaults in the style of Paris 2015, cannot be ruled out.”

“Muslim terrorist- and insurgent-related violence will likely fall into similar patterns in the short term,” PSA said. “Another high-profile event like the Marawi siege is unlikely for the time being, due to the degradation of the capabilities of these groups through the operations by security forces. However, the driving forces for the violence - lack of economic development, radicalization among the Muslim population, and the weakening of the MILF through failure to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law - cannot be addressed through military action.”