By: Michael Hart

For much of the previous two decades, Abu Sayyaf has comprised the major Islamist militant force to be reckoned with in the southern Philippines although they have been regarded as much a criminal ransom gang as jihadis.  Today they are being supplanted by groups affiliated the Islamic State, however, which seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate across much of the Middle East.

Abu Sayyaf, unlike the Bangasamoro Islamic Freedom Figghters, or BIFF, which is aligned with the Islamic State and has clashed repeatedly with the military since the first of the year, has retreated from mainland Mindanao since its participation in the Marawi siege last year, which cost the lives of nearly 1,000 Islamic combatants and destroyed the city.

Abu Sayyaf’s largest and most influential faction, led by Isnilon Hapilon, who pledged allegiance to IS in 2014, was wiped out in Marawi and Hapilon was killed during the final throes of the battle. Since the conflict there ended in October, the group’s remaining fighters have laid low in their traditional maritime hideouts. Abu Sayyaf’s surviving factions – loosely led by Radullan Sahiron in Sulu and Furuji Indama in Basilan –  have not pledged allegiance to IS and harbor few concrete links to the wider global jihadi network.

The group’s capabilities have been  significantly reduced and its fighters have engaged in only sporadic clashes with the military during 2018. And while Abu Sayyaf used to be the scourge of waters in the Sulu Sea off western Mindanao’s coastline, the militants have recently been unable to launch ambitious piracy attacks or maritime kidnappings as regional nations have maintained heightened vigilance through joint naval patrols. Abu Sayyaf holds only nine hostages and lucrative ransom payments have dried up, signalling a lack of funds to purchase weapons and speedboats for use in hostage-taking operations. Since the defeat of Hapilon’s followers, the group has remained leaderless and with no clear direction.

For so long the most brutal and feared jihadi group in the region, the threat from Abu Sayyaf has been been superseded by the BIFF and the remnants of the Maute Group, a radical Islamist group composed of former Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas. With Abu Sayyaf relegated the to outlying islands, these more recently-spawned groups pose the dominant threat on Mindanao’s mainland as they look to rekindle their aim of forging the IS-style Islamic caliphate that has been largely defeated in the Middle East.

These are now the groups-of-choice for Southeast Asian jihadis and represent the vanguard of Islamist militancy in the jungles of Mindanao.

Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters assume IS mantle

While the Mautes were dealt a near-knockout blow after sustaining vast losses in Marawi, only a small cohort of BIFF members participated in the siege. The BIFF fighters who did not travel to Marawi have now picked up the IS mantle. Thought to number several hundred jihadis, the BIFF remain embedded in small pockets of rural territory across three provinces in western Mindanao: Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The group is split into at least three sub-factions, with Esmael Abdulmalik serving as its main figurehead and de-facto leader. Since Marawi, the BIFF have regularly clashed with security forces, launched a wave of IED attacks and rampaged through civilian towns.

Encounters between the BIFF and the military have increased in both scale and intensity. On March 11, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reported it had killed 44 militants and wounded 26 during three days of intense clashes in Datu Saudi town. Fighting again erupted in mid-April, before June’s latest military onslaught targeted the group in Liguasan Marsh. Despite suffering heavy casualties, the BIFF have proven unexpectedly resilient, well-resourced and difficult to dislodge.

The group has hit back by ambushing soldiers using IEDs. Bomb blasts have also targeted civilians, with an explosion outside a bar in Tacurong City in the province of Sultan Kudarat, causing 14 casualties on New Year’s Eve. More recently, the BIFF bombed a cathedral in Koronadal city in late-April and detonated a device outside a school in Midsayap in May.

The armed forces have reported seeing foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia fighting alongside the BIFF, providing a possible explanation for their confounding level of strength. It is thought that a number of these non-Filipino combatants managed to escape from Marawi during the siege and linked-up with the BIFF, while others are rumoured to have entered Mindanao later by crossing porous sea borders.

Senior army commander Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana says the AFP is verifying reports that Indonesians and Singaporeans were among those killed recently at Liguasan Marsh, while Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has previously warned of the illicit entry of terrorists from neighboring countries. The AFP has vowed to keep a ‘tight watch’ along Mindanao’s heavily-indented coast but policing it round-the-clock is a monumental challenge, and inevitably some are able to to slip through the net undetected. Some of these new recruits are battle-hardened and trained in bomb-making skills acquired abroad.

The Maute group shows signs of life

As the BIFF has proceeded with its campaign of terror, the Maute group – destroyed as a hierarchical and organized fighting force in Marawi – has been slowly rebuilding beneath the surface. The clashes that erupted in Tubaran in Lanao del Sur Province in June were the first involving the group since the early months of the year, when sporadic gun battles with government soldiers erupted in the towns of Masui, Pagayawan and Pantar. The latest violence indicates the Mautes are still very much alive under new leader Abu Dar.

Reports of Maute recruitment in Lanao del Sur province have emerged, with the army claiming the terrorists are using cash, gold and jewellery looted from Marawi to lure impoverished young men into their ranks in villages surrounding the ruins of the now-destroyed Islamic city on the shores of Lake Lanao. In February, Col. Romeo Brawner estimated the Mautes had replenished their ranks with around 200 fighters from Lanao del Sur and said the group ‘had not abandoned their objective to create a caliphate’.

The military’s commanding general Rolando Bautista recently warned another Marawi-style urban siege was becoming a ‘big possibility’. Police have also arrested Maute members and sympathizers further afield in central and northern areas of the country, while Manila’s police director Oscar Albayalde has placed officers on ‘full alert’ for potential Maute attacks in the capital.

Mindanao’s Peace Process Threatened

Alarmist rhetoric aside, on the surface the threat from radical Islamists appears reduced since the Marawi siege ended. A military crackdown facilitated by martial law on Mindanao has kept up the pressure on the jihadists, while the long-delayed peace process with the region’s larger and more moderate Muslim rebel groups is inching towards a conclusion.

The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is set to be passed next month, paving the way for the creation of a new autonomously-governed region for Muslim majority areas in Mindanao. It is hoped the landmark deal will forge a lasting peace between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – which has already laid down its arms – while at the same time reducing grievances among the Muslim population and tackling the core long-term drivers of terrorist recruitment in western Mindanao, which have sustained more radical groups for decades.

Yet the current generation of extremist groups present in the region – spearheaded by the IS-aligned BIFF and the rapidly-regrouping Maute remnants – appears unlikely to give up the fight. If the peace process fails to live up to its promise of bringing greater autonomy and development, there is a danger these elements may be able to garner enough support to once again revive Mindanao’s six-decade Islamist separatist struggle – but this time entwined with the warped ideology of transnational jihad and the brutal tactics which have become the trademark of IS’s global brand.

Just last month, senior BIFF spokesperson Abu Misri Mama warned that the group does not recognize the peace process and chillingly said ‘‘we are not in favor of autonomy…the BIFF will continue to fight for independence; the island will not see peace even after this BBL is passed.’’

President Rodrigo Duterte has also voiced fears of such a scenario, warning earlier this year of ‘‘war in Mindanao’’ if the peace process collapses.

With the notorious bandits of the once-influential but now-weakened Abu Sayyaf restricted to their remote archipelagic hideouts in the Sulu Sea, across the water on the region’s main island, it is now the more ideologically-minded IS-inspired militants of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Mautes who represent the greatest barrier to securing an elusive peace in Mindanao’s wild west.

Michael Hart (info.michaelhart@gmail.com has researched for Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). He blogs at Asia Conflict Watch.