Here's the thing about "ISIS" in the Philippines: It's not really ISIS in the Philippines. It's just the latest flavor of a decades-old insurgency and criminal element, and any defeat of ISIS there is not the same thing as a defeat of the ingrained militancy.
That's more or less the conclusion of experts I spoke to or read when researching this report for RealClearLife, which dug into a new government report [PDF] about the degradation of ISIS-linked groups in the southeast Asian nation after the groups suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of U.S.-backed government forces late last year. While the report was full of good news about the decline of ISIS-P, as the militants aligned with the Syria-based terrorist group are known, analysts and observers said it's not the full story.
“For these bandits and insurgents, ISIS was the cool new name brand of global jihad so of course they wanted to hitch their wagon, as have other jihadi groups,” Jack Murphy, a former U.S. Special Forces soldier and close watcher of the counter-terrorism fight in the Philippines, said in an email. “From Afghanistan to the Philippines, there are little terrorist groups re-branding themselves as ISIS in order to attract membership, financing, and even to goad governmental troops into fighting them so that they gain credibility as insurgents. What was called ISIS-P is probably defunct at this point, but the various jihadists who survived along with other disenfranchised young people will most likely remain jihadists, and over the course of the next decade will likely consolidate into whatever the flavor du jour of international jihadis at that time.”
Filipino security analyst Rommel Banlaoi emphasized the criminal element in support of the militancy, using the example of the ISIS-affiliated groups' holding of a southern Philippine town of Marawi for months until their ouster by U.S.-backed government forces last year.
“The [s]iege occurred not only because of the collective actions of most of the ISIS followers in the Philippines, but also because of the collective support of various criminal syndicates engaged in drug trafficking, human smuggling, money laundering, and trafficking of small arms and light weapons…” Banlaoi, Chairman at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, writes in a forthcoming study. “Transnational organized [crime] provided the resilient support network of ISIS followers in the Philippines to mount the Marawi siege.”
In sum, the fight against ISIS in the Philippines is not just the fight against ISIS in the Philippines. Here's a top State Department official explaining further:
“[T]he factors responsible for ISIS’s attack and occupation of Marawi are local, not international in origin. [Chinese leader] Mao [Zedong’s] famous dictum that insurgents are the fish and the population is the sea in which they swim applies in this case. Disenfranchised Filipino Muslims who are dissatisfied with their government’s ability or willingness to address their needs are more inclined to provide tacit, and sometimes direct, support to anti-government activities,” Joseph Felter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, told the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in December. “Going forward, it will be important to maintain pressure on ISIS and other extremists. However, the real challenge for the Philippine government will be addressing the conditions that drove many of these militants to violence and will drive the next generation to similar ends. This must complement [military] efforts if any enduring solutions are to be achieved.”
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