April 13, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Philippines Battles Abu Sayyaf
On April 9, fighters from the militant Islamist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) ambushed a Filipino army unit conducting an operation against the group on the remote southern island of Basilan, killing 18 soldiers and wounding more than 50. According to reports, at least four of the soldiers were beheaded. Based on a government statement on April 12, the number of ASG casualties from the weekend's clashes had risen to 24. The engagement was costly for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and raises renewed concerns about militant activity in the country. The operation is also a reminder of the difficulty of displacing localized Islamist insurgencies—whether in Yemen, Afghanistan, Mali, or the Philippines.
The ASG was formed in 1991, reportedly with funding from Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a brother-in-law of Usama bin Ladin. Initially established to fight for an independent Islamic state on Jolo and Basilan islands, the group now largely exists as a criminal kidnapping enterprise. Though ASG was previously affiliated with al-Qaeda, in the summer of 2014 a video surfaced showing ASG leader Isnilon Hapilon pledging allegiance to the so-called Islamic State. The April 9 AFP operation was launched in an attempt to kill Hapilon, and to free several Western hostages whom the ASG had threatened to behead if ransom was not delivered by April 8. The fate of the hostages—including a Dutch national, two Canadians, and a Norwegian—remains unknown.
Of the ASG fighters killed, one was Moroccan national Mohammed Khattab, described by an AFP statement as a bomb-making instructor and militant preacher attempting to link local armed groups to unspecified ‘international terrorist groups.’ Though it is unclear if Khattab was affiliated with the Islamic State, there are strong links between the Islamic State and militant groups in Muslim areas of the southern Philippines. To date, at least 100 Filipinos have traveled to fight in Iraq and Syria, and Filipino authorities have become increasingly concerned about active recruitment networks operating in the country.
According to most estimates, ASG has approximately 300 fighters in its ranks—down from a peak of around 1,250 in 2000. The degradation of the group was largely made possible by assistance from the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), which provided counterterrorism training for the AFP until its mission ended in 2014. Despite training, equipment, and $441 million in U.S. security assistance funding, the weakened ASG has still been able to inflict significant casualties on the Filipino military when its soldiers attempt to launch operations on ASG strongholds. Both Basilan and Jolo Islands—the central territory of ASG—are remote and heavily forested, presenting the ideal environment for perpetuating an insurgency. Utilizing its criminal-kidnapping element, ASG has managed to remain well funded—and well armed.
The insurgent environment in the remote southern islands of the Philippines is challenging for the international community because of the opportunities it provides terror groups. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have taken advantage of remote areas with weak governance to establish new safe havens for their fighters, and new sources of income. Following the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, al-Qaeda leadership fled to the remote mountainous regions along the border with Pakistan, where geography and tribal allegiances continue to shield them. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) utilizes the vast Saharan desert to draw revenue from smuggling routes, and to launch operations in both North and West Africa. The Islamic State has established affiliates in remote areas of Yemen, Afghanistan, and the Sinai, ensuring that tactical defeat in Iraq and Syria will not immediately spell the end of the group’s influence. Wherever localized Islamist insurgencies persist, groups espousing the ideology of bin Ladinism will seek to co-opt them.
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