Commentary: Islamic State Moves North, Threatens Philippine Capital

Commentary by Rohan Gunaratna
170510-PH-Manila-mosque-620 Police officers stand guard near the Manila Golden Mosque in Quiapo, Manila, after two nearby explosions killed two and injured six, May 7, 2017.

The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for bomb blasts that killed two and injured six in the Quiapo district of Manila on May 6, a little more than a week after a similar attack injured 13 people on the eve of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in the Philippine capital.

The Philippines downplayed the incidents and police denied they were acts of terrorism. Nonetheless, national security agencies, military forces and law enforcement authorities stepped up their hunt for local terrorists who have embraced IS ideology and tradecraft.

Prior to the summit in late April, Philippine security forces disrupted an alleged IS kidnapping and bombing mission on the resort island of Bohol. The April 11 attack in the central Philippines demonstrated that the IS threat is expanding northward.

The IS cell in Manila that mounted the attacks in the capital is intact and is likely to strike again. With IS threat to Manila, authorities continue to express concern.

Western governments including Britain, the United States and Canada issued travel advisories for citizens planning trips to the Philippines.

“Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in the Philippines. Terrorist groups continue to plan attacks and have the capacity and the intent to carry out attacks at any time and anywhere in the country,” Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in its advisory.

Philippine groups back IS

Threat groups in the Philippines waging a separatist campaign have embraced IS ideology. Among those are Ansar Khilafah Philippines (AKP), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Islamic State Lanao (ISL). Similarly, Abu Sayyaf Group’s (ASG) Sulu faction embraced the IS flag and displayed it while conducting beheadings and threatening western governments to pay ransom for release of hostages.

Having established an East Asia division in Basilan, Mindanao, IS intends to step up attacks and create a wilayat, or province, covering Mindanao, Sulawesi, Indonesia, and Sabah, Malaysia. Attempts to build a base in Sulawesi and Sabah failed but succeeded in Mindanao because of the presence of several threat groups.

Since IS declared a caliphate three years ago, 16 IS-centric threat groups grew and escalated in 2015 and 2016. The administration led by President Benigno Aquino III, who left office last June, denied the presence of IS-linked threat groups in the southern Philippines.

With the inauguration of Rodrigo Duterte as president, security forces focused on fighting drug traffickers until IS bombed the night market in his hometown of Davao City on Sept. 2, 2016, killing 15 and injuring 70. Since then, Duterte has focused on fighting ASG and IS-centric groups in Mindanao.

As Philippine security forces fight back in the south, the threat groups are mounting diversionary attacks in the northern and central Philippines. IS will keep mounting intermittent attacks in Manila until its infrastructure is dismantled in the south.

Recent attacks

On April 28, a bomb exploded in front of the Tower Lodging House in Quiapo district as leaders of ASEAN countries were attending the summit chaired by Duterte. A press statement declared the blast was not linked to the summit and related meetings and amid tight security, Duterte led the opening ceremony and hosted a gala dinner for the leaders.

Five Philippine soldiers and six others were killed in the blast, IS’s Amaq News Agency reported. That report is incorrect as there were 13 injuries and no deaths, according to the government and other news sources. It is likely that IS’s East Asia division planned to attack a military target but was unsuccessful because of security efforts tied to the summit.

As foreign leaders expressed concern, Duterte’s government immediately claimed that a gang was responsible and denied that terrorists set off the explosive. To protect the 2,000 ASEAN delegates visiting Manila, the government deployed 40,000 police, military and emergency personnel to provide security.

Since then, two blasts hit the Quiapo district on May 6. The first killed a motorcyclist who unknowingly delivered an explosives-laden package to the Shia Group near the Manila Golden Mosque and the caretaker who received the package. Four others were injured.

A second blast about 90 minutes later injured two police officers processing the blast site. Police and the government denied that IS was involved in the attacks but urged people to be alert and vigilant. Amaq claimed the blasts killed five and wounded six.

IS plan: create instability

By mounting attacks near the Golden Mosque, IS intends to create social instability between the Christians and Muslims and between Shia and Sunni communities in the Philippines.

It is likely that the attack in Quiapo was carried by a IS-support cell in Luzon to ignite Catholic-Muslim and Shia-Sunni clashes. A Christian basilica in Quiapo hosts the shrine of the Black Nazarene, a dark statue of Jesus Christ many claim to be responsible for miracles.

The Golden Mosque in Quiapo is a central gathering place for Muslims living in Luzon.

Previous attempts by AKP to create animosity between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Philippines failed when assassins killed two Shia clerics in July and September 2015. In addition to claiming the killing in November 2015, AKP threatened three other Muslim leaders.

More recently, Sunni preacher Nuh Caparino was killed in Cavite during prayer time on Nov. 27, 2016. A Muslim convert closely associated with military and police, Nuh spoke out against IS and extremism and was close to Ibrahim Mata, president of Islamic Studies Call and Guidance in Cavite. Since these attacks, Philippine authorities have secured Shia venues to prevent conflict with Sunni groups.

Rohan Gunaratna is Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technology University and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.