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Abu Sayyaf and suicide bombings in the Philippines: an analysis

Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines, is no stranger to conflict. Since 1969, members of the Philippine’s largest ethnic minority group, the Muslim majority Moro, have fought for independence from the government. Since 1991, groups inspired by an extreme interpretation of Wahhabi Islam have been part of this struggle, led by Abu Sayyaf, which pledged allegiance to the so – called Islamic State group in 2015.

The use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) has been a large part of the insurgent campaign – something the insurgency in the Philippines has in common with much of the unrest of the 21st century. It should also be noted that the use of IED’s is not exclusive to Islamist groups – in March 2021, an IED was detonated in Iloilo city, targeting police officers. This was blamed on Communist militants, who have fought against the central government for decades.

The use of suicide bombing attacks has, however, often been described as a unique feature of the global Jihadist campaigns. During so – called Islamic State’s conquest of regions of Iraq and Syria, back in 2013, and whilst it defended its territories, suicide bombers were regularly employed both to begin offensives and to cause terror against civilian population centres.

But this appears not to be the case in the Philippines. New research conducted by AOAV suggests that the majority of attacks attempted against government forces have been non–suicide attempts, using IEDs. The number of genuine attempted suicide attacks is comparatively small.

So why is Abu Sayyaf, despite claiming the same ideological ground as it’s counterparts in the Middle East and Africa, resorting to different tactics?

On August 24th, 2020, thirteen people were killed when a motorbike exploded in the city of Jolo, in Mindanao. A police officer was killed the same day when a female suicide bomber approached the cordoned off area of the first blast. Abu Sayyaf claimed responsibility.

Filipino security forces foiled three attempted suicide attacks in 2020. But according to the Philippine’s Institute for Peace, Violence, and Terrorism research, during the six months from March to August 2020, there were seven hundred violent attacks conducted by IS affiliated groups against security forces in the country.

These recorded incidents included kidnapping, ambushes, harassment against civilians, and alleged sightings of militants. In October of last year, a senior Abu Sayyaf militant, who was believed to have been behind a 2018 planned suicide attack, was killed by security forces in Basilan. In the same month, an Indonesian woman, accused of being a suicide bomber, was arrested with two others in Sulu.

But the majority of incidents that involved Islamist extremists with IEDs were non–suicide attempts. By way of comparison, by October 2020, there had been at least twenty-eight incidents of would be, non–suicide bomb plots foiled by security services. These incidents included the arrest of two militants suspected of planning to blow up a Cathedral in Basilan province, the arrest of an alleged chief Abu Sayyaf bombmaker with an IED, as well as the killing of members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters who were suspected of trying to plant bombs in Maguindanao.

As previously mentioned, the use of IEDs is not exclusive to Islamic groups, despite the connection many in the West draw between the device and Islamists due to a history of intervention in the Middle East. In August, for example, four IEDs were found in a suspected Communist camp in Sultan Kudarat.

One of the most prominent aspects of Abu Sayyaf’s campaign in the Philippine’s has been its employment of kidnapping, of tourists, journalists, and non–Muslim Filipinos, for ransom. Since the 1990’s hundreds of people have been kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf. Whilst some have been executed, many have been released, often after the payment of significant ransoms. According to Sidney Jones, the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, the group was originally engaged in piracy, and banditry, rather than serious Jihadism. With the group’s finances in decline, said Jones, kidnappings could become more common.

This is key to understanding the relative rareness of suicide attacks being used by the radical Islamist insurgency in the Philippines. It’s true that there are frequently crossovers between terrorist organisations and organised crime – so-called Islamic State made hundreds of millions of dollars by selling looted artefacts on black markets, for example, and have been accused of trafficking Afghan heroin through its territory. But surely, no one can deny the seriousness of their ideological position. It’s a position that has encouraged hundreds of men and women to commit acts of suicidal terror.

Abu Sayyaf, however, appears to be fragmented between genuine ideological factions and masquerading groups using that ideology as a cover to amass wealth.

When the group was formed in 1991, leader Abdurajik Janjalani adopted the group name Abu Sayyaf in honour of the Afghan resistance leader and scholar, and envisioned forming a theocracy in the Southern Philippines. But by the early 2000’s, according to several researchers on the organisation, Abu Sayyaf had turned to financial gain, with the aim of establishing an Islamic state seemingly a secondary objective. The dynamics of the region could also be a factor. Insurgent groups have been fighting the government of the Philippines for decades – the Communist campaign has been waged since 1969.  

Other Moro organisations and the Communists have used IEDs to attack government forces, with the tactic not being exclusive to Abu Sayyaf. Perhaps this commonality is one reason Abu Sayyaf have not waged a campaign of suicide bombings across the Philippines in the same way that have groups in the Arab world. Perhaps, even, the dominant culture of Catholicism through the Philippines has placed a higher moral opprobrium on suicide there than in other parts of the world – though this would be hard to prove.

Whatever the reasons, despite its limited significance compared to allegedly similar groups in other parts of the world, many people in the Southern Philippines have suffered as a result of armed violence perpetrated by various insurgencies. The method, and intent, of these attacks, will do little to alleviate their suffering,