Communist People’s Party
The Philippines’ longest-running extremist conflict is with the Communist People’s Party (CPP) and its military wing the New People’s Army (NPA). Jose Maria Sison, a student activist in Manila, established the CPP in 1968 after being expelled from the existing Communist party, the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP). The CPP’s ideology is based heavily on Maoist thought and singled out U.S. imperialism, capitalism, and feudalism as issues to be confronted via revolution or a “protracted people’s war,” rooted in the peasantry. Unlike Islamist groups that are located primarily in the southern Philippines, the CPP has a presence in Manila and is active throughout the country. (Source: CTC Sentinel, International Crisis Group)
During President Rodrigo Duterte’s first month in office in July 2016, he took action to establish peaceful relations with the Communists. President Duterte made promises to release political prisoners and issued offers for positions in his administration for those who are willing to join peace talks. On August 25, 2016, Duterte declared a ceasefire with the CPP and NPA, and ordered the Philippine military and police forces to abide by the declaration. The first round of formal peace talks between the Communists and the Duterte administration were held in Oslo, Norway from August 22-28, 2016. However, in July 2017, following attacks by the NPA on government forces in Mindanao, Duterte declared that he will no longer be negotiating a peace deal with the Communists. In August 2017, CPP announced that it would no longer cooperate with Duterte and declared that “the people have no other recourse but to tread the path of militant struggle,” responding to the extension of martial law in Mindanao. (Sources: GMA News, ABS-CBN News, Inquirer, Rappler, PhilStar)
Moro National Liberation Front
Established in 1971 to fight for an independent Moro (Islamic) state in Mindanao, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was the first Islamic extremist group in the Philippines. Filipino Muslims refer to themselves as Moro, which is a derivation of the word ‘Moor,’ a derogatory term used by Spanish colonialists to refer to Islamic North Africans. The term was then adopted by the Christian majority of the Philippines to describe their Muslim neighbors in the southern islands of the country. After years of conflict, the MNLF signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996. The agreement granted autonomy to the people living in areas under the MNLF’s control, known as the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). (Source: BBC News, Republic of the Philippines Official Gazette)
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) split from the MNLF in 1978 over leadership and strategic conflicts. Salamat Hashim, a member of the MNLF, was unhappy with the group’s agreement with the Philippine government, which allowed for an autonomous but not independent region in Mindanao. Hashim rallied more radical elements to breakaway and form the MILF. The MILF has been in negotiations with the Philippine government for over 18 years and has since denounced violence and terrorist acts. (Source: BBC News, The Economist, Reuters)
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is the smallest, though most radical of the separatist groups in Mindanao.
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is the smallest, though most radical of the separatist groups in Mindanao. ASG split from the MNLF in 1991, like the MILF, amidst criticism that the parent organization was weakening due to its willingness to enter into peace talks with the Philippine government. ASG is the most violent of the groups and is of most concern to Australia and United States, due to its ties to al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah. In a video posted on January 2016, a band of ASG members, using the group’s alternative name Harakatul Islamiyah (Islamic Movement), pledged allegiance to ISIS and named Isnilon Totoni Hapilon their new leader. Hapilon was on the FBI’s list of Most Wanted Terrorists for his involvement with ASG. (Sources: Stanford University, BBC News, Manila Time)
President Duterte has promised to crackdown on extremist groups operating in the country, but has stated that he will uphold existing peace processes with the MNLF and MILF. Duterte has explicitly refused to negotiate with the more violent ASG, and on August 1, 2016, effectively shut the door on peace talks with the terror group. Duterte stated, “I will not deal with persons with extreme brutality. There is no… reason for me to sit down and talk with criminals.” (Source: GMA News)
ASG and the closely aligned Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) pledged allegiance to ISIS, according to videos uploaded to YouTube on July 23, 2014. In another video posted in January 2016, a group of ASG members issued another formal pledge of allegiance to the terror group and named Hapilon as ASG’s leader and emir of ISIS in the Philippines. According to the Philippine’s defense secretary, ISIS contacted Hapilon in December 2016 and encouraged him to find an area to establish a base for ISIS operations in the Philippines. A January 2016 video released by ISIS suggested that the group’s leadership in Syria had confirmed Hapilon as the leader of ISIS in Southeast Asia. Several other Filipino extremist groups throughout Mindanao have also pledged allegiance to ISIS, including the Maute Group and Ansar Khalifah Philippines (AKP). (Sources: GMA News, National Defense College of the Philippines, Manila Times, Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Rappler)
In a November 28, 2016, statement, Duterte said that Philippine intelligence services confirmed that ISIS had connected with the Maute Group. The group, also known as the Islamic State in Lanao, was responsible for several terrorist incidents in Mindanao in 2016. On November 28, Philippine police discovered a bomb near the U.S. Embassy in a trash bin, believed to be planted by Maute militants. Four members were arrested the same day and were found to be carrying video clips of themselves pledging allegiance to ISIS. According to media reports, the Maute group is also responsible for the December 28, 2016, explosions on a town celebration in Leyte, an island in the middle of the country. Two bombs were reportedly detonated using a mobile phone, injuring 23 revelers. (Sources: Long War Journal, ABS-CBN News, Associated Press, NBC News, ABS-CBN News, GMA News)
On May 23, 2017, Maute rebels took siege of Marawi, following gunfight with the Philippine army and national police. According to authorities, the Maute Group was believed to be harboring Hapilon, who is allegedly ISIS’s leader in Southeast Asia and has been working to unite ISIS-supporters in the Philippines, including the Maute Group. Hapilon has since fled the city, abandoning the militants. Philippine intelligence reported that some of the ISIS-linked fighters in Marawi traveled from abroad, including from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Middle East. The presence of foreign fighters raises concerns that the Philippines is becoming an ISIS hub. Official government figures report that 290 militants, 70 soldiers, and 27 civilians were killed with an additional 246,000 displaced between May 23 and June 27, 2017. (Sources: Standard, ABS-CBN News, Reuters, Reuters, ABS-CBN)
The “Bojinka” Plot
During the summer of 1994, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and Ramzi Yousef began planning the Manila Air or “Bojinka” plot, a nonsense name KSM adopted after hearing it while in battle in Afghanistan. Part of the Bojinka plot was to bomb 12 U.S. commercial passenger planes over the Pacific Ocean in the span of two days. The two terrorists also planned to assassinate then-U.S. President Bill Clinton during his November 1994 trip to Manila and to bomb U.S.-bound cargo carriers by smuggling jackets with explosives on board.
In their shared Manila apartment, KSM and Yousef experimented with liquid explosives and invented remote trigger devices. The plot was ultimately foiled when Philippine authorities discovered the bomb-making endeavor on January 6, 1995. Yousef accidentally caused a fire to the makeshift laboratory in the apartment, which brought police to the scene. Authorities uncovered a laptop with detailed plans of the Bojinka plot. According to Michael Garcia, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and prosecutor in Yousef’s case, KSM and Yousef were mere weeks from executing the plan.
Yousef was able to escape to Islamabad, Pakistan. He was later captured by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in February 1995 and extradited to the United States. He was indicted for the Bojinka plot, along with accomplices Abdul Hakim Murad and Wali Khan Amin Shah. They were charged in a New York federal court with seven counts of attempting to bomb 12 passenger planes. (Sources: 9/11 Commission Report, New York Times, CNN)
In March 2014, former Philippine President Aquino received reports that two Filipino Muslims died in Syria in late 2013. They were reportedly fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. The specific opposition group remains unclear. In December 2013, an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) working in Syria saw two dead anti-Assad fighters in the streets. A Syrian government soldier informed the OFW that the dead fighters were members of the Abu Sayyaf Group. (Sources: Reuters, Rappler, FARS News Agency, Asian Pacific Post)
A Filipino ISIS member is believed to have taken part in ISIS’ beheading of 18 Syrian Air Force pilots and American citizen Peter Kassig.
In September 2014, a Philippine intelligence official revealed that the government began investigating the involvement of Filipinos Islamists in Syria, possibly fighting for ISIS. Young Filipino Muslims may also have returned from Syria and Iraq to radicalize others in the Philippines. The leaked government report said that 100 Filipinos went to Iran to undergo military training and were later deployed to Syria. (Sources: Reuters, Rappler, FARS News Agency, Asian Pacific Post)
A Filipino ISIS member is believed to have taken part in ISIS’ beheading of 18 Syrian Air Force pilots and American citizen Peter Kassig. The executions were captured on a November 2014 video. Reports cited an unnamed Kurdish source confirming the participation of a Filipino ISIS member. In a May 2015 video produced by al-Hayat Media Center and published by ISIS supporters on Twitter, the same ISIS fighter is shown sitting in a military vehicle sporting an ISIS flag. In the 30-second video, he encourages his fellow Filipino jihadists to immigrate and join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (Sources: PhilStar, Daily Mail, IraqiNews)
In August 2016, a Filipina woman was arrested in Kuwait who was suspected of having ties to ISIS’s affiliate in Libya. Kuwaiti security forces purportedly found email messages where she pledged allegiance to the terror group. The suspect also allegedly communicated with her husband in Libya via the Telegram encrypted messaging app. The unidentified woman, who moved to Kuwait in June to work as a house maid, reportedly admitted she planned to launch an attack. (Sources: Al-Arabiya, Associated Press, ABS-CBN News)