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Written by Joseph Franco.

Uncorroborated reports from the Philippine Defence Ministry recently suggested an Abu Sayyaf (ASG) faction, headed by Isnilon Hapilon, tried to establish an Islamic State (IS) wilayah (province) in Central Mindanao. This is part of a wider narrative that IS is seeking to establish footholds in other conflict areas to offset losses in the Middle East. However, previous efforts by the ASG to consolidate outside of their traditional strongholds in Basilan and Sulu have been met with failure.

In late January 2017, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana reported that 15 terrorists were killed after a military airstrike. The casualties were from Hapilon’s ASG faction, originally from Basilan province off the coast of Western Mindanao. Hapilon was reportedly rallying other jihadists in the area to create a permanent wilayah in Butig municipality in Lanao del Sur. Lorenzana stressed that Hapilon acted at the “behest of the ISIS people in the Middle East to find out if Central Mindanao is conducive” for the establishment of a wilayah.

To date, none of the usual IS propaganda outfits have trumpeted the operational links of Hapilon to the IS leadership. It is a curious circumstance considering the penchant of “jihobbyists” or unaffiliated IS sympathisers to highlight even mere rumours of IS territorial expansion. An IS wilayah in Mindanao ticks all the boxes for a story that could be shared, retweeted, and broadcast across social media. In short, it is unlikely that the IS leadership would pass up a propaganda bonanza. The alternative explanation is that Hapilon opted to minimise fanfare to escape detection in the midst of the move.

ASG men from Basilan will need all the subterfuge they can muster if they are to survive and thrive in the complex human terrain of Central Mindanao. Hapilon’s faction mostly descends from the Yakan ethnic group; one of the thirteen recognised Filipino-Muslim communities in Mindanao.  In Basilan, the ASG taps into a dense network of inter-marriages and kinship to provide early warning and refuge against government security forces. In Central Mindanao, however, the region is dominated by the Maranao ethnic group.

Transplanting ASG men into an equally dense and in-group oriented area is no easy task. What makes Central Mindanao attractive is the rich agricultural farmland, which allows for indefinite sustainment of trainees and cadres. In comparison, Basilan has limited areas for subsistence agriculture. Without the most basic of supplies, it is likely that a prospective ‘wilayah Mindanao’ established in Basilan would quickly die out as soon as throngs of foreign and domestic jihadists flocked in.

Another complicating factor for any ASG attempt to blend into Central Mindanao is the close ties between the Philippine military and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The latter has signed a peace agreement with the government in Manila and has previously worked with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to combat jihadists in Central Mindanao. In 2005, the MILF cooperated with AFP special operations forces in a series of raids to kill and capture high value ASG leaders. At present, the mechanism to facilitate AFP-MILF cooperation, the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), remains in place, posing a credible deterrent to extremist groups seeking to infiltrate Central Mindanao.

Fortunately, the complexity of the Mindanao conflict appears to be recognised by the new administration of Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte. The AFP Development Support and Security Plan (known locally as “Peace”) continues to prescribe the use of intelligence-driven, combat operations against terrorist groups like ASG. At the tactical level, combat operations continue to take precedent over negotiations.

Yet, it is at the strategic level where Duterte’s perspective becomes ambiguous. Unlike the Aquino administration, which cast Abu Sayyaf as an organised crime group, President Duterte has oscillated between a hard-line to a dove-like approach. Duterte has erratically referred to the ASG as “desperate men” driven by poverty, to barbarians he intends to eat raw. Conflicting messages may harm efforts to construct a narrative against extremist groups, and undermine development activities to address the roots of the conflict.

Rather than relying on bombast, it would be preferable for Manila to capitalise on Hapilon’s overreaching ambitions. Duterte’s restart of the stalled Mindanao peace process by reconstituting the Bangsamoro Transition Commission is an important first step. Ensuring a just peace in Mindanao will deny Hapilon and IS both the human and physical terrain to establish a wilayah, thus stunting the growth of IS in Mindanao.

Joseph Franco is Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, a constituent unit of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Image Credit: CC Wikimedia Commons

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