By Anushka Kapahi Staff Writer 4 March 2019

Although typically associated with the Middle East, terrorism is a prevalent and growing threat in Southeast Asia. The organizational structure of terrorist groups within Southeast Asian nations has shown that despite different goals, these terrorist organizations frequently collaborate to increase logistical capabilities, training capacity, and the ability to establish safe havens. If terrorist groups with different sets of goals can coordinate their actions and grow in power and number, sovereign nations can undoubtedly cooperate and defeat common terrorist threats. Despite recent progress in intelligence-sharing efforts, the governments in Southeast Asia have had minimal success in cooperating to fight regional terrorism.

Nonetheless, it is also crucial that Southeast Asian nations internally enhance their internal strategies to combat terrorism. The Philippines is a primary example of a country that needs to address its internal activity to assist in countering this regional threat and will serve as the focus of this paper.

The Philippines currently ranks twelfth in nations with the most terrorist activities, indicating the increasing concern over the need to strengthen counterterrorism measures. According to a 2017 report from the Global Terrorism Index, terrorist activity in the Philippines, alongside China and Thailand, accounted for 85 percent of total civilian deaths in the Asia-Pacific region since 2002. Despite the high number of fatalities due to terrorist activities, the Philippines has still failed to enact a robust and cohesive response that adequately addresses the impacts of terrorism.

Counterterrorism in the Philippines has mainly been a responsibility assigned to the military. The government has been incapable of isolating affected areas in Mindanao, the southernmost region. Despite efforts to transition counterterrorism responsibility from the military to the national police, competition between both organizations have slowed down this process. The military has launched several successful counter offensives to push back Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the most prominent terrorist group in the Philippines. Although these offensives have weakened ASG in the Philippines, its network remains intact externally, particularly in Sabah, Malaysia. Therefore, the battle against terrorism in the Philippines is far from over, considering that ASG has been able to recover from successful government offensives in the past. Indeed it has renewed its ability to launch operations by recruiting new members in Mindanao and from other countries such as Malaysia. In order to ensure that ASG does not reemerge in the future, the Philippine government must crack down on these types of transnational operations.

Just last month, at least 23 people were killed and more than 100 injured when two bombs were detonated in a cathedral in Jolo, Sulu, a province in Mindanao. Through various online forums, the Islamic State, also called Daesh, claimed responsibility for the attack. In addition, Jolo is a remote base of ASG, and the group has pledged its allegiance to Daesh in 2014. The spokesman of President Rodrigo Duterte, Salvador Panelo, condemned the incident as an “act of terrorism and murder.” This attack is deemed to be one of the deadliest the Philippines has experienced in years, indicating that enhancing local measures to address terrorist attacks must be prioritized.

The Philippine Congress recently voted to extend martial law in Mindanao till the end of 2019, the most prolonged period of martial law in the country since the 1970s. However, this effort has failed to quell the violence in Southern Philippines. The Jolo bombings depicted major fallouts in security and intelligence-gathering within the Philippines, despite the strengthened military presence as instructed by the government.

The Philippines must strengthen security measures and implement development programs to address the drivers of terrorism. To assist in curbing national terrorist attacks, besides the prioritization of combating domestic terrorism, it is vital for the Philippines to also work alongside its neighbors with active local terrorist organizations that have linkages with Daesh. In addition, reaching the grassroots level and understanding the causes of such insurgent acts is crucial in eradicating terrorism. In the long run, a balanced approach of addressing the drivers of violence while simultaneously utilizing the military may prove more effective rather than solely relying on a military approach.

Radical Islamist groups are a persistent threat, particularly in the southern region. These groups developed as a result of the Moro Conflict in Mindanao, which has been raging on since 1969 between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the military arm of the Philippines, and Islamist terrorist groups. Before the 2000s, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were the primary active terrorist groups. However, these groups entered into agreements with the Philippine Government, and have thereby significantly decreased their attacks. ASG remains as the most prominent terrorist group in the country with its ultimate goal to establish an Islamic State in Mindanao. To increase its regional power, ASG has conducted kidnappings, seized territory, and initiated bombings. It is crucial to situate the military in the region to enforce policies effectively.  

The Philippine government needs to improve its law enforcement and counterterrorism capabilities. In conjunction with the development of gathering intelligence and military operations, the government can further enhance the local armed and police forces and codify anti-terrorism laws. There is an evident lack of legal precedent permitting authorities to arrest and detain those deemed to be linked to terrorist organizations.

Improving anti-terrorism legislation and strengthening law enforcement will be useful in three ways. First, it would help distinguish standard operating procedures on differentiating terrorism activities against insurgent operations. Second, stronger legal distinctions will provide law enforcement agencies with authority to determine how terrorist activities will be addressed. Third, when a local extremist is sentenced in the judiciary courts, the courts will be in a better position to adjudicate terrorism cases by being able to verify the legal standings for a terrorist act and determine the nature of punishment.

The resurgence and rampant growth of terrorist activities in the Philippines, particularly in Mindanao, has raised questions regarding the effectiveness of strategies executed by the Philippine military and government. In developing stronger measures, it is crucial for the Philippine government to prioritize its internal capabilities. This will open up a clear-cut avenue for the country to further enhance existing intelligence-sharing networks co-developed with  several other Southeast Asian nations. In the likelihood that the Philippines does not develop into a major hub for the Daesh global network, it will still remain a crucial area wherein the international terrorist group will recruit, finance, and propagate its agenda and execute criminal violence.

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Anushka Kapahi, from the Philippines, is a second-year M.A. candidate in International Affairs specializing in International Security Studies, particularly Counterterrorism, and Southeast Asian Politics at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. She previously studied at the Missouri State University, receiving her Graduate Certificate in Defense and Strategic Studies, and earned her B.A. in Consular and Diplomatic Affairs from the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde in Manila.