Emerging Terrorist Threats Change Security Landscape in the Philippines

Early August this year, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) received information that Islamic State (IS)-linked terrorists had plotted to attack a “Crusader City” alongside business centres and some “Crusader Churches” in the Northern Luzon, Philippines. This was based on a genuine “alert memo” received by the Northern Luzon Command. Local government units from neighbouring cities didn’t take the memo lightly either, as their law enforcement units had beefed up security around their churches and tourist areas. It appeared, however, that Sundays remained packed with devotees regardless of the reported terrorist threat. To the relief of many, the military, later on, said the threats were “negative” following their verification.

Crusader city is a term by IS that refers to a “target area” that ignites a “Bandar Crusade” or “a war between Muslims and Christians,” while crusader church refers to all historic Catholic Churches, according to the memo. The target churches are in Vigan City, Laoag City, Tuguegarao City, and Manaoag town in Pangasinan. These places are famous tourist destinations because of their historic and religious landmarks, pristine beaches, as well as Spanish architecture converted into commercial shops.

Based on the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) 2019  by the Institute of Economics & Peace, the Philippines ranked nine out of 10 countries most impacted by terrorism. In 2018, terror-related deaths and terror-related incidents declined by nine per cent resulting to 297 deaths and by 13 per cent from 486 to 424 incidents, respectively. Regardless of the decline, it is the only country in Southeast Asia included in the 10 countries most impacted by terrorism.

The GTI said terrorist activity had been dominated by the communist organization, New People’s Army (NPA), which has been in a long-standing conflict with the Philippine government for five decades now. A separatist group in the Southern Philippines known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM) was considered the second deadliest group. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant meanwhile was third, through its affiliates that pledged allegiance to them, namely the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Maute group, and BIFM. Targets of attacks were varied such as the government, private citizens and property, police and military, and others.

“In the Philippines, we have seen the entire spectrum of targets, from cathedrals to checkpoints, to tourist venues,” said security analyst and author Dr Zachary Abuza, adding that “unlike in Indonesia [where] pro-ISIS groups have been focusing on targeting security forces, largely staying away from tourist venues since 2017.” But in the latest GTI, there was a 45 per cent increase in attacks against government targets between 2017 and 2018 that led to 139 deaths, largely brought by NPA attacks.

A professor at the National War College in Washington D.C. focusing on Southeast Asian politics and security, Dr Abuza said terrorist groups utilize attacks to demonstrate that they remain relevant, to mobilize their supporters, and to show that they can attack the state at will. Adding that “terrorism and asymmetric warfare are the only means for a substrate actor to challenge a state, even a relatively weak state like the Philippines.”

Unfortunately, the business community is one sector of the society that suffers significant losses during attacks on either historic, religious, or tourist venues. “It scares people, especially those in the business sector. It drives away clients. It drives away visitors. It drives away capital investment in the country,” said Dr Eduardo Fulgencio, chairman emeritus of the Philippine Society for Industrial Security (PSIS).

But he said the impact of terrorism is far more visible in places infested by terrorists and other criminal elements such as Sulu, Maguindanao, and Tawi-Tawi in Mindanao. “The business is normally down there. But you cannot tell people to get away because they need the business,” he also said. “No matter how much they are infested by terrorists, rebels, or criminal elements, they will still continue the business. The only thing they do is strengthen security.”

Meanwhile, places like Cagayan de Oro, Davao, Camiguin, or Surigao are “not really very much bothered by the threats. Besides they are well protected by the military and the police and are protecting themselves through private security,” said Dr Fulgencio, who is a Certified Security Professional and Certified Protection Professional handling the physical security of 50 buildings.

In some cases, foreign governments also issue travel advisories warning their nationals from setting foot on particular regions in the Philippines, thus affecting tourism-related businesses for instance.

Suicide Bombing

Of all the possible terror attacks, Dr Fulgencio considered suicide bombing as “much more fearful because it’s definitely hard to avoid.“ He explained that some people could just mingle with the crowd, set up a bomb in his body that would explode upon detonation, and instantly kill the people around him. “So that is really very difficult to detect,” he admitted.

The recent confirmation of the first Filipino suicide bomber on Philippine soil makes the act even more dreadful for many people. Previously, suicide attacks in the country were only attributed to foreign militants, but not until a 23-year-old Filipino named Norman Lasuca changed that.

Philippine law enforcement authorities confirmed on July 10 this year that Lasuca was indeed a Filipino and was one of the two terrorists who perpetrated the twin bombings on June 28 in Indanan, Sulu. His DNA sample had a 99.99% probability match with the samples taken from his mother and brother, according to various reports.

Lasuca had proven that Filipino culture is no longer a deterrent to convert to radical beliefs such as suicide attacks, long seen as an improbability by many people. “Before, no one would think that Filipinos could be that radicalized to be capable of detonating himself,” said AFP spokesperson Marine Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo.

Dr Abuza thinks it was just a matter of time, however. “Everyone said the same about Indonesians and Malaysians, though for the latter only in Iraq and Syria. I think a more appropriate question is why it took so long for a Filipino or Filipina to become a suicide bomber,” he said. “There’s no shortage of terrorism in the country and the various terrorist organizations have been very open to influence from transnational jihadist organizations. The genie is out of the bottle now.”

According to Brig. Gen. Arevalo, such confirmation has indeed altered the security climate in the Philippines. “This recent development whereby a Filipino perpetrated a suicide bombing mission may inspire other Filipino extremists to go down that path since a fellow has done so,” he said. Nevertheless, he dismissed considering it simply a “test case” toward far bigger attacks. “[It is] a distinct and singular act meant to wreak death, injury, or havoc,” he added.

Kidnap for ransom

Dr Abuza meanwhile identified kidnap-for-ransom (KFR) activities as “a huge problem” in the country though there’s nowhere else in the region, except in Sabah, Malaysia emanating from the Philippines. According to the Philippine National Police Anti-Kidnapping Group, there was a three per cent increase in kidnapping cases in the country in 2018. Forty-two Filipinos and 27 foreigners were KFR victims. Of the foreigners, 17 are Chinese, four Indonesians, two Indians, and one each of Taiwanese, Japanese, Nigerian, and Malaysian.  Thirty-eight of the victims in Mindanao were kidnapped by the ASG and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. Luzon had 30 KFR cases and Visayas had one.

Just recently, a British businessman and his Filipina wife had been rescued from the ASG after nearly two months of captivity, as reported by various local media outlets. Several gunmen held Allan and Wilma Hyrons at gunpoint on the night of October 4 at their Hyrons Beach Resort in Tukuran, Zamboanga del Sur. Philippine troops immediately pursued search-and-rescue operations, while the Zamboanga del Sur provincial government set a Php1 million reward for any possible information leading to the rescue of the couple and arrest of the kidnappers. The military were in hot pursuit operations of the IS-linked militants when they had rescued the couple on November 25 in Parang, Sulu.

Pressing challenges

Brig. Gen. Arevalo cited the three most pressing challenges for them in their fight against terrorism. First is the lack of active involvement among the people in the community, especially before the Marawi siege. Second, are the vast and porous borders of the country. Third is the so-called weak anti-terrorism law or the Human Security Act of 2007 that “clips and delimits the powers of the state forces” to fight terrorism. An amendment to the Act has been proposed and now undergoing proceedings. Other concerns such as training, capabilities, and equipment are meanwhile being addressed by the government, he said.

On the other hand, the GTI report enumerated the lack of capacity, lack of coordination, and also geographical challenges as hindrances to the government’s response to terrorist threats.

As for Dr Abuza, the greatest challenge in the Philippines to defeat the ASG and the other terrorist organizations that pledged allegiance to ISIS is “corruption within the security forces” and the realization that defeating these terrorists would dry up massive amounts of foreign assistance the government receives, hence creating a “moral hazard.” He added: “On top of that are just very porous borders.”

He was rather divided when asked if he believes that ISIS is getting a stronger hold in the Southeast Asian region. “There are plenty of groups in the region who declared allegiance to IS. And with the collapse of the caliphate in Syria, ISIS has adopted a global insurgency model, which should raise the importance of SE Asia to them,” Dr Abuza said. “However, there is no centralized command and control. There is a large constellation of groups who don’t coordinate with one another very much.”

New strategies

Brig. Gen. Arevalo said they have pursued a Program on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (PCVE), apart from pursuing military operations against the militants. Based on House Bill 04585, under which the PCVE was included, the program aims to prevent and counter violent extremism by addressing the legal status and security of persons previously engaged in violent extremism as well as by providing economic, social, and psychological rehabilitation support, and long-term interventions for them and their families.

Add to that is the first-ever counter-terrorism training centre in the country to be constructed before the end of the year at Camp General Mariano Castaneda in Silang, Cavite. The United States Embassy has secured Php520 million or approximately US$10 million to build and run the said centre together with the PNP, which will “provide counter-terrorism training for law enforcement units and personnel from the Philippines and regional partner nations in Southeast Asia.” The centre is said to be the first of its kind in the Southeast Asian region.

But Dr Abuza called it “nonsense.” He said Indonesia’s Jakarta Center for Law Enforcement Cooperation has been operating for years and has played a critical role in training the region’s counter-terrorism forces. “The new centre in the Philippines is simply the US throwing more money at the Philippines. It will have no positive impact,” he said.

Brig. Gen. Arevalo, however, couldn’t provide any comment yet when asked further about the said training centre and possible changes afoot. But as for the business community, he advised that all parties must collaborate, cooperate, and coordinate with government security forces. “Terrorism is both global and national concerns and defeating it or insulating the communities from its deadly reach is everybody’s concern,” he stressed.

Dr Fulgencio agreed that interfacing with government security forces is needed. “Networking with government and private security is very important for securing an establishment especially in business. Because no matter what happens you still go to the police, to the military for help. It’s not just automatic for us. It’s a must,” he said. Good thing many businesses in the Philippines now recognize the emerging terrorist threats, he further said. “Because if they don’t recognize it, how can they prepare, prevent, and reduce the threat?” he added. After all, the adage “better safe than sorry” holds weight now more than ever in these ever-changing times.