There were no takers. The hard-fought, five-month-long battle started on May 23, 2017 in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur in the southern Philippines. It was between government security forces and Filipino terrorists—primarily the Maute and the Abu Sayyaf groups that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS). The commander of the Joint Task Force Marawi said that foreign terrorists have failed to convince their local counterparts to wear suicide vests laced with improvised explosive device (IED). “As they say, the Filipino terrorists are deceitful. They said, ‘before me, you do it first,’” Colonel Romeo Brawner Jr. further said, recalling the accounts of hostages and captured militants. The military eventually recovered the unused suicide vests at the Grand Mosque in the city.
But that didn’t stop foreign terrorists from conducting recent bombings, claimed by the Philippine authorities as suicide attacks, in the predominantly Catholic Southeast Asian nation long beset by internal conflict against local armed rebels. The most recent attack was the twin bombing at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo, Sulu in Mindanao on January 27 where 23 people died and around a hundred injured in what the government tagged as a suicide bombing by a foreign couple, allegedly Indonesians. Before that, an explosion involving a white van driven by a foreigner identified as Moroccan and reported to have carried an IED had killed at least 10 people at a Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit detachment in Lamitan City, Basilan on July 31, 2018.
Such terror attacks in Mindanao involving foreign terrorists have raised a nagging question among ordinary Filipinos: Is it possible that local militants may be influenced or conditioned by foreign fighters to become suicide bombers in the future?
To security consultant Paul Hinlo, it’s a negative, primarily pointing to Filipino culture and values. “Because if you look at the Mautes, no matter how radicalised they were, they didn’t blow themselves up. They fought it out. It didn’t reach that point that they would conduct suicide bombings. Filipinos are shrewd—they won’t kill themselves that way,” he said. “The family ties of Maute are very tight so that could also be one possibility. So I guess the culture here is different, the way people are raised here. I don’t know why, but that’s what I see,” he added.
Even sociologist Dr. Mario Aguja said it’s difficult to find a Filipino suicide bomber because the act itself isn’t taught in Filipino values, except for the likes of the people committing suicide who may be isolated from society. “Among Filipinos, part of our cultural orientation is that we are willing to sacrifice for others, to be a martyr. But in our culture, in our values as people, you fight it out,” he said.
For instance, the Southeast Asian jihadist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) had been actively recruiting Filipinos in bomb-making in the past because of the latter’s skills, but they could not recruit Filipino suicide bombers. “That’s the reason why JI at a certain point no longer prioritised Filipinos, although they trained many Filipino bombers. That’s why I cannot fathom a Filipino becoming a suicide bomber. I think it’s going to take a long time before a Filipino would do such,” said Dr. Aguja. Regardless, he doesn’t discount the possibility, more so if people have long been indoctrinated into extremist views.
According to Police Colonel Bernard Banac, spokesperson of the Philippine National Police, the reason foreigners continue to enter the Philippines and serve as suicide bombers is perhaps to show an example and inspire the homegrown militants to follow suit—but they have failed until now. “Because no one volunteered, because the character of the Filipinos is very different. They would fight for what they believe is their last breath, to the last bullet. But to resort to this kind of thing, is very unlikely and until now it’s impossible,” he said.
Dr. Jennifer Oreta, a security analyst and professor at the Department of Political Science at Ateneo de Manila University said there are various justifications or reasons why the individual may or may not carry out a suicide bombing. “To some extent, I will agree to the comment [on Filipino culture] but I cannot relate it to social network and our culture alone. The decision of the individual to conduct that kind of action is very psychological and at the same time part of the conditioning of the group,” adding that it’s the “completeness of the conditioning of the organisation that moves an individual” to do so. “Maybe the reason why we have not seen any suicide bombings among Filipino extremists is because they do not see that as the best mode or strategy,” she also said.
Suicide bombing is, on the other hand, “deemed unnecessary or impractical in another perspective,” according to historian John Ray Ramos, who was a history instructor at the Far Eastern University in Manila. “The terrain is jungle and maritime so hit and run attacks are more practical,” he said. He also said there are no recorded suicide bombings caused by any Filipino in the course of the country’s history. “Suicide attacks, yes there were. They were called juramentados by the Spaniards. But blowing themselves up? None,” he said. He added that records of Moro warriors conducting suicide attacks against the Spanish colonial forces show that the Moros still fought it out no matter how many times the latter shot them.
Dr. Oreta agreed to the remote possibility of influencing Filipino suicide bombers, albeit considering that family ties—such as the foreigner is a relative or romantic partner of the Filipino—may factor in in the decision-making of the local terrorist. However, the orphaned children of Filipino terrorists, she warned, are possibly the ones to be drawn into this kind of violence. “While they may be taken in by the remaining relatives, especially if the remaining relatives are in the movement and especially if there’s no conflict between the values being taught to the child and that of the organisation, the orphans may be the first generation of suicide bombers,” she said.
Security analyst Ace Esmeralda meanwhile said the government should be wary of converts. “The foreign fighters could use converts as suicide bombers to prove their conversion to the new faith and their radicalisation. It’s just a matter of time, or a question of when it will happen. It’s not already a question of if,” he said. But he has a more pressing question in mind: “Was there a suicide bomber or bombing in the Philippines? Because somebody can just unwittingly carry something and then it explodes. Because a suicide bomber will always make sure that it is known that he is a suicide bomber, like shouting Allahu Akbar, because that is exactly the message.”
To prove a suicide bombing, Esmeralda also said the perpetrators should have a “visible line showing that they’re doing an act of martyrdom.” He said the reason why there’s a need to prove that it was indeed a suicide bombing is “because it will change the landscape of protecting buildings and communities” in the Philippines. “So if that’s a suicide bombing, how can you stop a suicide bomber? You can’t simply stop that,” he said.
But Philippine authorities stand by their belief regarding the twin bombing in Sulu. “Well, it looks like it was a suicide bombing, a plain act of terror of a couple blowing themselves up. Whether they did it by themselves, meaning self-detonated or somebody detonated it from the outside electronically or remotely, they still allowed themselves to be there, to carry the bomb and let themselves be blown away. It’s still considered a suicide bombing,” said Col. Banac.
Different groups, different motivations
According to Dr. Aguja, who is a faculty member at the Department of Sociology at Mindanao State University, there are three important elements in terrorism: first is a legitimate problematic environment in which people can get ideological framing; second is money; and third is the presence of an ideologue. “There’s a confluence of those three things. The ideologue is the one who deepens the faith in extremist views and he uses the money as well. His entry point is either mainly ideological or the other one is money. It’s hard to sort out where it started and ended,” he said.
The capability and readiness of Filipino terrorists as suicide bombers also depend on several factors. The objective will dictate the kind of strategy that the fighters will adopt, according to Dr. Oreta.
Most of the homegrown terrorists in the Philippines are after the financial rewards, said Col. Brawner. “If you look at the motivation for the joining of most of the terrorists, it’s money. So if you’re motivated by that, why should I kill myself?” he said, noting that even ideologues such as Isnilon Hapilon would rather fight to the death than die by suicide bombing.
Col. Banac couldn’t agree more: “That’s been their way of life, that’s how they make a living and survive. But we cannot discount the possibility that a few leaders believe in the cause of ISIS but at the same time they’re supporting this because it’s still for the money.” He said local terrorists want to be recognised by foreign counterparts with the hopes that funding will be channelled to them. “So still it’s all about the money and the recognition that their group is capable of doing terror acts,” he said.
The Abu Sayyaf group, for example, has been notorious for its kidnap-for-ransom activities in the southern Philippines, holding captive both locals and foreigners, of which included a retired Italian priest and restaurant owner Rolando del Torchio in 2015. There were reports that a ransom was paid for his release. The group is also known for extortion, beheadings, and bombings in Mindanao.
Dr. Oreta echoed the same belief, taking suicide bombing out of the equation if money is the motivation of terrorists. “But if your reason is your belief in the values of the organisation, then it’s possible,” she said. Although it’s likely true that the lure of money is a reason for joining a terrorist organisation, she clarified that it doesn’t automatically mean the person is already radicalised because the formation and radicalisation only happens once the person is inside the organisation.
Hinlo sees poverty as another reason why people join terrorist organisations in the country because it’s “easier to sway people who are poor.” But Dr. Aguja reminded: “Because there’s poverty, does not necessarily mean there’s a potential terrorist. It doesn’t follow. It also depends on the people whom you talk to, goes on socialisation as well.”
Social alienation or being an outcast is also a factor. Dr. Oreta narrated how one Maranao student enrolled in a predominantly Christian context school in Cebu felt outcasted because “not very many understand the way of the Muslims.” She said the student gravitated towards social media where he was radicalised by what he read because that’s where “most of the Muslims who felt outcasted are.” She added: “If not for the intervention of the family, he could have succumbed to the radical groups. It is in that context that the family neutralised the radicalisation he experienced through social media.”
But families also can be a double-edged sword: influencing members to join radical groups. Dr. Aguja said terrorism in the Philippines always appears to be in the “component of the family,” like those of the Maute clan and the Abu Sayyaf group. “Being isolated takes a big role in the recruitment process. In those communities that are generally isolated from institutions, you have nothing and nobody but your family,” he said. “And it’s not only among terrorists but even among other rebel groups in the country. So they’re easier to convince.”
All of them agreed on one thing though—that poor or bad governance in some parts of Mindanao is a big factor in extremism.
“It all boils down to governance because the local executives who were supposed to be reaching out to communities here do not. Poor governance is one of the reasons people are tempted to join extremist groups,” said Col. Brawner. “People who have been in power for so many years, go to their communities, it’s pathetic. I am angry because where does the money go? With martial law here, we now check the attendance of the mayors so they are forced to perform their duties.”
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the whole of Mindanao since May 23, 2017, when the Marawi siege had started. It was extended to further quell insurgency and terrorism in the region and will end on December 31 this year. Along with the proclamation is the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, allowing government authorities to arrest persons of interest even in the absence of a warrant. But the declaration has been criticised by some political experts, human rights groups, and members of the opposition, citing various human rights abuses in the region involving peasants and indigenous leaders.
Meanwhile, Hinlo also lamented that politicians think of themselves first before the people. “It’s corruption. The best example is Lanao, who has the biggest homes there? The politicians,” he said.
Dr. Oreta mentioned “the inability of the state to provide for the basic needs of the people” as a big factor too why people join radical groups. “It’s so easy to manipulate the grievance of the people because they aren’t satisfied with the performance of the government. So the isolated areas are the easiest to manipulate.”
Ramos similarly believes that extremists take advantage of poverty, underdevelopment, and bad governance in Mindanao, which have always been the reasons for the peace and security issues there, in manipulating and recruiting from the populace.
Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, Sulu, Basilan, and Maguindanao are among the poorest provinces in the country based on the statistics from the National Anti-Poverty Commission released early March this year. These are the very same areas where some terrorist groups are holed up.
Challenges in PH security landscape
Col. Brawner confessed the Marawi Seige was the first time that the Armed Forces of the Philippines fought in an urban terrain. “We’re used to fighting in the jungles, so the terrain is very different. But we had a taste of it during the Zamboanga siege because that’s urban [area].” But the siege in Zamboanga was smaller because it was limited in a particular area, plus structures were mostly made of wood, thus easily burnt by terrorists. “If you look at the structures in Marawi City, especially the main battle area, which is also the central business district, the houses were made of concrete and then most of them had tower and basement, which were taken advantage of by the Maute-ISIS, so they had snipers perched on the tower and they had also their defences in the basement. That was the challenge at the time,” he added, noting that while the soldiers were fighting, they were learning also. “We learned a different kind of urban warfare, so it was hard,” he said.
Esmeralda said that the Philippine authorities should also look at the possibility that the IS could be changing their tactic to confuse them, reason why there’s a need to carefully examine the past explosions.
As for Dana Mengote-Sandoval, spokesperson of the Bureau of Immigration, having “very porous borders” is also one of the challenges in addressing terrorism in the country. “[Terrorists] could have entered legally as tourists or through our porous borders,” she said. She also noted the lack of personnel in the bureau as another challenge on their part. “We only have 1,900 plus organic personnel, and just imagine we have 7,000 plus islands [to secure]. “And although we have a lot of personnel, it’s a challenge because of the vast expanse of water,” she said. She stressed that border security is not just immigration’s work but a “shared responsibility” wherein they work together with local government agencies.
Hinlo agreed that Philippine authorities cannot protect the country completely because there are many “open gateways” where terrorists can easily pass through. He further said that the threat of bigger attacks anywhere in the world is like “a ticking time bomb,” and it’s not something that government authorities and even ordinary citizens should be taking lightly about.
Esmeralda likewise considers the possibility of bigger attacks because of three things. For one is the “misplaced denial of the government,” questioning how some departments in the government seem to be mum on the threats. Second is that “terrorists will have to prove their existence in the Philippines and the world,” hence the need for attacks. Third is the “birth pains of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM),” saying people who aren’t happy will sabotage it.
The creation of BARMM was a result of the signing of the Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, formerly known as Bangsamoro Organic Law, by President Duterte. The law seeks to bring peace in the region as it addresses the needs, sentiments, and grievances of the people and establishes a new autonomous political entity. It is the outcome of decades-long peace talks between the Philippine government and the rebel groups in the region.
But Col. Brawner doesn’t see any far bigger attacks in the coming months like what happened in Marawi City. He said what’s left of Maute militants in Lanao is a small group, while back in Basilan is the Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters is in Maguindanao. “We don’t see a grouping together again plus the fact that they don’t have a leader now who can bring all these groups together again unlike Isnilon Hapilon before. So the threats we see now are the usual terrorist attacks like bombings,” he said.
Dr. Oreta, however, warned that these radical parties being labelled are actually “very organised” groups who are most likely looking at their past mistakes and just studying how to perfect the plan. She reminded: “Fight it out to the death, like that in Marawi, is also a form of suicide. It’s just that it’s not bombing per se. That’s also the dilemma of the military—how can you fight an organisation whose mantra is, if you die doing this, then you immediately will go to heaven? So how will you fight that kind of organisation whose main objective is to die fighting?”