Understanding the Filipino Jihadist Network

Monday, 11 January 2016 11:15
Rate this item
(3 votes)



by Federico Solfrini and Andrea Ursi*
EPOS Insights


Genesis of the Filipino Jihadism

In the Philippines, only 5% of the population is Muslim, whereas the 82.9% is represented by Catholics. Thus Filipino jihadism includes a minor group within a minority. However, this does not mean strategic weakness: the Filipino jihadism has been able to catalyze socio-political instances, roughly coinciding with the social base of the Southern Philippines population. This area is home to people who live in more dramatic economic condition than in the North and within a tribal social structure. As result, over the years many individuals have rediscovered in Islam a very important source of identity, starting to claim their own autonomy and independence from the rest of the country.

On these bases, in 1969 Nur Misuari founded the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a revolutionary separatist group joined by 100,000 members. The goal was to obtain autonomy for the Mindanao area, as the central government was perceived as corrupt and unable to represent them. Although the Moro destabilized the country for many years (with bloody armed uprisings), their willingness to participate in negotiations with the government in Manila inevitably disappointed the extremist fringes. That is why in the early 1990s, a group of veterans returning from the war in Afghanistan, where they had fought in the ranks of the Islamic International Brigade against the Soviet Union, decided to break away from the MNLF and to create a radical group that could connect with the global jihad network run by Al-Qaeda. The group of veterans took the name of Abu Sayyaf (ASG), which has been for many years the Al-Qaeda Philippine army. Over the years, the international fight against al-Qaeda weakened the bonds between Filipino extremist groups and worldwide jihadist organizations. Thus, because of a lack of consistent funding channels, Abu Sayyaf and other radical groups began committing numerous criminal activities, mainly kidnappings and extortions, in order to accomplish their political objectives and the perpetration of terrorist attacks. This change represented a crucial turning point in the history of Filipino Islamic radicalism. The "easy money" attracted a considerable number of terrorist groups, causing an abrupt shift to crime.

The Filipino jihadist Feudalism

The dual nature - terrorist and criminal - of the Filipino radical Islamist groups has inevitably affected their evolution, leading to numerous internal secessions and operative divisions that are poorly linked to complex ideological elaborations. According to analyst Antonio Custodio, the typical Filipino jihadist is anthropologically a mercenary fighting for personal interests and often disconnected from a real ideology which could justify his actions. From this peculiar approach to jihad, the Filipino radical Islamist galaxy evolved according to feudal and tribal logics. The goals and the support ensured by a part of the population allowed such criminal gangs to be strongly rooted in some areas. Despite this, the Filipino jihadist groups tried to keep connected to global jihad, perceiving that excessive dependence on the local context would have led to isolation and strategic disadvantages. However, their unconditional support, first to al-Qaeda then to the Islamic State has sometimes prevented them to achieve their goals. For these reasons, Filipino jihadist groups franchising has technically been a phenomenon of bandwagoning.

The structure of Filipino jihadist feudalism began to take shape in 1976, when the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was created by a fraction of the MNLF. The charismatic leader of the secessionist group was Hashim Salamat (died 2003) who refused the ideology of the MNLF. The MILF has been able to address the desire for independence of a very conspicuous faction of radical Philippines Islamic fringes for many years. The more and more increasing repression orchestrated by Manila brought to the exacerbation of the jihadist radicalization process in support of the MILF.

A radical Islamic group, which supported the activities of the MILF, established the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM). The foundation of the group was possible thanks to the personal friendship between Ahmad Santos, Hashim Salamat and other leaders of Abu Sayyaf. RSM supported the activities of other affiliates providing logistical assistance, recruitment, training and indoctrination of the MILF and Abu Sayyaf’s militias. The operational center of the group is in the North of the Philippines (in the region of Luzon). In the Catholic community of Luzon, Santos perceived a good chance to indoctrinate new individuals in order to expand the Balik community, the Muslim comminity in the North of the country. RSM has suffered heavy defections that sterilized its activities for a long time: Ahmad Santos was arrested and imprisoned in 2005 and Omar Lavilla (the ideologue of the group) was arrested in Bali in 2008.

Over the years, the MILF split in two groups, as radical fringes were disappointed by the decision to negotiate with Manila. For that reason in 2010, Ameril Umbra Kato established the movement of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). The genesis of such group – whose headquarters was set in Maguindanao (Mindanao) – was possible because a group of MILF’s fighters had refused to subscribe the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, that began the peace negotiations between the MILF and Manila. Last December 25th such group perpetrated three attacks in Maguindanao, Sultan Kadarat e Northern Cotabato, in which 16 people were killed (including 6 attackers).

Even the BIFF, however, has suffered many other internal divisions. For instance in 2013, Muhammad Ali Tambako, interim leader of the BIFF, created the Justice For Islamic Movement (JFIM) group. One of the reasons of this split was the authoritarian turning of the Tambako leadership. Tambako took strategic decisions independently from Umbra Kato, still alive and formally the real leader of the group. Tambako continued to deal with many elements of the BIFF, including the bloody terrorist Basit Usman, already part of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters Special Operations (BIFF-SOG) and founder (September 2014) of a new group called Bangsamoro Justice Movement (BJM).  The network of Basit Usman was at the center of a crossroads (based in General Santos City), linking Filipinos radical groups. Within this network there is the group Ansar al-Khilafa (supporters of the Islamic State), no more than a handful of bandits from General Santos City. Last March, the Philippines authorities arrested Tambako. Nearly two months before Usman had been killed by a US drone in the Waziristan region (Northern Pakistan).

Between 2011 and 2013, even the Khalifa Islamiah Mindanao group (KIM) experienced a phase of radicalization. Such movement is also known as Black Flag Movement (Black Flag). Its main peculiarity is its intermediate position between the Philippine and the Malaysian radicalism. Indeed, around the KIM are gathered Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). The leader of the group - along with five other founders Zulkifli Abdhir, Amir Abtol Rahman, Amir and Amir Kuptu Human - is Abdul Najid, a cleric and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, with substantial ties with the Indonesian jihadist “school”.  At the operational level, however, the key figure of KIM is Zulkifli Abdhir, Malaysian birth and former leader of Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, bridgehead of Jemaah Islamiyah. Better known by his nom de guerre Marwan, was involved in the Bali attack (2002), the reason why he has been for many years one of the most wanted terrorists by the FBI, with a price on his head of $ 5 million. Marwan was killed in the maxi-operation Oplan Exodus, conducted by a Filipino-American task force last January in Mamasapano (Maguindanao). His proselytizing activities, aided by expertise in the field of armaments of Basit Usman allowed many young Filipinos to be involved in a process of radicalization. The killing of Marwan and Basit Usman, because of their role, represented a relevant operation accomplished by the Pilipino intelligence forces.

Another minor but operationally important group in the context of the Filipino radical feudalism is the Tanum Group (TG), led by Muammar Ashkali. The first action of the group was documented last May near a mosque in Jolo. A small attack (16 injured), but important to grasp the existence of this bunch of bandits.


*Federico Solfrini Master’s Degree graduated in International Relations from the LUISS Guido Carli (Rome). Since November 2015, he is a student of the Master course in Economics and Institutions in Islamic Countries at LUISS Guido Carli University (Rome). He has been research fellow at the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) and visiting student at the Department of Political Science of Boston College. His main research topics are strategic studies and terrorism.

Andrea Ursi Master’s Degree graduated in International Relations from the LUISS Guido Carli (Rome). In addiction to writing articles published on International Politics journals, he covered a Parliamentary Assistant Position at the European Parliament in Brussels where he followed with particular attention the European Union strategy to counter terrorism after the attacks in Paris. His main research area regards the jihadist groups in the Middle East, Europe and Southeast Asia


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s vision

Last modified on Wednesday, 13 January 2016 12:24
Login to post comments
Epos Audio Playlist
Open in new window
Epos Suggested Links