Current events in the Philippines have brought to the fore once again the spread of extremism and radicalism from its heartland, and further destabilized the already shaky foundation of a complex and dangerous environment.
The city of Marawi has for the past week effectively been a warzone, as the Philippine army battles Islamist militants in the predominantly Muslim city. The violence began when the army attempted to capture Isnilon Hapilon, considered as Islamic State’s ringleader in the islands and a fixture of the US Most Wanted List, which triggered full-scale and violent retaliation throughout the south of Mindanao. Added to this, on 1st June thirty-six people died in a mass shooting and conflagration at a Manila casino – an attack which, although the police have denied any connection and for which there is no proof, has been claimed by Islamic State. A state of emergency remains throughout Mindanao and the violence shows no sign of abating – to add to the concerns that another ‘lone wolf’ attack could hit an urban area.
The Philippines has been afflicted by terrorism before, most notably from the Abu Sayyaf organization, which followed the Wahhabi and Salafist doctrines exported from the Middle East in the early 1990s. Although Abu Sayyaf pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of ISIS, in 2014, they have been relatively quiet in recent years and internal controversy has emerged over the degree to which the organization has moved to a more traditional ‘organized criminal gang’ setup.
ISIS comparatively retains the Wahhabi/Salafist outlook but is the predominant Islamist power worldwide; even as their territory is restricted in Iraq and Syria, the group employs cells and loose networks worldwide to create a global footprint that does not require significant financing or manpower. While ISIS attacks have been brutally effective in the West in recent years, countries such as Malaysia, Philippines or Indonesia which are already in semi-crisis mode and riven by corruption and violence could see even more attacks, as ISIS is better able to exploit the already-present situation of discord.
Whereas Abu Sayyaf publicly sought only an independent state within the Philippines themselves, ISIS have openly proclaimed their desire for a global caliphate. This by itself steps up the severity of the contagion – if one’s aims are greater, then efforts will likely be too. The business impact this will have is sure to be negative, as a country under direct Islamist attack loses its attractiveness as a business destination.
Added to a President that has effectively authorized extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers, has placed the southern islands under martial law and who presides over a government and country still among the most corrupt in the world, it is plain that the Philippines – for all that they are a land of opportunity – must be treated with great caution and care, lest the tinderbox ignite. The exact strength of the grip that ISIS has on the Philippines is unknown, but as has already been seen on every other continent, once the idea is in place it is almost impossible to destroy.