The Philippine’s Ongoing Battle against Islamist Insurgency

by Michael Cebert

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, more commonly known as ISIL or ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), is arguably the most dangerous radical Islamist militant group in the world. Known for its particular barbarity and claiming responsibility for the recent terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, ISIS presents an existential threat to both the Middle East and the international community itself. While most of the focus on the fight against ISIS has centered around the Middle East and Europe, Southeast Asia, in particular the Philippines, has been in the thick of a battle with a dangerous radical Islamist insurgency.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the recent insurgent activities in the Philippines that claimed the lives of 18 Philippine service personnel, the highest military casualties this year.[1] This insurgency is led by the militant group, Abu Sayyaf (also known as the ASG), which has pledged allegiance to ISIS. In fact, it is believed that ISIS has several affiliates in many countries; these jihadist groups in countries such as Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, have pledged allegiance to ISIS, but are not necessarily directly part of the organization.[2]

Abu Sayyaf has been fighting for its own Islamic state in the southern Philippines (particularly Western Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago) since its inception in 1991. At that time, Abu Sayyaf split from the Moro National Liberation Front, the primary Muslim separatist group in the Philippines.[3] Between 1994 and 2014 Abu Sayyaf has been involved in 340 violent incidents, including kidnapping of both Filipinos and internationals, clashes with military forces, and political assassinations.[4] Perhaps most notably, Abu Sayyaf was deemed responsible for the 2004 SuperFerry 14 bombing, an act that resulted in the deaths of 116 people, the Philippines’ deadliest terror attack and the world’s deadliest attack at sea.[5]

In a video in 2014, Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon pledged allegiance to ISIS, vowing “to obey him (Abu Bakr al-Bahgdadi the ISIS caliph) on anything which our hearts desire or not and to value him more than anyone else.”[6] In response Philippine Marine Corps Lieutenant General Rustico Guerrero, head of the Western Mindanao Command, insisted that Abu Sayyaf was taking advantage of the international infamy of ISIS to increase ransom payouts.[7]

On April 9, 2016, the Philippines military announced that 18 soldiers were killed and over 50 wounded in clashes with Abu Sayyaf militants on Basilan Island.[8] According to the government, this battle was part of “a series of major offensives launched against the ASG forces in Basilan beginning in December 2015.”[9] It is uncertain if there will continued military escalation against the ASG and further unrest in the southern Philippines, though this is likely. What is certain is that the Islamic State’s ideological influence expands well beyond its borders, posing a significant threat to the Philippines and to areas of Southeast Asia as a whole.

[1] Manuel Mogato, “Philippines Rejects Islamic State’s Claim It Killed 100 Troops,” Reuters (April 14, 2016): Accessed April 14, 2016.

[2] Kate Kavadski, “ISIS Now Has a Network of Military Affiliates in 11 Countries Around the World,” New York Magazine (November 23, 2014): Accessed April 14, 2016.

[3], “National Counterterrorism Center | Groups,”

[4] “Who Are the Abu Sayyaf?” CNN Philippines (April 12, 2016): Accessed April 14, 2016.

[5] “Bomb Caused Philippine Ferry Fire,” BBC News (October 11, 2004): Accessed April 14, 2016.

[6] Michelle, Florcruz, “Philippine Terror Group Abu Sayyaf May Be Using ISIS Link For Own Agenda,” International Business Times (September 25, 2014): Accessed April 14, 2016.

[7] Carmela, Fonbuena, “Abu Sayyaf Taking Advantage of Int’l Attention on ISIS,” Rappler. (September 25, 2014): Accessed April 14, 2016.

[8] “Philippines: 18 Soldiers Dead in Clashes with Abu Sayyaf Militants,” BBC News (April 10, 2016): Accessed April 14, 2016.

[9] Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines, GPH Peace Panel Chair Ferrer on the armed encounter between the AFP and Abu Sayyaf Group in Basilan (April 12, 2016): Accessed April 14, 2016.

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