A Philippine soldier in Mindanao picks up the headband of a militant, adorned with the logo used by Islamic State, on March 1, 2016. Photo: AFP / Mark Navales

According to well-informed sources in Iraq, the self-proclaimed “caliph” of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is worried about the future of his organization in Syria and Iraq. The terror group has been ejected from strategic cities such as Ramadi, faces an uphill battle in Mosul, and is on the verge of a major confrontation with Kurdish militias in its own de facto capital, Raqqa.

Donald Trump is seemingly very serious about waging an all-out war on ISIS. Fearing for the worst, al-Baghdadi is searching for new territory and new recruits. The Far East is certainly on his radar and one incubator might be the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The region comprises five predominantly Muslim provinces in the island of Mindanao and includes the island chain of Basilan part of the Philippines  , a part of the Philippines that is made up of five predominantly Muslim provinces including Basilan and other islands of the Sulu Archipelago, which is already an incubator for Asian jihad.

Basilan is the birthplace of the Abu Sayyaf Group, a terrorist organization well-known to the first generation of global jihadists. Its founder, Abdurajik Janjalani, hailed from Basilan’s capital, Isabele City. Janjalani studied Arabic and Islam in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Libya, and traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s to help fight the Soviets. He met Osama Bin Laden, who gave him US$6 million to set up a Salafist cell in the Philippines. The Filipino group carried out its most famous operation — the worst in the country’s history — in 2004, when it bombed a passenger ferry off Manila Bay, killing 116 people.

The group’s current leader, 51-year-old Isnilon Hapilon, pledged his allegiance to al-Baghdadi back in 2014. He now commands the Islamic State of the Philippines and goes by the name “Abu Abdullah al-Filipini.” Tapilon has yet to declare an official province, or vilayet, on the island of Mindanao, which according to Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ president, is already becoming a magnet for terrorists.

This claim was first made by one of his predecessors, Fidel Ramos, who said: “At least 100 of our young Filipino Muslims have already infiltrated Iraq to undergo training to return and be jihadists or militants.” In January 2016, Tapilon claimed that four ISIS battalions were now ready in the Philippines, composed of Filipino and Malaysian jihadis who have also created a Shura Council and elected him as its leader.

In early 2016, an ISIS propaganda video made the rounds. It was shot at a training camp in a Filipino jungle. The film was aimed at recruiting Filipino Muslims into the so-called “Soldiers of the Caliphate of the Philippines.”

Since then, a handful of other Filipino organizations have sworn allegiance to ISIS, including Katibet Ansar al-Sharia (headed by Abu Anas al-Muhajir), Market al-Ansar (Abu Harith al-Filipine), and Ansar al-Khalifa (Abu Sharifah). Most are amateurish sub-groups. The only real ISIS vehicle in the Philippines, apart from Abu Sayyaf, is the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

A Philippine police wanted poster from 2006 includes Isnilon Hapilon (bottom right) among Southeast Asia’s most dangerous Islamist militants. Photo: AFP /
Philippine National Police

Muslim strife has long been a reality in the Philippines. In 1971, more than 70 Filipino Muslims in Cotobato were massacred by a right-wing, quasi-Catholic paramilitary group, prompting Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya to provide Filipino Islamic secessionists with arms and military bases in Tripoli. He even personally raised their issue at the Organization of Islamic Co-operation, prompting it to express, “serious concerns” about the “plight” of Filipino Muslims.

Since 9/11, several terrorist attacks have rocked Southeast Asia, including the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005, and a spate of attacks in Jakarta. The first known Filipino-related ISIS operation dates to October 2013, when one man, Abu Ahmad Shiko, was killed by Syrian government forces, and two months later, another two were killed in battles in the Damascus countryside.

In November 2014, a Filipino militant was caught on camera helping ISIS comrades behead 18 Syrian soldiers. One month later, it was reported that ISIS had tried to recruit students at the Western Mindanao State University, offering an attractive monthly stipend of 70,000 pesos (or US$1,400). ISIS carried out its first operation inside the Philippines in April 2016, in what became a 10-hour gun battle in Basilan between police and troops under the command of Isnilon Hapilon, Islamic State’s “emir” in the Philippines. Fifty-two soldiers were wounded and 19 killed, as opposed to 13 terrorists.

If Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were to head east, he might well galvanize such jihadist groups as exist across Asia. What they lack is one unifying spiritual leader, and are divided by small rivalries and lack of funds, forcing them to rob, loot, and kidnap to make a living. Given the amount of lawlessness in places such as Mindanao, a vilayet might very well be declared not too far from now. If it is, this ISIS pocket will automatically transform into a sanctuary for Asian jihadis – both those returning from the deserts of Syria and Iraq and those heading the other way to join ISIS. Mindanao would be to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi what Kabul and Peshawar were to Osama Bin Laden back in the 1980s – a place to recruit, network, train, and brainwash an entire generation of fresh recruits.

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