Philippine soldiers inside a military camp in Jolo, Sulu province, on the southern island of Mindanao, as they prepare for an operation against the Abu Sayyaf group. Photo: AFP/Mark Navales

When Australia issued an advisory this month warning its nationals against travel to the Philippines, the official notice was the latest indication that Islamic State (ISIS) and its Filipino affiliates are raising concerns that Western soft targets could be in their terrorist sights.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop underscored those rising threat perceptions when she said late last month that Canberra is concerned that “ISIS may well seek to declare a caliphate in the southern Philippines” – a known goal of the transnational terror group. 

Bishop’s concerns were sparked in part by recent revelations that the ISIS-affiliated Abu Sayyaf Group’s (ASG) leader Isnilon Totoni Hapilon was recently declared by Islamic State as an emir. Bishop said the “re-emergence of some of these terrorist networks”…”brings the threat right to our doorstep.” She also said Australia is now cooperating with regional countries to “stamp this terrorist threat out in our region.”

Australia Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop (L) at a meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 26, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

That will be easier said than done. ASG is the best known, but not the only, ISIS-aligned radical group operating on the southern island of Mindanao, long a hotbed of Islamic insurgency against Manila’s rule. Several radical Islamic Filipino groups have recently declared their allegiance to ISIS, raising concerns fighters fleeing Syria and Iraq may look to the southern Philippines for sanctuary. 

Australia’s concern about Philippine terrorism is not new, with threats emanating from the country’s southern regions soon after the 9/11 terror attacks on the US. Canberra’s regional terrorism concerns have traditionally focused on neighboring Indonesia, not least because of the 2002 Bali bombing attack that killed 202 people, mostly Western tourists, and a subsequent 2004 bombing attack on its embassy in Jakarta. 

But perceived growing linkages between radical groups in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, combined with ISIS’ efforts to make inroads into Southeast Asia, have raised a host of new complicated risks and concerns. And the southern Philippines looks increasingly vulnerable as a remote environment for local and transnational terror groups to mix.

Abu Sayyaf rebels in the interior of the southern Philippine Jolo island in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Philippine National Red Cross via Reuters TV

While the terrorism threat in the Philippines is clearly rising, it’s also being misunderstood and misconstrued, according to some terrorism experts.

Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a Jakarta-based think tank, has noted in her recent research that the establishment of a caliphate in the southern Philippines is still unlikely, but that ISIS’ support has given common cause to varied groups in the southern Philippines that have traditionally been fractured along clan lines. 

Jones notes that while some ISIS members arrive and travel in the region, including from Indonesia and Malaysia, the wider threat of battled-hardened fighters passing on skills to local groups is still mostly unfounded because many went as part of family groups that have complicated the logistics of returning even if they wanted to come back to the Philippines

“Unlike the ‘Afghan alumni’ (Southeast Asians who trained on the Pakistan-Afghan border in the late 1980s-early 90s), most ISIS fighters left with no intention of returning,” she wrote. “The biggest mistake the Australian government could make would be prioritizing counterterrorism over all else, or assuming that [Philippine President Rodrigo] Duterte’s military operations will end the problem.”

Soldiers stand guard on a road as they are deployed to remote villages in Jolo, Sulu southern Philippines October 17, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Jones suggested that continued support for ongoing peace processes, despite recent setbacks, are also essential, as is expanded support for Australian Federal Police officers to work with their Philippine counterparts.

Australia played a key role through training and support for Indonesia’s Detachment 88 counterterrorism force, which has been widely lauded for neutralizing its homegrown, once Al Qaeda-affiliated Jemaah Islamiyah terror group through intelligence-based police work. JI, once viewed as the region’s biggest terror threat, has been decimated by raids, arrests and killings of its leaders and operatives.

Jemaah Islamiyah militant Umar Patek escorted by anti-terror policemen for trial on multiple charges, including making bombs that exploded at Bali nightclubs packed with Australian tourists in 2002, killing 202 people. Photo: Reuters/Supri

ASG has recently supplanted JI as the region’s biggest terror threat, witnessed in a series of kidnapping-for-ransom attacks against Western tourists and a recent diversification into piracy in areas around the Sulu Sea, an area where Australian and regional trade travels.

Some maritime experts have warned the region could become the region’s version of Somalia, where pirates have famously interrupted trade, without a firmer and better coordinated response from Manila. 

Despite the rising risks, Canberra has so far appeared to keep Duterte at arms length. Bishop met with the Philippine leader for 50 minutes in late March to discuss terrorism and his government’s lethal drug war, but without making any big new collaborative announcements.

A policeman, holding handcuffs, gestures at a resident during a drug raid in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, October 12, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

While Australia has effectively cooperated on counterterrorism issues with Indonesia, similar cooperation with Philippine security forces would be problematic. That’s in large part because of Duterte’s anti-drug clampdown, where over 7,000 people have been killed since he launched the law and order campaign last year.

Eyebrows were raised in Canberra over reports Duterte told his counterparts in Indonesia and Malaysia that he would consider aerial bombardments of terror groups, including those operating at sea, even if they were holding hostages. The reports said he supposedly gave Indonesia and Malaysia the green light to bomb any Filipino terrorists that entered their waters.

Australia’s travel advisory, one of many issued by several countries in recent weeks, has sent a warning to intrepid travelers about the risks they face when tooling around the Philippines. But Canberra will likely need to make harder policy choices if and when that mounting threat starts to impact materially on its commercial and strategic interests. 

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