The Philippines is grappling with a string of suicide bombings carried out by Islamic State-affiliated groups bent on establishing a caliphate in the archipelagic nation’s southern region.
The tactic, frequently deployed in Middle Eastern and South Asian conflicts but until now unseen in the Southeast Asian nation, is fast changing the complexion of Philippine terrorism as long-running, low-intensity insurgent conflicts become increasingly internationalized.
Most recently, a female suicide bomber authorities described as “Caucasian-looking” attempted a daring suicide attack on a military checkpoint this month in Indanan, Sulu, a region long wracked by insurgency and terrorism.
“The way she walked, she seemed confused, as though uneasy, and she was alone,” said Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana, Western Mindanao Command chief, after soldiers foiled the attack.
“She was holding the trigger mechanism, so we really can say that it was a suicide bombing,” Sobejana added, confirming perhaps the first known female suicide terror attack attempt on Philippine soil.
Philippine authorities believe the captured perpetrator was operating under the command of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), one of the region’s most notorious Islamic State-aligned terrorist organizations.
ASG’s leader, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, is widely believed to be positioning himself to become Islamic State’s next designated emir in Southeast Asia. Security agents suspect he is trying to score high profile terrorist hits, including through suicide attacks, to bolster his candidacy with the international terror group’s chief leaders.
Islamic State’s previous emir in Southeast Asia, Isnilon Hapilon, also of the ASG, was killed during the months-long 2017 siege of Marawi, the Philippines only majority Muslim city.
Philippine Islamic State leader Benito Marohombsar, also known as Abu Dar, was also killed in the clashes, according to DNA tests Philippine security officials said were confirmed by US counterparts.
The Philippine military’s costly victory at Marawi scattered the terror operatives across the country. That, analysts say, raises questions about whether Islamic State’s aligned groups’ new use of suicide attacks is a sign of strength or weakness.
This month’s attempted attack marked the third suicide bombing operation by Islamic State-affiliated groups in the Philippines this year, according to official information.
In January, an Indonesian couple self-detonated inside a Catholic cathedral in Jolo, Sulu, during a Sunday service, killing 23 and injuring more than 100 others. In late June, two men, including a Filipino, blew themselves up at an army camp in Indanan, killing seven individuals.
Though jihadist groups have been active in the southern Philippines for decades, they had until now largely shunned extreme tactics such as suicide bombings.
Officials and experts had chalked that up to the region’s largely moderate brand of Islam, which has mostly shirked Islamic jurisprudence and fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran.
But Islamic State’s recent entry to the region has brought with it more extreme views and violent tactics.
On July 31, 2018, Islamic State operatives conducted the first-ever suicide bombing operation in the Philippines, when a suspected foreign militant drove a van that exploded at a military checkpoint at the outskirts of Basilan in Sulu, killing ten including a child.
Just months earlier, an Indonesian family including four teenage children, carried out simultaneous suicide bombings in three churches in Surabaya, Indonesia, killing 13 and wounding 41 individuals.
Philippine officials say they are now on high alert for more suicide attacks that target major cities across the country. As one military official asked this writer, “How can you stop someone who is determined to die?”
As Islamic State-aligned groups escalate their terror tactics, including through suicide bombings, Philippine officials are weighing potentially extreme countermeasures, including tougher laws that could curb certain rights and liberties.
Those curbs are already in place in Mindanao, where martial law was imposed during and after the Marawi siege. The provision, which imposes curfews and suspends various civil liberties, is now under an official review after being extended indefinitely to combat terrorist threats.
Civil society groups, business leaders and opposition statesman have all argued to lift martial law, arguing that the restrictions have undermined business confidence, dented the local economy and built local resentments.
“We cannot tolerate an unlimited martial law,” said Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon in late July while highlighting the law’s detrimental economic and social impacts.
“As I said before, martial law is like an antibiotic, and when an antibiotic is used excessively it becomes ineffective,” he added.
The uptick in more extreme terror attacks, including suicide bombings, is nonetheless strengthening the hands of officials who favor a tougher approach to counterterrorism.
“Whether to extend or not, it’s too early for me to tell…I have to hear the assessment of the police and the military,” Interior Secretary and former military chief Eduardo Año told the author last month in a mix of English and Tagalog.
“For me, I’m open to lifting martial law in some areas that we can say are safe, with stable peace and order.”
However, Año said that newly elected mayors he spoke with in the region have asked him to maintain martial law until the situation stabilizes. “I think they’re already tired of violence in Mindanao,” he said in the interview.
In that direction, Philippine officials are pushing for new counterterrorism legislation to strengthen the hands of security agencies, including in their ability to deal with suicide bomb threats.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, for one, is pushing for amendments to existing legislation, including the Human Security Act, to allow for easier wiretapping and detention of suspected terrorists.
Other senior officials, including Duterte’s Cabinet secretary Karlo Nograles, have called for legislative amendments to give counterterrorism laws “more teeth” and thus will “not require an extension of martial law” to combat extremist threats.