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  Militant Islams Expansion in the Southern Philippines

Militant Islams Expansion in the Southern Philippines

Militant Islams Expansion in the Southern Philippines


Anastasia Pentzakoff


The rise of militant Islam in the southern Philippines poses catastrophic consequences for the future of the Philippines and the world in regards to the escalation of terrorism. Militant Islam plays a major role in the southern Philippines, terrorizing that region as well as the Philippine government. It is the purpose of this paper to expose the gravity of militant Islam in the Philippines and its significance in relation to the threat of terrorism. This paper provides an underlying background of how Islam evolved in the Philippines, tracing its development from the traditional religion of Islam to its present state and practice of militant Islam. This paper discusses three militant Islamic groups in particular that prompted the rise of militant Islam, thus creating a welcoming environment for terrorist groups, namely Al-Qaida, to further their terrorist goals. Included is an explanation of the specific factors that set the Philippines apart from other countries, making the Philippines more susceptible in playing a greater role in the acceleration of terrorism. Based upon the information and arguments of many distinguished sources, my own perspective regarding the severity of militant Islam in the Philippines is incorporated as well. In order to understand militant Islams rise to power, it is vital to explore its beginnings.

It is important to distinguish between the traditional religion of Islam and the more popular ideology, which transformed into the practice of militant Islam. The religion of Islam literally refers to the submission to the will of God and seeks to teach humans how to live in accordance with Gods will.[1] Muslim traders from the Indonesian islands were among the first people to bring the Islamic religion to the Philippines. By 1500, Islam was established in Sulu Archipelago and spread from there to Mindanao; it also reached the Manila area.[2] A Muslim community arose throughout the Philippines; however, it remained centered in the southern Philippines. The people of this southern region are referred to as the Moro people. Over time through their intermarriages, the Muslim population expanded and began dominating. Naturally, the religion of Islam became the dominant religion. However, problems with the Muslims arose when the Spanish came to colonize the Philippines. One of their objectives was to convert the Filipinos to Christianity. The Spaniards succeeded in occupying the islands; however, they failed to convert them completely because of active resistance in the south.[3] By means of intense fighting, the southern region managed to sustain its Islamic religion. Spains rule came to an end in 1898 as the result of the United States, which proceeded to colonize the Philippines soon after. The Americans did not try to enforce Christianity with violence like the Spanish; instead they tried to impose it through the education of the Moro rulers in the south.[4] Not only did this prompt Muslim resentment to grow even more, but the education also paved the way for Islamic rulers to enter into the political sphere. Eventually, the Philippines became an independent nation. The Philippine government has attempted quite a few times to disperse its Muslim population by moving Christians into the south from the north. Nevertheless, the south remains predominantly Muslim, while the majority of the Philippines is Catholic. The Muslims only comprise approximately five percent of the population of the Philippines[5]; however, they have strong clout in the southern region, which accounts for their strength in the Philippines.

The Muslims strength derives from their defensive nature that they acquired during periods of colonization when they had to defend their religion as well as region. The Muslims came together as a community, strengthening their identification with Islam. This led to an increased interest to the ideology of Islamism. Islamism is profoundly different in that it is more of a political order with an emphasis on communities aspiring to create a new order.[6] This ideology took control over the south; and the Muslims became a central element in the national policy-making.[7] Islamism is a slightly radical form of Islam, where the goal includes promoting Islam within the political influence. Specifically in the southern Philippines, the goal consists of gaining an independent Islamic state by penetrating the political field with its own Islamic members. From Islamism stems militant Islam, which is a more extreme, fundamentalist practice of Islam that uses combative force to further its agenda. In the southern Philippines, the militant Islamic agenda includes using whatever means necessary to achieve their autonomous state. The Filipino Muslims do not want to be ruled in a secular form of government, rather they are pushing for independence so as to have their own Islamic State, where Islamic law rules them. Many have turned to the practice of militant Islam, using violent measures in hopes of attaining their goal quicker. Militant Islams popularity is increasing at a rapid pace.

The southern Philippines have become a site for violent terrorist actions by separatist Muslim groups, including the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). The disastrous actions taken by these groups clearly define militant Islam. All three of these groups share in the same separatist struggle in the southern Philippines; however, they do have their unique attributes.

The MNLF is an insurgent group that started out as a rebellion group that managed to bring most partisan Moro forces into its framework. The MNLF fights and conducts guerilla warfare for an independent Moro nation. Quite a few times, the MNLF engaged in talks with the government over attaining an autonomous region, which eventually led to the governments offer of a fragmented four-province Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). They did sign a peace agreement in 1996 with the Philippine government.[8]

The other two groups have rejected the agreement signed with the government. The MILF is a more moderately active militant group, primarily concerned with the implementation of a fully Islamic State.

The MILF is the vanguard of the Islamic movement in the Bangsamoro homeland in Mindanao and the neighboring islands. It was formed in 1977 as it split from the MNLF.[9] The MILF is taking advantage of the dissatisfaction expressed by many [Muslims] in the MNLF and the ARMM. They view the agreement and the autonomous region offered as not enough. The MILF is working through the political system, influencing local politics and winning the local elections, then moving upwards. They have continued to wage armed campaigns against the Filipino military.[10]

The Abu Sayyaf Group is by far the most violent of the separatist groups.

The leaders of the ASG allegedly fought in Afghanistan during the Soviet war and are students and proponents of radical Islamic teachings. The group is largely self-financed through ransom and extortion; and it most likely also receives support from Islamic extremists in the Middle East and South Asia. Its activities include engaging in kidnappings for ransom, bombings, beheadings of missionaries, assassinations, and extortion. Over time, the ASG has geared more towards using terror for financial profit. It is estimated to have 200-500 members.[11] The group reportedly has links to the broader Al-Qaida network. The group espouses violent religious intolerance and the elimination of Christian influence in Mindanao.[12]

ASG is the smallest of the separatist groups, but it is the most vicious in character. Their extremely violent behavior attracts other radical Islamic groups internationally. These militant groups instill fear into the Philippine government and the non-Muslim people through their activist means. The ASG and MILF show no effort to compromise with the government as they continue to deliberately terrorize people with their heinous acts. Reaching this state of autonomy so as to implement an Islamic rule of law is of utmost necessity to them. In the southern Philippines, rampant poverty, the lack of government services, and the actions of the military pushed more civilians to support the Abu Sayyaf.[13] These factors along with other characteristics specific to the Philippines explain the heightened attraction to the southern region.

These militant Islamic groups invite an atmosphere for harboring terrorism. The Philippines proves to be an ideal location for attracting other terrorist organizations, namely Al-Qaida. The Philippines is not the only country in Southeast Asia deals with militant Islam; however, it is the country that terrorist networks find the most appealing. The Philippines exhibit unique features including the physical geography, a long history of Muslim insurgent movements, domestic groups with domestic grievances, few law enforcement constraints, and already established links with Al-Qaida. The Philippine islands are located between the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea.[14] The geographical setting of the Philippines consists of thousands of islands located amid water on all sides. This allows for easy access to the islands. The borders in Southeast Asia, especially the state of the Philippines, are extremely porous. It is simply not possible to police the maritime borders of these states.[15] Terrorists can enter onto many islands without going through any sort of immigration or police checkpoints. They can travel around unnoticed for the most part. This gives the terrorists flexibility to proceed with their agenda without being traced. The long history of Muslim insurgency movements dates back to the Spanish rule. For centuries, the Moro Muslims faced foreign and domestic forces that have tried to infiltrate their region. From these experiences, anger arose and militant Islamic movements formed. Already having such a strong history of resistance and fighting, the southern Philippines invites sympathetic Islamic radicals that are eager to connect with them and fight in the greater name of jihad, which refers to the central doctrine of Islam that calls on believers to combat the enemies of their religion.[16] The domestic groups [factions of the Moro Muslims] with their domestic grievances are now forming international alliances in pursuit of their goals.[17] These domestic grievances provide an opportunity for terrorists to prey on them. Al-Qaida links up with these smaller groups on the basis of sharing in their grievances. Al-Qaida has been able to exploit these local conflicts[18], using them to further their own specific agendas.

Terrorist groups are able to operate and plan attacks with little concern for their own security. The Filipinos have no computerized immigration or tax databases. Further, the intelligence services in Southeast Asia are often overly politicized and engaged in fierce bureaucratic infighting. Even if they are not corrupt, these forces are under-equipped and confronted by well-armed rebels. Also, the importance of tourism on economy resulted in lax immigration procedures and easy access visas.[19]

These few law enforcement constraints provide the perfect circumstances for terrorists to penetrate the islands of the Philippines. Another appealing feature includes the already established links between the region and radical terrorist leaders and groups. The region has financial ties through businesses, banks, and charities with the Al-Qaida network.[20]

Al-Qaida also has links in Southeast Asia through their Afghanistan connection and their radical teachings that spread throughout madrasas, Islamic schools. The Afghanistan connection refers to training camps in Afghanistan that many militant Islamic Southeast Asians attended. Osama Bin Laden ran the camps; and they were designed for preparation for later Holy wars. Southeast Asians also attended madrasas throughout the Middle East and Asia. When they returned back to their home fronts, they were committed to running jihads at home and recruiting followers. These militant groups return from Afghanistan and the schools ready to establish networks of madrasas as the base for their operations and recruitment.[21]

These terrorists prey on the Islamic peoples devotion to their religion. They turn them into militant radicals, if they are not already, and they enhance their fighting abilities, which gives them more reason to continue attacking. All of these characteristics illustrate the convenience[22] that the region offers in luring the terrorists. It also helps to explain the rise in Islamic militancy, simply because the opportunity of convenience persists.

The present state of affairs in the southern Philippines suggests that militant Islam will continue to increase in its magnitude. While the combination of grievance and opportunity may explain the emergence of Muslim rebel groups[23], one must take into consideration the powerful effect that Al-Qaida has upon these groups. According to a Congressional Research Service Report, Al-Qaida has penetrated the region by establishing local cells, training Southeast Asians in its camps in Afghanistan, and by financing and cooperating with indigenous radical Islamist groups.[24] Its vital to note that the connection between militant Islamic groups and Al-Qaida is very prevalent. The ASG and Al-Qaida have exhibited their presence over the last decade. In January 2002, Philippine authorities apprehended an Indonesian suspected of involvement in Al-Qaida plots against American targets in Singapore.[25] There have been many other cases in which Al-Qaida has been suspected of connections in bombings, deadly attacks, beheadings, etcwith Abu Sayyaf, who carries out the collaborated attacks. Most recently, the Asian Times reported,

A bomb attack on a public market in the southern city of General Santos on Sunday December 12, 2004 killed at least 14 people and wounded 59 others. Police sources say that they are looking into a feud between two families with ties to separatist group MILF as a possible motive. There had been a previous attack on General Santos in 2002, where 14 people were killed in a shopping mall explosion later blamed on Abu Sayyaf and MILF. The entire south has suffered from bloody terrorist attacks and mass kidnappings in recent years that have been blamed on these Muslim extremists.[26]

This definitely portrays the current presence of these militant groups. They continue to wreak havoc in the Philippines, increasing in their severity and numbers. There is an intensified growth in Islamic extremism, partially due to Al-Qaidas penetration into the local groups. Because of the American War on Terror, Afghanistan lost its secure base of terrorist fronts and camps in late 2001. This prompted Al-Qaida to move, establishing Southeast Asia as a Second Front.[27] Many scholars and analysts now refer to Southeast Asia as the second front of terrorism because of the shift in operations after the fall of the Taliban. The terrorist network has expanded immensely throughout Southeast Asia; and the southern Philippines play a specific role in providing a central location for them to conduct operations.

I am in agreement that the southern region of the Philippines will be regarded as the official base for most terrorist networks. The region is a breeding ground for future militant operations. Many of the people of the region have come to embrace militant Islam in its practice. Terrorists migrate to the south because of all the conveniences that it offers, namely loose restrictions. They connect with the militant Islamic groups and form greater communities with more radical ideologies. It is my perspective that since militant Islam remains on the rise, it will only reach higher levels of extremism with deadlier consequences for the world. The escalating tensions between the Philippine government and the militant Islamic groups are nowhere near subsiding nor coming to resolutions. I believe that militant Islam, in joining with radical Islamic terrorists in the southern Philippines, will produce a network base so large as never seen before. Al-Qaida has been brilliant in its co-option of other groupsBin Laden tries to align with local militant groups with country-specific grievances to increase his reach and influence.[28] Al-Qaida has succeeded in rooting itself within these militant groups, especially Abu Sayyaf. Not only will the south become the major operational hub as stated by many analysts, but also I believe that terrorism will spread drastically all over the world thanks to such an available flexibility that the south provides. Right now the terrorism focus is on the Middle East. Most people think of the Arab region of the Middle East when they hear of terrorists. This is a classic example of Western thinking. It is precisely this conventional thinking that led to the United States surprise attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor. They didnt think that the Japanese would ever do such a thing; and it is precisely this mentality that I think will surprise many when the next major terrorist attack to hit is orchestrated by a Filipino per se. A deeper focus needs to preside over the southern Philippines. It is my conclusion that this region presents the greatest danger in the face of terrorism because of the factors mentioned previously. Southeast Asia has become a haven for these terrorists (due to scattered borders and loose immigration policy). Terrorism has put on a different face, that of militant Islamic Filipinos.

The southern Philippines hold a special position in the future. I would argue that it is the southern region that is the most valuable to Al-Qaida; therefore, the political decisions between the government of the Philippines and the militant Islamic groups are imperative. They will set the pace for terrorist activities for future generations to come worldwide. Clearly Southeast Asia has become one of its [terrorisms] key theaters of operation, and we should expect continued attacks and operations in the region.[29] The Philippines need to take definitive measures immediately before militant Islam erupts into an uncontrollable, firmly embedded state. Militant Islam has shown its face many times over in the southern Philippines, is beginning to rise to fame throughout Southeast Asia, and I suspect that it will gradually be heard around the globe. The southern Philippines have a crucial impact on the future of militant Islams spread and terrorism abroad.

1Islam. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia Britannica Premium Service. 2004.

<#"#_ftnref2" name="_ftn2" title="">[2] Dolan, Ronald E (Ed). Philippines-A Country Study. Washington D.C., Headquarters, Department of the Army:

Library of Congress-Federal Research Division. 1993. (5).

[3] Dolan, 6.

[4] Dolan, 22.

[5] Maher, Joanne (Senior Editor). The Europa World Book 2004 Volume II Islam. London: Europa Publications- The Taylor & Francis Group. 2004.

[6] Pipes, Daniel. Faith and Ideology. The National Interest-Islam and Islamism. Spring 2000.

<#"#_ftnref7" name="_ftn7" title="">[7] George, Thayil J.S. Revolt in Mindanao-The Rise of Islam in Philippine Politics. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford

University Press. 1980. (244).

[8] Pike, John & Aftergood, Steven. MNLF. Federation of American Scientists. November 27, 2001.

<#"#_ftnref9" name="_ftn9" title="">[9] Pike, John & Aftergood, Steven. MILF. Federation of American Scientists. November 27, 2001.

<#"#_ftnref10" name="_ftn10" title="">[10] Abuza, Zachary. Militant Islam in Southeast Asia-Crucible of Terror. Colorado: Lynn Reinner Publishers. 2003.


[11] Pike, John & Aftergood, Steven. ASG. Federation of American Scientists. November 27, 2001.

<#"#_ftnref12" name="_ftn12" title="">[12] Abuza, 101.

[13] Ressa, Maria A. Seeds of Terror-An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaedas Newest Center of Operations in

Southeast Asia. New York: Free Press. 2003. (111).

[14] CIA World Factbook. Philippines. Central Intelligence Agency. November 30, 2004.

<#"#_ftnref15" name="_ftn15" title="">[15] Abuza, 20.

[16] Jihad. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. 2004. Encyclopdia Britannica Premium Service.

December 9, 2004. <#"#_ftnref17" name="_ftn17" title="">[17] Abuza, 4.

[18] Ressa, 104.

[19] Abuza, 19.

[20] Abuza, 20.

[21] Abuza, 11.

[22] Abuza, 18.

[23] Garrido, Marco. The Evolution of Philippine Muslim Insurgency. The Asian Times. March 6, 2003.

<#"#_ftnref24" name="_ftn24" title="">[24] Manyin, Mark (Coordinator) & Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division. Terrorism in Southeast Asia. The

Library of Congress-Congressional Research Service. Updated August 13, 2004.

<#"#_ftnref25" name="_ftn25" title="">[25] Council on Foreign Relations. Terrorism Questions & Answers- Philippines. Council on Foreign Relations in cooperation with the Markle Foundation. 2004.

[26] (Unknown author). High Alert After Philippine Blast. December 14, 2004. The Asian Times.

<#"#_ftnref27" name="_ftn27" title="">[27] Collins, Alan. Security and Southeast Asia-Domestic, Regional, and Global Issues; Colorado: Lynne Reinner

Publishers. 2003. (200).

[28] Abuza, 9.

[29] Abuza, 233.