Militant Islam’s Expansion in the Southern Philippines
Militant Islam’s Expansion in the Southern Philippines
Militant Islam’s Expansion in the Southern Philippines
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-Qa’ida, 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 Islam’s 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 God’s will.
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.
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.
By means of intense fighting, the southern region managed to sustain its
Islamic religion. Spain’s 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.
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;
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.
This ideology took control over the south; and the Muslims became a central
element in the national policy-making.
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 Islam’s 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
government’s offer of a fragmented four-province Autonomous Region for Muslim
Mindanao (ARMM). They did sign a peace agreement in 1996 with the Philippine
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
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.
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
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
The group reportedly has links to the broader Al-Qa’ida network. The group
espouses violent religious intolerance and the elimination of Christian
influence in Mindanao.
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.
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-Qa’ida. 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-Qa’ida. The Philippine islands are located between
the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea.
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.
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.
The domestic groups [factions of the Moro Muslims] with their domestic
grievances are now forming international alliances in pursuit of their goals.
These domestic grievances provide an opportunity for terrorists to prey on
them. Al-Qa’ida links up with these smaller groups on the basis of sharing in
their grievances. Al-Qa’ida has been able to exploit these local conflicts,
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
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-Qa’ida 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.
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”
that the region offers in luring the terrorists. It also helps to explain the
rise in Islamic militancy, simply because the opportunity of convenience
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,
one must take into consideration the powerful effect that Al-Qa’ida has upon
these groups. According to a Congressional Research Service Report, Al-Qa’ida
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.
It’s vital to note that the connection between militant Islamic groups and
Al-Qa’ida is very prevalent. The ASG and Al-Qa’ida have exhibited their
presence over the last decade. In January 2002, Philippine authorities
apprehended an Indonesian suspected of involvement in Al-Qa’ida plots against
American targets in Singapore.
There have been many other cases in which Al-Qa’ida has been suspected of
connections in bombings, deadly attacks, beheadings, etc…with 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.
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-Qa’ida’s 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-Qa’ida to move,
establishing Southeast Asia as a “Second Front”.
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-Qa’ida has been brilliant in its co-option of other groups…Bin Laden
tries to ‘align with local militant groups with country-specific grievances to
increase his reach and influence’.
Al-Qa’ida 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 didn’t 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-Qa’ida; 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 [terrorism’s] key theaters of operation, and we should expect continued
attacks and operations in the region.
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 Islam’s spread and terrorism abroad.
Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia Britannica Premium
<#"#_ftnref2" name="_ftn2" title="">
Dolan, Ronald E (Ed). Philippines-A Country Study. Washington D.C., Headquarters, Department of the Army:
Library of Congress-Federal
Research Division. 1993. (5).
Maher, Joanne (Senior Editor). The Europa World Book 2004 Volume II –
“Islam”. London: Europa Publications- The Taylor & Francis Group. 2004.
Pipes, Daniel. “Faith and Ideology”. The National Interest-Islam and Islamism.
<#"#_ftnref7" name="_ftn7" title="">
George, Thayil J.S. Revolt in Mindanao-The Rise of Islam in Philippine
Politics. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford
University Press. 1980.
Pike, John & Aftergood, Steven. “MNLF”. Federation of American
Scientists. November 27, 2001.
<#"#_ftnref9" name="_ftn9" title="">
Pike, John & Aftergood, Steven. “MILF”. Federation of American Scientists.
November 27, 2001.
<#"#_ftnref10" name="_ftn10" title="">
Abuza, Zachary. Militant Islam in Southeast Asia-Crucible of Terror. Colorado: Lynn Reinner Publishers. 2003.
Pike, John & Aftergood, Steven. “ASG”. Federation of American Scientists.
November 27, 2001.
<#"#_ftnref12" name="_ftn12" title="">
Ressa, Maria A. Seeds of Terror-An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in
Southeast Asia. New York: Free Press. 2003. (111).
CIA World Factbook. “Philippines”. Central Intelligence Agency. November 30, 2004.
<#"#_ftnref15" name="_ftn15" title="">
Concise Encyclopedia. 2004. Encyclopжdia Britannica Premium Service.
December 9, 2004. <#"#_ftnref17" name="_ftn17" title="">
Garrido, Marco. “The Evolution of Philippine Muslim Insurgency”. The Asian
Times. March 6, 2003.
<#"#_ftnref24" name="_ftn24" title="">
Manyin, Mark (Coordinator) & Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division.
“Terrorism in Southeast Asia”. The
Congress-Congressional Research Service. Updated August 13, 2004.
<#"#_ftnref25" name="_ftn25" title="">
Council on Foreign Relations. “Terrorism Questions & Answers- Philippines”. Council on Foreign Relations in cooperation with the Markle Foundation. 2004.
(Unknown author). “High Alert After Philippine Blast”. December 14, 2004. The Asian Times.
<#"#_ftnref27" name="_ftn27" title="">
Collins, Alan. Security and Southeast Asia-Domestic, Regional, and Global
Issues; Colorado: Lynne Reinner
Publishers. 2003. (200).