An intricate web of alliances and power plays defines Islamic State’s (Isis’s) presence in the Philippines and is posing a major problem for President Rodrigo Duterte, the man who has likened himself to Hitler but whose tough-guy persona may soon be put to the test.
No less than four separate groups operating in the country have pledged allegiance to Isis. They have also pledged to support each other in fighting the Filipino government.
Of these four groups, perhaps the most dangerous is the least known outside the region: Maute Group. Also known as Islamic State of Lanao, or Daulat Ul Islamiya, the group has carried out everything from beheadings and jailbreaks to bombings throughout 2016.
In the month of November alone, the group raised the Isis flag over the small city of Butig’s town hall. Although the group was subsequently forced out by Philippine soldiers, it is thought that the jihadists will soon return once the troops pull out. Butig’s also the most likely culprit for the ambitious IED attack on President Duterte's security convoy on November 29, 2016.
Filipino government troops battle jihadist militants in Butig (Getty)
The pedigree of the Maute brothers, Abdullah and Omar, reads like a who's who of the country's jihadist scene. After creating a small group named Khalifa Islamiah Mindanao in 2012, their network rapidly evolved.
The brothers are both educated in Islamic theology and related by marriage to senior members of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Recruiting out of Mindanao State University (MSU) has allowed them to cultivate the most intellectual and unpredictable members of all the Isis groups in Philippines. Much to their new in-laws' chagrin, they also attract new recruits because of their relationship with MILF.
The Maute Group is established internationally with particularly strong links to Indonesia, and boasts organized crime (narcotics) connections in Philippines’ Ozamis City. Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) leadership are also close associates.
Mohammad Jaafar Sabiwang Maguid, more famously known as ‘Commander Tokboy,’ the leader of Ansarul Khilafah Philippines (AKP), pledged allegiance to Baghdadi within the Maute group camp.
Though the Philippine army spent the better part of 2016 chasing them down, the group made headlines after it kidnapped six sawmill workers in Butig in April 2016. Four of the hostages were released a few days later, after their employer negotiated with the captors. The remaining two hostages were beheaded in a gory execution video.
With the Philippine army being spread extremely thinly, it seems only a matter of time before the Maute group and its allies strike again. Rodgrido Duterte has earned a fearsome reputation for his war on drugs, but his war on terror is likely to define his presidency.
Veryan Khan is the Editorial Director and Associate Publisher for TRAC: Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC), one of the world's largest electronic compendiums for data and analysis of terrorist groups, activities, trends and up to date developments. For complete information see www.trackingterrorism.org and follow the group on Twitter @TRACterrorism