Siddharth Anil Nair analyses data gathered by IPCS’ Southeast Asia Research Programme for a project mapping the pandemic's social, political, security, and economic impact across the region
By the first quarter of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had created conditions for greater population control and surveillance, allowing Southeast Asian states seeking to dismantle terror groups (TG) the opportunity to do so. While the pandemic had forced TGs to cease high-intensity operations (HIO), they were able to reconsolidate capabilities for such operations in the future.
New data gathered by IPCS’ Southeast Asia Research Programme for a project mapping the impact of the pandemic on various social, political, and economic issues in the region, allows a more rounded assessment of terrorism in the Philippines through 2020. Given that the project is evolving in real-time, the data collected so far indicates that the pandemic had a transient impact on terror operations; with a first quarter lull followed by an escalatory third quarter peak.
Terror and Counter-terror
The immediate impact of the pandemic, i.e. limits on movement, forced HIOs conducted by regional TGs to come to a standstill in the first quarter of the year. As a result, they turned to the online world to expand communications and recruitment operations. This in turn increased the number of low-intensity terror operations (LIO) in the Philippines –beheadings, drive-by shootings, and kidnappings.
Even the ceasefires like those announced by the government and the New People’s Army (NPA) in March 2020 simply stayed inevitable fighting. Immediately after the ceasefire deadline, NPA attacks on military and police patrols had resumed, e.g in April, NPA militants ambushed and killed Philippine Army (PA) soldiers in Aurora.
Some groups, like the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), were not afforded the ‘ceasefire treatment’. In March, a PA force was mobilised to Maguindanao to ‘pre-empt’ terror attacks. A week into the campaign, PA troops conducted a raid against BIFF militants resulting in massive casualties on both sides. Similarly, ASG militants were subject to seek-and-destroy and raid missions, with a number of open fighting events taking place across Sulu. In one instance, PA troops engaged close to 40 ASG militants in Patikul, resulting in the deaths of 11 militants and 14 soldiers.
PA missions remain focused on culling militant leadership and to some degree, these operations were successful. In June, PA troops searching for a BIFF commander were successful in neutralising militants and capturing him in Sultan Kudarat. Other operations were not as successful. An August raid to capture an ASG bomb expert resulted in the arrest of his supporters, but he was able to escape the security cordon – twice. Only two weeks after his escape, Jolo witnessed a twin bombing –a motorcycle bomb and a suicide attack –that killed 14 and injured 74.
Between these high-intensity attacks, TGs continued to carry out LIOs. In January, unknown perpetrators assassinated a retired police general in Pangasinan. In May, BIFF militants killed a government official in Maguindanao. Kidnappings, like those of Indonesian fishermen near Tawi-Tawi island, continued throughout the year.
2020: The Nature of Conflict in the Philippines
Terror and counter-terror operations rose in 2020 as compared to 2019. However, it would be incorrect to say that terror-based conflict in the Philippines in 2020 was of a low-intensity. Importantly, the proportion of LIOs remained lower than HIOs. The number of terror events also began to increase in the second quarter of the year.
Southeast Asian responses to the pandemic have been highly ‘securitised’. The need to fill-in immediate logistical and capability gaps such as population control, surveillance, and distribution brought security institutions in closer contact with civilian areas. In an environment already characterised by terrorism, best exemplified by the 2017 battle for Marawi, this contact was simply reinforced.
Similarly, Islamist TGs have invoked the pandemic as ‘divine intervention’; a diversion and punishment provided to continue to wage jihad against non-believers. ISIS-affiliates in Southeast Asia, now bolstered by the repatriation of fighters from Syria-Iraq, and following the fall of Raqqa, have taken over from their West Asian counterparts. With the fundamentalist conception of ‘Dar-e-Islam’ being set back, Southeast Asia has become the focus of global Islamist terror. ISIS-conceived provinces in the east may still remain a goal for TGs in the Philippines. Also, ongoing online recruitment and propaganda operations may have led to greater manpower, thus allowing more HIOs.
While indigenous Islamist TGs have not turned to social movements as a substitute for terror operations like their Indonesian counterparts, communist rebels, specifically the NPA, were more amenable to humanitarian calls for ceasefires, and even set up “humanitarian corridors” to allow the passage of COVID-19 aid. This isn't to say however that communist TGs, unlike Islamist groups, did not view the pandemic as an opportunity.
One question requires further data: who initiated these incidents? The answer can clarify whether terror or counter-terror operations increased in 2020. Available data suggests a 50:50 split; certain significant events, such as the August raid in Manila, have been noted as initiated by the PA. However, the presence of numerous ‘gun-battles’, ‘clashes’, ‘ambushes’ and ‘open-fighting’ cases blur the line for an accurate conclusion of whose operations were ultimately higher in number.
2020 was a peak year for terrorism in the Philippines: both HIOs and LIOs rose in number. State actors had an upper hand in mobilising and posturing forces before TGs. The pandemic also forced TGs to operate in a more lateral manner. While HIOs were ‘absent’ in the first quarter of 2020, its peak in the third quarter was comparable to—if not more than—its 2019 peak. In other words, the pandemic had a transient impact on terror operations in the Philippines last year.
Siddharth Anil Nair is Research Assistant with IPCS’ Southeast Asia Research Programme (SEARP).