The beheadings of four hostages by Abu Sayyaf earlier this year appears to have, in the Southeast Asian region, the psychological effect of a gruesome gore clip, or more accurately that of the ostensible alien signal received by SETI (The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is a collective term for the scientific search for intelligent extraterrestrial life) in 1977 – momentarily stunning but deemed not consequential enough to deserve a pondering of its possible deeper significance and long-term impact.
In comparison with the scale of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) organisation and operations, Abu Sayyaf may appear like a two-bit punk who irritates, but is not endangering. However, this may be a view maintained at the peril of regional security, threatening not only millions of lives but also the political and economic alignments, as well as the structures holding the region together.
Instead of drawing comparisons between the two in such a way that Abu Sayyaf gets belittled, it would be wise to focus on how terrorist groups devastate their respective regions in similar ways.
By focusing on the similarities between terrorism in both regions, we will be more aware of the dangers we face or may eventually face, and be better prepared with more rigorous deterrence policies and measures. So perhaps it is high time that this issue is given the proper thought that it deserves, and recognise that the chaos ravaging the Middle East may be much closer to home than previously expected.
Abu Sayyaf belongs to a global club of self-proclaimed Islamic terrorist groups seeking to overturn the existing world order through what they claim to be jihads, committing acts of violence in the name of self-defined religious values. The organisation grew out of the struggle for self- autonomy and independence in the majority Muslim south of the Philippines.
Established in 1991, Abu Sayyaf took over as the leading organisation in the struggle for freedom in the Southern Philippines from the Moro National Liberation Front, which was in the midst of signing a peace treaty with the government. Its founder, Abdurajik Abubakar Janjalani – a mujahid who fought against the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan – reputedly received US$6 million to fund a more extreme and ‘religious’ resistance movement in the Philippines. Since then, they have been carrying out beheadings, bombings and kidnappings both within and outside the Philippines – the deadliest one being the 2004 SuperFerry 14 bombing in which 116 people were killed.
A state’s security situation and economic health are inextricably linked. A violent environment not only causes physical damage to infrastructure and industry, but also disrupts trade and dampens consumer and investor confidence. Earlier this year, two Indonesian coal ports banned ships from sailing to the Philippines out of fear that they would fall victim to hijackings by the militants, which is not a matter to taken lightly considering the fact that Indonesia supplies 70 percent of the Philippines’ coal worth nearly $800 million.
With an estimated $40 billion worth of trade in the region, the implications of parts of Southeast Asia becoming a hotbed of terrorist activity, along with its disruptive socio-economic impacts, will have devastating effects both across the region and throughout the globe.
Abu Sayyaf does not only pose an internal security threat to the Philippines, but also a threat to the region’s stability. It has launched attacks on neighbouring states and aided or actively encouraged similar militant groups in their own acts of jihad. One such foreign venture (analogous to the foreign soil attacks carried out by ISIL such as the 2015 Paris attacks) was the 2000 Sipadan kidnappings, in which 19 non-Filipino tourists and resort workers were taken from the dive resort island of Sipadan (just off the coast of Sabah) back to their island base of Jolo, Sulu.
The threat of Abu Sayyaf to the region becomes more urgent in light of recent shootings in Jakarta, which were supposedly perpetrated by the ISIL, given that evidence has pointed to Abu Sayyaf providing supplies and support to similar radical groups in the region outside of the Philippines. The question of whether or not ISIL was in fact behind such attack is immaterial, since such attacks indicate that the potential for terror strikes remains very well within the region.
The Indonesian security services have found that weapons to the terrorist group MIT have come from Mindanao, as did the weapons used in the January 14 attack in Central Jakarta. Malaysian security forces have also found operational links and evidence that militants have taken refuge in the Southern Philippines, where huge chunks of territory fall effectively under the control of Abu Sayyaf.
Parallels to such trends can be found in the Middle East: ISIL’s Northern Iraq Offensive of 2014 was made possible because the northern Sunni parts of Iraq were beyond the Iraqi government’s range of control, with the anarchical environment providing a perfect breeding ground for ISIL.
Besides being a direct security and physical threat, Abu Sayyaf and other potent ‘Islamic’ terrorist organisations may tense up diplomatic regions within the region. Like how the different external powers in the Syrian conflict are arguably carving up the Syrian cake for themselves more than aiding to piece it together, the security situation in Southeast Asia caused by Abu Sayyaf has affected the traditionally strong diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Indonesia.
Central to this conflict is the issue of the Philippines’ sovereignty, deemed inviolable by the Filipinos (and especially since Duterte’s inauguration as president). The Indonesian government has repeatedly pressured the Philippines over the need to allow for foreign troops to operate on Philippine soil, announcing earlier this year that it was ready to deploy its security forces to rescue the hostages.
The Indonesian security forces – Densus-88 and Kopassus – were also publicly deployed to Nunukun Regency in East Kalimantan. Such measures, while contributing towards short-term security improvements, may come at the cost of derailing long-term peace and stability in the region.
Worrying as these trends may be, the true horror lies in the extrapolation of such trends into the future. Terrorism as conventionally understood – the radical ‘Islamic’ groups with Abu Sayyaf and ISIL as prominent examples – is a cancer that feeds on seeming government repression and fear. ISIL was formed out of the grave discontent caused by the socio-economic repression of the Sunnis by the majority Shia Iraqi government.
Likewise, Abu Sayyaf stemmed from the post-separatist socioeconomic treatment of minority groups in the Southern region of the Philippines. Shared by both movements is the justification for their importance to the downtrodden: that they are leaders in the global struggle of a pure selective group against an evil, secular community bent on oppressing them for perpetuity for their own benefit.
Recent political developments in the world and within Southeast Asia may further marginalise communities in the region, which may encourage radicalisation and further aggravate domestic stability, with wider implications for the region’s security and economies.
Although such structural forces remain out of our control, we could still mitigate its blows by doing our best – as responsible ASEAN denizens and policymakers – to be vigilant of the evolving terror landscape in Southeast Asia, and promote inclusiveness within our own communities to prevent radicalisation.
Eugene is a first year studying history at the University of Warwick. He was a freelance tennis coach before starting at the university. He is passionate about travelling, the humanities in general, geopolitics, finance, swimming, tennis or anything ‘macro amd chaotic’. He is aspiring to work as a management consultant or in anywhere in which international finance is of immense relevance. He can be contacted at E.Tan.1@Warwick.ac.uk.
*This article was first published by Warwick ASEAN Conference on 27th December 2016.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.