Islamic State East Asia: Down But Not Out
The Islamic State East Asia Province (ISEAP), the Islamic State (IS) group’s main affiliate in Southeast Asia primarily based in the Southern Philippines, has suffered substantial losses at the hands of continued counter-terrorism operations by state security forces. While some analysts have argued that the group remains weak and incapable, recent media output from a new pro-ISEAP media outlet, known as the East Asia Knights Media (EAK), highlights its continued attempts at remaining relevant as part of IS’ network of worldwide affiliates.
Activity Has Declined But Operations Persist
The Filipino sector of the ISEAP currently consists of three primary groups: Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) subgroups, namely the Indama/Bayali and Sawadjaan factions based in Basilan and Jolo; Maute group subgroup, namely the Abu Zacharia faction based in Lanao province; and the subgroups of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) based in Maguindanao which can be divided into four factions, namely the Ismael Abu Bakar (Imam Bongos) faction, Abu Turaipe faction, Solahuddin Hassan faction and the Karialan faction. Another group of concern is the Nilong group which was formed out of the remnants of Ansharul Khilafa Philippines (AKP) based in Sarangani and Cotobato. Its current status and allegiance to the Islamic State remain unclear. Filipino terrorism analyst Rommel Banlaoi estimates the total number of fighters in these various networks to be close to 500.
Whilst ISEAP activity has largely been on the decline recently, the group has attempted to remain relevant by engaging in several small-scale operations. Recent evidence from IS media platforms in 2022 suggests the group has engaged in several small-scale operations, including assassinations of militia fighters and Christian government workers (Inaladan and Piagapo), clashes with armed forces and attacks on military camps (Lanao del Sur, Shariff Saydona Mustapha and Cotabato) and bombings of electric pylons and bridges (Lanao del Sur). The latest reported attack by ISEAP was in the town of Butig on the 29th of April 2022 where more than 20 armed forces personnel were allegedly injured in a gunfight.
Apart from the Philippines, ISEAP through the EAK media channel had also claimed responsibility for a bomb attack in Pattani province in Southern Thailand in April 2022. It has to be noted that it is unclear if IS or pro-IS elements actually conducted the attack. An IS-aligned media outlet known as Al-Nibras Media Agency claimed an earlier ambush attack on a military check post and a VBIED attack in the Southern Thailand region by ISEAP-aligned militants in January 2022. It is suspected that militants as opposed to IS-linked fighters carried out the attack.
The Emergence of a New Emir and a New Bayah
ISEAP was the fifth of the 24 IS-affiliated provinces to pledge allegiance to the new IS leader Abu Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi. The pledge was made sometime in the first two weeks of March. In April 2022, ISEAP released a video showing its operatives pledging allegiance to IS’ new leader. The video showed a masked individual, codenamed Abdel Rahman, stating that ISEAP operatives, especially those based in the Philippines, were in excellent condition and, despite the challenging environment, remained loyal to IS. He also called on Muslims to join IS. Shortly after the pledge, ISEAP released a poster online which showed their areas of operation, namely Lanao del Norte, Marawi, Lanao del Sur and Bukidnon. ASG areas such as Jolo and Basilan were not mentioned for reasons that are unclear. The poster also stated the following in Bahasa Indonesia and in Tagalog: “Caliphate: Becoming Muslim who follows tauhid (Oneness of God) and hates every form of syirik (polytheism).”
A significant recent development in the Philippines was the identification of a possible emerging ISEAP emir known by the nom de guerre Abu Zacharia. Abu Zacharia also known as Fahruddin Haji Satar or Jer Mimbantas is believed to have been part of the Maute group during the Marawi siege, and had reportedly escaped as troops took back control of the city. He had taken over the leadership of the Maute group after the death of Abu Dar (Owaida Marohombsar) in March 2019. Sources on the ground have revealed that Abu Zacharia could possibly be an emerging leader that needs to be taken note of. Another ASG subleader that must be watched is an individual by the name of Amah Patit. Hailing from the Sawadjaan family, he is believed to be a leader of the Daulah Islamiyah-ASG Sawadjaan faction operating out of Patikul.
East Asia Knight Media Agency
In the online sphere, ISEAP’s new media outlet known as East Asia Knight Media Agency, or Kesatria Asia Timur in Malay, has begun sharing IS propaganda in the Philippines. This new media channel has shown videos, some of which might have been old, recycled videos, of what seemed to be a training camp in the Southern Philippines. Aside from Tagalog, the material is also shared in Malay and English.
In February 2022, a statement was posted on official IS media channels noting that the leader of ISEAP was alive and well and that the group was active. The statement was accompanied by an undated video which showed a group of ISEAP members, believed to be in the Philippines, ambushing a village and killing individuals. A post on April 10, 2022, by EAK called for bomb and poison attacks on food and water sources against the kafir (unbelievers) and concluded by stating: “Kill them wherever you are, whether you are in Luzon, Visayas or Mindanao”. A point to note is that these postings may be recycled from previous propaganda messages that ISEAP had released.
The EAK had also recently released a one-page statement of the bayah (pledge of allegiance) to the new IS emir, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, in Malay. Throughout the month of Ramadan this year, the EAK released what it called the ‘Ramadan Diary of the Mujahideen Loyal to the Caliph’. This diary included a series of photos of ISEAP fighters based in the Southern Philippines engaging in prayer sessions, training, and breaking of fast.
EAK’s activities signal two key developments. The fact that its output is being shared on official IS media platforms signifies ISEAP’s continued links with IS Central in the Middle East. Secondly, its active media presence might be part of the group’s continued attempts to remain relevant in the region. The release of material in Malay also highlights its interest in reaching out to a larger base of supporters outside the Philippines, in areas such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
The current ISEAP landscape remains leaderless and decentralized with local terror groups operating almost independently of each other. Operationally, the groups remain weak as evidenced by the dip in activity in recent times. However, this might not mean that ISEAP-linked groups have been banished. Ground sources have revealed that underground activity such as recruitment, training and financing remains rife, and a lack of attacks may just be an indication of a lull period the groups are indulging in to ‘test the waters’, particularly with the new government leadership that is taking over after the recent national elections. The effects of the emergence of Abu Zacharia as a possible new emir remain to be seen. If he is charismatic enough to be able to unite the local terror factions under a single banner as had occurred during the 2017 Marawi siege, then ISEAP may well be on its way back to gaining prominence in the region.