Alex Fine, JHU:
As the world continues to combat extremism from the likes of ISIS and Boko Haram in locales ranging from Beirut to Brussels, one may be forgiven for not hearing of the Battle of Tipo-Tipo currently raging on Basilan Island in the Philippines. Last Sunday, 18 Filipino soldiers were killed in a day-long firefight against militants from the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, who themselves have been waging an insurgency against the government for the last quarter century. The battle is part of an ongoing military campaign to eradicate militant groups from the island, and in the last week, both sides combined have lost over 100 casualties.
The Philippines is an archipelago nation in Southeast Asia consisting of nearly 8,000 individual islands with a population of over 100 million. While the vast majority of the population is Catholic, due in large part to the nation’s history as a Spanish colony, there are between five and twelve million Muslim Filipinos living primarily in the southern part of the country near Malaysia.
Despite being in the minority, Islam actually precedes Catholicism as the first monotheistic religion to take hold in the Philippines, first coming to the islands in the 14th century through trade. Over the following centuries, a unique culture developed in the Muslim majority areas, separate from that of the rest of the region. It was not until the end of the 19th century under Spanish rule that the northern and southern regions were joined together a single entity.
Since the 1960’s, there has been tension and sectarian violence between the Philippine’s Catholic majority and ethnic Moro Muslim minority, with the latter having sought increased autonomy from the federal government. In March 2014, after decades of civil war, a comprehensive peace deal was reached between the Philippine government and the the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front group. In exchange for the deactivation of rebel units, the predominantly Muslim region of Mindanao was granted the right to limited self-rule on domestic issues with their own police force.
Unfortunately, not all of the secessionists saw these concessions as sufficient, with several groups continuing to wage campaigns of terror against the Filipino people, Abu Sayyaf chief among them. Despite being disavowed by both the Front and the national government, the group has hundreds of followers and limited control over several places within the Philippines, including Basilan Island. Since its founding in 1991, the terrorist network has carried out dozens of attacks against both Filipinos and foreigners including kidnappings, bombings, drive-by shootings, and forced child marriages. In 2004, Abu Sayyaf claimed responsibility for the bombing of Superferry 14, the worst terrorist attack in Philippine history, which killed 116 people.
While Abu Sayyaf has formally allied itself with ISIS, with the leader swearing an oath of loyalty in July 2014, the group operates independently from other terrorist groups and, according to several released captives “[has] only a sketchy notion of Islam, which they saw as a set of behavioral rules, to be violated when it suited them.” Most experts agree that Abu Sayyaf is motivated more by political aspirations than religious ones and that they see themselves as fighters for Moro self-determination.
Despite the rise in terrorism across the globe over the past decade and the media’s subsequent focus on the goals and motivations behind these attacks, coverage of the ongoing insurgency in the Philippines has been curiously lacking. The day after the Battle of Tipo-Tipo, for example, The New York Times did not publish a front page story on the engagement, instead running a follow up piece to the Brussels attacks that occurred nearly three weeks prior. Just as many on social media have criticized western outlets for focusing their attentions solely on ISIS’s attacks in France and Belgium without covering in depth those in Turkey and Lebanon, so too should people acknowledge the wars being waged half a world away.
Although Abu Sayyaf’s motivations differ from the terrorist groups based in the Mediterranean Basin, the network has pledge fealty to ISIS and several of the terrorists killed last Sunday were of Middle Eastern descent, possibly indicating collaboration between the two. Terrorism neither affects just one group of people, nor does it grow in a void. The recent battle in the Philippines is just the latest development in a fifty year long civil war, and by informing one another about the subject matter, individuals can exert more pressure on their governments to combat these terror groups in the future.