Has new Mideast 'caliphate' spread its shadow to SE Asia?

opinion July 19, 2014 00:00

By Joseph Franco

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Video of Philippine Islamists pledging support to ISIS sparks fear of convergence between the groups

A clip of a purported Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) member pledging support to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) was uploaded to YouTube on June 24. The pledge was made in Arabic and played over jihadist-inspired graphics. The objective of the clip remains unclear. 
The month of June also saw major incidents involving the Philippines-based ASG. Top ASG leader Khair Mundos, who had a US$500,000 bounty on his head, was captured by police in Manila. Further arrests followed of ASG operatives associated with Mundos involved in plots to kidnap local businessmen in Zamboanga City, a Christian enclave in insurgency-hit Mindanao. Thrusting the ASG further into the limelight was a fierce skirmish that resulted in several deaths, including of a junior officer.
Some pundits claim that recent events indicate new links between the ASG and ISIS. And after ISIS declared itself a new “caliphate”, renamed the Islamic State (IS), concern heightened among security stakeholders in Southeast Asia – especially in countries where militant Islamist groups operate. The concern stems from the popular narrative of how terrorist organisations in the Philippines maintain alliances with groups outside Southeast Asia. 
While al-Qaeda elements provided seed funding in the early years of the ASG, radicalisation based on ideology does not factor heavily for the new ASG recruit. The demise of ASG founder Abdurajak Janjalani – arguably the only ideologue in its history – in 1998 stunted the group’s ideological development. No other ASG faction leader has produced something to complement or rival Janjalani’s one written tract, the “Jumaah Abu Sayyaf”. The few-dozen pages of the Jumaah pale in comparison to the voluminous body of literature produced by other extremist Islamist groups such as Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah.
In the milieu of Mindanao, recruits join the ranks of ASG factions for more practical motivations – mainly to earn ransom money. The ASG, specifically its Sulu-based faction, gained international notoriety when it kidnapped 21 Western tourists on Sipadan Island in 2000. Individuals and even entire clans quickly swelled the ranks of the ASG, expecting to benefit from the potential windfall. Once the estimated $20-million ransom was paid out, another cycle of financially motivated but transitory involvement in the ASG occurred.
For such opportunistic individuals, joining the ASG is a way to cash in on their possession of illicit firearms. Mindanao is a region beset with small arms proliferation, where firearm possession is part of a wider gun culture. Decades of conflict allowed the flourishing of a black market from captured or diverted government stockpiles of arms. In Sulu alone, international NGOs peg the number of illicit firearms at 100,000. Mindanao’s illicit arms surplus had in fact been a major source for Islamist and Christian militias operating in Indonesia’s Sulawesi and Ambon. The relationship between small arms smugglers on both sides of Philippine-Indonesia border had been largely transactional, crossing sectarian lines.
The spate of ASG kidnappings in Eastern Malaysia between late 2013 and early 2014, viewed according to this more practical perspective, reveals the group’s weakness as an ideological movement. ASG did not even attempt to portray the kidnappings as political acts, such was their preoccupation with profit-making.
Lack of online presence
The localised nature of ASG goes hand-in-hand with its lack of online presence, which casts more doubt on assertions of its links to extra-regional groups like ISIS. To date, the ASG has remained an offline organisation. A 2014 Australian study of “neo-jihadism” in the Philippines followed the activities of three Facebook pages, claiming them as evidence of the online presence of Islamist groups in the Philippines. However, the study itself admits that the pages are mostly passive repositories of links to other jihadist websites. 
A simple digital ethnography reveals that the audience of all the pages combined amounted to only 15,000 Facebook “likes” – including fake and duplicate accounts – originating from a single urban centre in Mindanao. The number is dismal considering the Philippines’ stature as the “social media capital of the world” with nearly a third of its 100 million-strong population active on Facebook. Moreover, the pages were arguably run by “jihobbyists” – an Internet subculture of young men interested in Islamist content but having neither capabilities nor intent to engage in violence. 
The tepid presence of Philippine-based militants is in stark contrast to the more active online jihadists found in the Western context where notorious online activist such as Australian Musa Cerantonio propagate global Islamist ideology despite not being officially part of groups like ISIS. 
Curiously, Cerantonio is currently reportedly seeking refuge in “the mountains of Sulu”, though that claim remains unconfirmed. Even if it were true, the appeal of the likes of Cerantonio owes much to their take on armed jihad as an individualistic duty – which does not align with the more communitarian social structures of Mindanao. Neither would theological arguments gain traction in communities involved with the ASG, where financial motivations take priority.
The ASG remains a localised movement. Its subscription to the jihadist narrative is passive and superficial. It has yet to make its mark in the online world and is unlikely do so in the near future. Thus, state responses should always be aware and be cautious of ascribing ideological motivations to what essentially are socio-economic issues. 
The Philippines’ social and economic milieu creates distinct dynamics that may be wholly different even from close neighbours like Indonesia or Malaysia.
Joseph Franco is an associate research fellow with Singapore’s Centre of Excellence for National Security, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.