Fighting for Home

Fighting for Home

Combating terrorism imparts lessons to the Armed Forces of the Philippines

Lt. Col. Dr. Zulkarnain Haron

The security environment has become more challenging as the globalized world confronts myriad threats, foremost of which is terrorism — a constantly evolving threat. Terrorists learn to adapt to countermeasures, which are in place to prevent terror attacks and exploit advances in technology. Terrorists are becoming more lethal as they seek to diversify their tactics and targets, exhibiting greater flexibility and technical skill. They remain motivated mainly by local issues, but global forces and developments are amplifying their resentment and operational reach.

In view of these trends, cooperation in combating terrorism has never been more exigent. No country can confront the terrorist threat on its own, so multilateral cooperation is necessary. The United Nations and other regional bodies, as well as individual countries, have spearheaded efforts toward this end. There has been no shortage of ideas, but practical multilateral undertakings to combat terrorism remain in short supply. This is a reality that must be overcome to effectively manage and ultimately devastate the terrorist threat.

A Soldier looks through a military vehicle’s windshield cracked with bullet holes as his unit prepares to leave the battle against Islamic State-inspired militants in the southern Philippines. GETTY IMAGES

Terrorism and other transnational issues have no known boundaries, requiring nations to strengthen intelligence cooperation through our shared experiences in the interest of the Indo-Pacific’s long-term peace and stability.

Against this backdrop, the Philippines has learned lessons on terrorism and counterterrorism endeavors worth sharing.


Terrorism in the Philippines was born of ideas formed by a confluence of socio-cultural, economic and political factors that bred grievances and the influence of political ideologies, particularly those espoused by al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and, more recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which is also known as Daesh. Terrorist groups are the offshoot of secessionist movements that spawned breakaway organizations that shunned peace agreements with the government and adopted a hard-line stance in pursuit of their aspiration to violently overthrow the secular government and establish an Islamic state separate from the Republic of the Philippines and governed by Shariah, or Islamic law.

Experience in the Afghan War in the 1980s, which drew Islamic fighters from different countries, as well as educational and employment opportunities abroad under radical preachers, benefactors and employers facilitated interaction between and among radical and terrorist groups and personalities. These imbued a sense of brotherhood paving the way for them to lend support to one another.

Of late, the traditional and formative influence of al-Qaida and JI to local terror groups has been eclipsed by Daesh. Bolstered by its initial battlefield successes, robust propaganda machinery, online recruitment through social media and, most important, the appeal of the Daesh narrative about the creation of an Islamic community and the apocalyptic message of finally bringing to an end all enemies of Islam, thousands of foreign terrorist fighters traveled to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh — including about 700 to 1,000 from Southeast Asia.

Since the proclamation of its self-styled caliphate in the Middle East in June 2014, the Daesh network grew, with various radical groups worldwide pledging allegiance to it. Daesh acknowledged and formally linked with some of these groups with the formation of wilayats, or provinces.

In the Philippines, Basilan-based Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) subleader Isnilon Hapilon and his followers pledged allegiance to Daesh Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in July 2014. Aside from Hapilon’s group, other radical organizations and personalities in the Philippines also expressed their support for Daesh.


The presence of foreign terrorists in the Philippines is not a new phenomenon. However, by the mid-2000s, following the regional crackdown on JI, counterterrorism efforts by the government and the resumption of peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the presence of foreign terrorist fighters in the country started to wane. Most of the terrorist training camps in Mindanao have been closed, and several key foreign terrorist personalities were killed there or in their home countries.

However, developments following the emergence of Daesh in 2014 encouraged a new breed of foreign terrorists to travel to Mindanao and foster ties with local terror groups in solidarity with Daesh. There are currently seven identified foreign terrorist groups in the Philippines, and there are several others who are being monitored.

Foreign terrorists influence the direction of local terror groups toward achieving Daesh’s vision of a Southeast Asian territory and provide them the opportunity to obtain funding from foreign terrorist organizations. They finance the construction of mosques and schools (madrasahs) in Muslim communities as fronts to extend their stay in the country, eventually as a venue for radicalization and indoctrination efforts and as cover for terror-related efforts.

Philippine Marines fire mortar rounds toward enemy positions in Marawi, southern Philippines. GETTY IMAGES

Foreign terrorists propagate violent extremist teachings and facilitate the transfer of knowledge, such as making explosive devices and marksmanship training. More important, foreign terrorists helped unify local terrorist groups and their linkage with Daesh in the Middle East through the Katibah Nusantara, which is a grouping of Southeast Asians based in Syria.

Katibah Nusantara is a Southeast Asian military unit within Daesh, composed of Malay-speaking individuals, mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia, but also from the Philippines and Singapore. They received notoriety for being the perpetrators of the 2016 Jakarta attacks. It is made up of about 30 small groups.

A notable foreign terrorist in the Philippines is
Dr. Mahmud bin Ahmad, a Malaysian and Daesh’s chief recruiter. He is responsible for training and sending militants from Southeast Asia to join Daesh in Syria and Iraq. Mahmud plans to establish an official Daesh faction in Southeast Asia by uniting terror cells from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Consequently, Mahmud established the Katibah al-Muhajir (Battalion of Migrants) in the Philippines, composed mostly of Indonesians and Malaysians who were not able to join Daesh in the Middle East.

Generally, these foreign terrorist fighters use entry and exit routes in the country’s southern backdoor, in connivance with established local and foreign contacts. Other means are the conventional entry points, such as airports and seaports.


The Marawi siege was set to commence on the first day of Ramadan, which was May 26, 2017. The plan,
which was styled from Daesh’s occupation of Mosul in Iraq, entailed the conduct of simultaneous atrocities in various locations in Marawi, the only Islamic city in the country, and to undertake attacks in Christian communities in other cities. The perpetrators were hoping their political allies and the people of Marawi would support the takeover of the city. This, however, was pre-empted when an intelligence-led government operation raided the safehouse of Dawlah Islamiyah leaders, Isnilon Hapilon and the Maute brothers, Abdullah and Omarkhayam, in Marawi City on May 23, 2017.

The raid triggered a premature encounter between government forces and terrorists elements, most of whom had clandestinely infiltrated the city. To note, almost 700 armed elements, composed of Dawlah Islamiyah members, their relatives, other lawless elements and their supporters, attacked several establishments, took civilians as hostages and occupied key structures and areas in a portion of the city.

In the following weeks, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) operations neutralized several enemy strongholds, including snipers, enabling government forces to regain control of establishments previously occupied by the terrorists, culminating with President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of victory in October 2017.


The Marawi siege has become a significant learning experience, not only for the security forces but also for the government. In the five-month campaign to defeat the terrorists, security forces faced a new breed of terrorist fighters with different tactics. These terrorists made use of their knowledge of the battlefield to wage a protracted battle against government troops, particularly exploiting existing elements on the ground, such as vantage points, routes, fortified houses, networks of armed individuals and groups, the city’s resources, and the sympathy and support of some residents, for a prolonged guerrilla war on an urban terrain. The conflict, which cost the lives of a hundred Soldiers and police, underscores the need to enhance Philippine security forces’ capabilities, particularly in urban warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and signals intelligence.

The Philippine government also realizes the deep religious fervor that these terrorists possess, possibly stemming from radical indoctrination. Their religious zealotry transcended the ethnic divide and united these disparate groups, which was seen as early as 2016 and culminated in the Marawi siege. The initial perception that these terrorists only seek to sow fear and instability and are motivated by the prospect of gaining financially but incapable of mounting a large-scale attack has changed, with the presence of highly motivated fighters capable of seizing governed territories, inciting deep concern from the local and international community. From obscurity, they raised themselves to global infamy.

Although military operations have produced substantial gains, terrorism cannot be defeated by military force alone. Military actions and airstrikes are exploited by terrorists, turning the carnage and casualties of the conflict into a compelling narrative that seeks to erode the legitimacy of government operations, influence disenfranchised and affected residents to support the terrorists and justify their violent undertaking.

Inadequate or ineffective laws allow the development of terrorist organizations and the spread of their violent ideology. From the flawed anti-terror legislation to border control, immigration and security laws, the government watched the shaping of the physical and psychological environment through radical Islamic institutions. Authorities paid particular attention to religious and educational entities and systems (Islamic scholarship and education abroad); overseas labor systems; technological infrastructures; political and electoral systems; and, ultimately, local governance. The attempt to take over Marawi City to claim territory, based on Daesh’s strategy, attests to these incapacities.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters and local police walk through a marsh on their way to the front line of battle against extremists in Maguindanao province, Philippines. GETTY IMAGES

The rapid increase in the support and manpower of terrorist groups is relative to the social, political and economic context in the areas where they are prominent. A significant number of Muslim Filipinos have been consistently exposed to violence and conflict. These, coupled with a history of oppression and the lack of opportunities to improve their condition, render people vulnerable to joining terrorist groups to escape poverty and deprivation, especially because terrorist groups often promise economic gains in exchange for affiliation and support.

Poor governance further contributes to the development of precursor organizations and would-be terrorists. Such is the case in some areas in the southern Philippines where the proliferation of violent and criminal acts, justified by the “culture of the gun,” “rido” and “pintakasi,” have already become part of their way of life. More often, local officials do not have sufficient capacity to govern effectively, facilitating the mutation
of armed groups into terror organizations.

Another worrying trend could be the possible occurrence of sectarian clashes because the animosity between Christians and Muslims may be rekindled by the Marawi conflict. It is important, therefore, that a whole-of-society approach be employed to mitigate and even negate the impact of this conflict, especially on the victims, the internally displaced people and the relatives and communities of the deceased terrorists. This should serve as an important lesson from the country’s long history of Muslim secessionist wars.

The security situation in the Philippines, particularly in Mindanao, remains generally manageable. The terror threat remains confined to certain areas brought about by the firm resolve of the Philippine government to devastate terrorists’ capabilities and to effectively address these challenges by pursuing a workable peace with the MILF, which remains an important barrier to the spread of violent extremism, heightened vigilance, increased capabilities and logistics against criminal and terrorist activities, and active cooperation and collaboration with our regional and international allies.

However, considering that no country is safe from the threat of terrorism and violent extremism, and given the challenges to the Philippines’ counterterrorism efforts, nations must take multilateral cooperation even further by building counterterrorism capacities of governments. This is especially important in countering terrorism financing, immigration and border controls, crafting more effective laws to combat terrorism, mutual legal assistance and extradition. Such cooperation also boosts more vigilant monitoring of the recruitment of Daesh fighters through the Internet and social media platforms, and, counterradicalization and deradicalization.


The Philippine government is implementing comprehensive security responses to address the threat of returning foreign fighters and terrorism. Its counterterrorism campaign is anchored on state policies and the country’s anti-terror law, Republic Act 9372 or Human Security Act (HSA) of 2007, whose key provisions are being amended to add more teeth in effectively addressing the terror threat in the country. Through the HSA, a multiagency body known as the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) was created to implement the country’s anti-terrorism policy. Acting as the coordinator in the proper execution of all directives of the council is the ATC-Program Management Center (PMC), which is seeking to improve interagency coordination in combating terrorism.

The ATC-PMC recently launched the National Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism, which will address the different drivers of violent extremism. To note, efforts along this line are being carried out on the local level, particularly in Mindanao, by promoting a culture of peace and nonviolence.

The government also adopts legislative and legal measures to address criminal activities perpetrated by terrorist groups. These include Republic Act (RA) No. 10167, An Act to Further Strengthen the Anti-Money Laundering Law, and RA No. 10168, the Terrorist Financing Prevention and Suppression Act, which require banks and financial institutions to report transactions involving funds with possible links to terrorists and to freeze without delay the property or funds of designated terrorist individuals and entities.

Both the government and the AFP have remained steadfast in their policies of refusing to negotiate with terrorists or pay ransom. However, the kidnap for ransom (KFR) business is deeply ingrained in the economy of the triborder area with elements of military, law enforcement, local government and Moro National Liberation Front covertly working with KFR groups to keep the flow of funds coming.

The critical role of the AFP in counterterrorism centers on intelligence-driven, timely and precise military operations. In coordination with our police counterparts and other concerned agencies, the AFP has been employing all-source intelligence to identify, monitor and locate enemy targets and exploit the enemy’s critical vulnerabilities. Augmenting the collection of intelligence on key terrorist personalities is the implementation of the rewards system aimed at providing informants the incentive to report the presence of these personalities in their localities.

Greater intelligence fusion under the ambit of the AFP has contributed to better security operations that continue to yield positive results, with the neutralization of key terrorist leaders, kidnapping for ransom planners and bombers. We have captured several enemy encampments, denying terrorists access to safe havens, and seized weapons and equipment, degrading their armed capability and logistical support.

To enhance efforts to counter terrorist financing, AFP intelligence also became a member of the interagency Joint Terrorism Financial Investigation Group.

In support to the government’s whole-of-society approach, the AFP collaborates with government agencies in strengthening the Mindanao peace process to insulate Muslim communities from terror groups. Special community development projects were initiated in impoverished areas to address the people’s vulnerability to terrorist recruitment. The AFP supports peace-building initiatives, interfaith dialogue, counterradicalization and deradicalization initiatives and helps fast track the delivery of basic services to gain the trust and acceptance of the populace and dismantle the terrorist support network, which is deemed crucial in further decimating the terrorists’ strength and capability.

Moreover, the AFP promotes stronger bilateral, regional and international cooperation to enhance its capability in preventing, suppressing and eventually eliminating terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. This is through cooperation in the sharing of information and intelligence, and, enhancing confidence and capacity-building mechanisms.

AFP intelligence is strengthening cooperation on information-sharing on mutual security concerns through bilateral and multilateral intelligence exchange conferences and analyst-to-analyst exchanges with some of its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) counterparts and non-ASEAN countries as well. A significant breakthrough was the launching of the Philippine-initiated ASEAN Military
Analyst-to-Analyst Intelligence Exchange in 2011.

To improve its capability, the AFP jointly conducts exercises with its foreign military counterparts. It also receives technical support and training, particularly on urban warfare, from our foreign military counterparts.

Overall, the country’s counterterrorism efforts follow the framework of the whole-of-society approach, whose primary goals are eradicating the causes of disaffection and disgruntlement which could be exploited by radical elements, uplifting the socio-economic conditions of the most vulnerable sector of the society and propagating the culture of understanding and peace.

This story was adapted from a presentation that Malaysian Armed Forces Lt. Col. Dr. Zulkarnain Haron delivered during the Asia-Pacific Intelligence Chiefs Conference in Wellington, New Zealand, in September 2017. It has been shortened and edited to fit FORUM’s format.