Foiled attack on Bohol resort island indicates pro-Islamic State units’ growing ability and intent to strike beyond southern strongholds
The authorities said they had thwarted a major attack, most likely targeting the tourism industry, on 11 April, when they struck Islamic State (IS) militants in the remote town of Inabanga, on the resort island of Bohol, Central Visayas. The resultant clashes, which included a Government air strike, left four security personnel, two civilians and at least five militants dead. The Army said the assailants were members of breakaway pro-IS factions of Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), including the Maute Group and the allied Ansar al-Khilafa Philippines, as well as IS supporters who remain part of ASG. Manila further explained that they had arrived a day earlier in three small motor boats from ASG’s southern stronghold of Sulu. The incident took place just two days after the US Embassy warned its citizens of an “unsubstantiated yet credible” threat that militants would attempt to carry out kidnappings and other attacks on Bohol.
Jihadist activity has so far been overwhelmingly concentrated in the Muslim-dominated South. However, the Army’s sustained counter-insurgency campaign there has limited jihadists’ ability to expand their presence beyond remote jungle areas. IS fighters therefore likely sought to stage a one-off, high-profile attack outside the South to relieve the intense pressure on them by forcing the authorities to divert military resources elsewhere and to raise their profile in order to recruit from rival factions. The operation may also have been timed to disrupt a major ASEAN conference, which began on Bohol on 18 April, and a successful attack would have embarrassed President Duterte. Pro-IS groups believe that publicly humiliating Duterte will provoke him into retaliating against the wider Muslim population, and this will in turn fuel radicalisation. Indeed, on 19 April Duterte said that he was considering “invading” Jolo to “finish off” militancy on the island; any mass civilian casualties caused by such an escalation would almost certainly boost IS recruitment efforts.
In addition, the assailants’ ability to reach central areas of the Philippines reflects increasing levels of cooperation between the pro-IS units of ASG, Maute Group and Ansar al-Khilafa. IS also views the Philippines as the most attractive location to expand in South East Asia due to the protracted Muslim insurgency in the South and the presence of established jihadist groups there. IS may therefore dispatch experienced militants from the Middle East to the country in order to boost the capabilities of local pro-IS groups. This may explain the presence of suspected IS members Hussein al-Dhufairi, a Kuwaiti national, and his Syrian wife Rahaf Zina, in Bonifacio Global City, Metro Manila, where they were arrested last month (see today’s Kuwait Report).
However, a greater IS presence will also encourage more established groups, including pro-al-Qaeda ASG units, to step up their own violence to prevent defections to IS. For instance, al-Qaeda-aligned ASG members likely carried out the 13 April beheading of a fisherman in Sulu to demonstrate that its fighters are also willing to kill civilians, as the Bohol assailants appeared likely to do. Meanwhile, pro-IS ASG factions such as Maute Group will attempt further high profile attacks, particularly against civilians, tourists and Christian sites, potentially in major cities such as Manila, Cebu and Davao, and feasibly on Palawan, to boost their credibility among regional jihadists, attract further Al-Qaeda defectors and provoke an indiscriminate over-reaction by the Government. However, their currently limited capabilities mean that major attacks outside the South will be infrequent.