FRESH MILITANT VIOLENCE IN PHILIPPINES ILLUSTRATES CONTINUING JIHADIST PRESENCE
Armed members of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) kidnapped and killed nine Christian farmers in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao on December 24 (Manila Bulletin, December 27, 2015). On the same day, also in Mindanao, BIFF militants attacked Pigcawayan town using a range of weapons including 40mm mortars (The Standard [Philippines], January 2). The military was able to repulse the attack, leaving six militants and one official dead. The militants simultaneously launched at least two other largely unsuccessful attacks in the villages of Shariff Aguak and Linantangan; the latter attack reportedly involved up to 50 militants (Ibid). The attacks underline Mindanao’s status as a center of Islamist militant activity, despite many years of counter-insurgency work by the Philippines government in conjunction with the U.S.
The BIFF, which conducted the latest attacks, is a hardline splinter group of the Mindanao Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a more secular Muslim militant group. BIFF separated from MILF in 2008 after the latter reached an agreement with the government. The MILF and BIFF sporadically cooperate, however, as shown in the ‘Mamasapano incident’ in January 2015; the incident occurred in the form of a clash between members of these militant groups and the military, killing leading militant Zulkifli bin Hir as well as 44 members of the Philippines special forces (Rappler, February 3, 2015). Although the early 2015 Mamasapano clash disrupted government attempts to reach a political agreement with MILF in the hopes of ending longstanding separatist violence, the group has carried out few significant attacks in recent months (Inquirer, January 3). MILF has continued, however, to publicly push for the government to grant greater autonomy to the predominantly Muslim Bangsamoro region of western Mindanao, arguing that this is necessary to undercut popular support for more hardline separatist and Islamist groups (Philippines Star, December 24, 2015). The latest BIFF attacks show that the Islamist groups remains active and willing to target both civilians and troops in Mindanao province.
Unrelated violence in the Philippines involving al-Qaeda-affiliated Abu Sayyaf, which follows a global jihadist agenda unlike the relatively parochial BIFF and MILF, has also occurred during the last month. In particular, government troops launched raids against Abu Sayyaf in the isolated Sulu region, the group’s main stronghold, located to the south of Mindanao. Following five days of fighting, the government said that it had killed 26 Abu Sayyaf militants, mainly in and around Al Barka town, with three soldiers also reported to have been killed (Inquirer, December 20, 2015). If true, these losses are a significant setback for the group, which is believed to have only several hundred active fighters. Among those reportedly killed was a Malaysian bomb-maker by the name of Mohammed Najib, also known as Abu Anas, alleged to be one of the group’s key technical experts (The Star [Malaysia], December 17, 2015). According to Malaysian security sources cited by local media, 37-year-old Najib had a degree in electrical engineering from University of Malaya (UM) and was believed to have joined Abu Sayyaf in 2014. Najib has, however, more recently sworn his allegiance to the Islamic State, and reportedly has helped Malaysians travel to the Middle East to join the group (Ibid).
On January 4, soldiers disrupted what was potentially an Abu Sayyaf attempt to kidnap 26 locals in Ungkaya Baku, Basilan, where the organization has a known presence. The soldiers intercepted a bus full of passengers that gunmen had earlier commandeered at gunpoint (Philippines Star, January 4). Later that day, government forces claimed to have arrested a wanted militant known as Junni Jamala in Patikul town, Sulu (Philippines Star, January 4). The authorities said that the individual was believed to have been involved in an Abu Sayyaf unit specializing in assassinations. The government’s decision to take the fight to Abu Sayyaf on their “home turf” may indicate an increased tempo of counter-insurgency operations in the coming year.
PAKISTAN-BASED MILITANTS LAUNCH UNUSUAL ATTACK ON INDIAN AIRBASE
On January 2, Pakistan-based militants launched one of their most high-profile and significant attacks on India in recent years. Militants attacked Pathankot Air Force Station, located in northeast India, 20 miles from the border with Pakistan (New India Express, January 6). The attack involved six heavily armed gunmen who successfully infiltrated the highly-defended base in the early hours of the morning, disguised in Indian military uniforms. Patrolling guards intercepted them in a forested area within the base, sparking a shootout that killed four militants. The two remaining militants were unaccounted for within the base for almost 50 hours before being killed as a result of an intensive military operation involving attack helicopters. In total, seven members of the security forces were killed. Although the attackers apparently attempted to target Indian military helicopters and jets at the base, none were successfully attacked or damaged (India Today, January 4). However, Indian media has been critical of the time needed by the military to neutralize attackers in a relatively confined area of an airbase (The Hindu, January 4).
The United Jihad Council (UJC), a Kashmir-focused umbrella organization for a number of militant groups claimed credit for the attack, which it attributed to its so-called ‘Highway Squad’ (The Hindu, January 4). The UJC includes organizations such as the hardline Islamist Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Local Indian media quoted security sources as saying that the UJC claim may have been intended to ‘indigenise’ the attack in the hopes of distancing attackers from Pakistan and diverting attention from any Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed involvement (NDTV, January 4). The ultimate directors and planners of the attack remain unknown. The UJC and many of its consistent member groups are known to have close links to the Pakistan security services, particularly its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. It is therefore plausible that planning for the attack involved members of the Pakistan security establishment opposed to the recent rapprochement between Pakistan’s civilian government and India.
The Indian response to the incident was characterized by a series of missteps. In the first instance, a day before the attack, the gunmen hijacked a car driven by a plainclothes police superintendent. The police viewed the incident as criminally motivated, despite the police superintendent alleging that the attackers had been heavily armed and had made calls to Pakistan in Urdu (Zee News, January 5). Then, the policeman’s cook – who was also abducted in the incident – was reportedly beaten by policemen who refused to believe his story (The Hindu, January 4).
The attack on Pathankot airbase shows that Pakistan-based jihadists remain capable of carrying out plots in India. The attack also raises questions over the ability of the Indian military to protect even high profile military targets, both preventing such attacks from being successfully executed and acting decisively once such attacks are underway.