Brief: University Catholic Service Bombing Raises Fears of Abu Sayyaf Resurgence in the Philippines

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 24

The aftermath of the bombing of a Catholic Mass at Mindanao State University. (Source: Detroit Catholic)

Abu Sayyaf is considered a group in “demise” according to leading Philippine military officials (Benar News, July 31). The killing of key commander Mudzrimar “Mundi” Sawadjaan on his way to Sulu island from Basilan Province in early December only furthered this government narrative (SunStar, December 3). As one of the highest-ranking Abu Sayyaf commanders still at large and the mastermind of numerous major bombings, his elimination should be expected to reduce the risk of Abu Sayyaf attacks going forward. Mundi’s death also makes it harder for the group to distract from its ongoing struggles, as well as its attempt to establish a narrative about an Abu Sayyaf comeback. Nevertheless, the December 5 bombing of a Catholic church service at Mindanao State University, which killed four worshippers, is an actual success for Abu Sayyaf, and may overshadow its other struggles and the loss of Sawadjaan (ABS-CBN, December 5).

Islamic State’s (IS) claim of the university bombing demonstrates that IS still maintains a line of communication with Abu Sayyaf. This may be true, even if such operational ties are not at the same level as they were when Abu Sayyaf—in particular, the Maute Brothers—controlled the city of Marawi for months. In fact, Mindanao State University’s location in Marawi suggests that the city retains Abu Sayyaf cells, despite being ousted from the city in 2017. Moreover, an article published in IS’s flagship magazine, al-Naba, in early December highlighted the group’s presence in the Philippines. This indicates that IS is once again focusing on boosting its Abu Sayyaf allies (X/@ZamYusa, December 10).

On the other hand, the use of old footage in photographs within the al-Naba article could suggest that the recent IS propaganda about the Philippines is a cover for a lack of actual progress on that front. Other new photographic footage of Abu Sayyaf released by IS in December did show the group’s attacks, but with relatively few fighters, which suggests the group’s cells operate in small numbers. However, Abu Sayyaf was able to eliminate several members of their rival group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). MILF has joined the government in a security-political pact in recent years. One element of this involves combining forces to combat Abu Sayyaf (X/@war_noir, December 10).

The Philippines is still releasing funds to compensate victims who lost their homes and livelihoods during the 2017 Siege of Marawi, as well as to the families of civilians killed in the crossfire (Asia News Network, October 9). However, various development and infrastructure projects have been delayed, hindering a return to normalcy in Marawi (Rappler, July 31). So long as Marawi’s inhabitants remain in dire living conditions, there will be a favorable climate in the city for Abu Sayyaf and IS (Al Jazeera, October 23). There is also concern in the Philippines that alienated youths may act against and/or rise up against the government, even if they do not join either of the two named jihadist groups (Benar News, February 18, 2020). This highlights the need for the Philippine government to prioritize the revival of Marawi if they intend to eliminate Abu Sayyaf once and for all.