Defections and Leadership Losses are Leading to Abu Sayyaf’s Demise
Philippine army operations are further eroding the threat from Abu Sayyaf at the same time as Indonesian security forces are neutralizing remnants of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Mujahidin Indonesia Timor (MIT). If these trends continue, terrorism in Southeast Asia will largely become an obsolete threat. This does not mean future attacks will not occur, but major bombings, such those in Bali, Indonesia in 2002 and 2005 or at cathedrals in Jolo, Philippines in 2019, or the territorial control achieved by JI-affiliated militants in Aceh in 2010 or Abu Sayyaf-affiliated and Islamic State (IS)-loyal militants like in Marawi, Philippines in 2017 will be unlikely to reoccur. Rather, the ascending conflicts in Southeast Asia are to be found southern Thailand and Myanmar, which involve Muslims on the militants’ side, albeit without any explicit jihadist agenda in both theaters.
One of the latest successes in the Philippine army’s counter-terrorism efforts has been the October killing of Alal Jil Ismin Jupakkal in Sulu. He was wanted for years for conducting robberies and other crimes that financially supported Abu Sayyaf. Jupakkal could have surrendered, but instead he began shooting at police along with four fellow militants, who, unlike Jupakkal, were able to escape. (New Straits Times, October 17).
In contrast to Jupakkal, other Abu Sayyaf members in Basilan, including one who was only 14-years old and another who was 20-years old, did surrender to the Philippine National Police (PNP) in September (pna.gov.ph, October 6). They had been part of the cell led by Furuji Indama, but after Indama’s death in October 2020, they appear to have become disaffected and ultimately decided to leave the group (philstar.com, October 30, 2020). As part of the government’s amnesty program, they were then offered a chance for employment and other forms of social support. With other Abu Sayyaf leaders also being killed by the Philippine army in recent months, including Indang Susukan in Zamboanga, Mindanao, who had conducted at least six kidnappings for ransom in Sabah, Malaysia, more defections are likely. As a result, Abu Sayyaf’s finances will only become further depleted (thestar.com, October 9).
Leadership losses and increasing numbers of defections are not the only headwinds working against Abu Sayyaf. On September 28, the army also chased Abu Sayyaf militants from a Basilan hideout and uncovered machine guns and other gun parts as well as the now government-allied Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) uniforms, which Abu Sayyaf probably used as disguises (manilatimes.net, September 28). As Abu Sayyaf has come under increased pressure, it has also attempted to embed its own fighters in the Philippine army as double-agents (manilatimes. net, October 15). However, this is a mostly desperate measure and is unlikely to lead to demoralization in army ranks or any letdowns in counter-insurgency operations unlike when, for example, the Taliban conducted “green-on-blue” attacks on U.S forces in Afghanistan.
If anything, “counter-terrorism” efforts by the Philippine army will only increase against Abu Sayyaf in the coming period. The army’s battle against the Communist New People’s Army (NPA) suffered a setback when a court in Manila declared that the NPA’s political wing could not be labeled a “terrorist” group because although it commits violence, it primarily seeks to achieve its goals through advocacy and other political means (gmanetwork.com, September 22). While the army will still combat the NPA, Abu Sayyaf will remain the primary—and officially the main—terrorist group that the Philippine government and army seek to defeat.
Papuan Separatists Continue Infrastructure Attacks in Indonesia
In an escalation of a now decades-long insurgency that has increased its tempo in recent years, on September 30, the Papuan separatist insurgent group, West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), which is the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), claimed it killed four Indonesian “intelligence officers” (bdnews24.com, September 30). However, according to Indonesian security forces, 12 construction workers were also killed in the attack (news.cn, September 30).
Whatever the exact victim total was, the attack reflects a trend of the TPNPB conducting attacks on infrastructure in Papua. This is intended to disrupt the Indonesian government’s plan to economically develop the province, which, according to TPNPB, would further the government’s legitimacy and enable it to win more popular support. In a previous attack in March, for example, the TPNPB killed eight telecom workers, who were developing the province’s communication infrastructure (benarnews.org, March 3). The group then used the attack to warn the Indonesian government against granting approvals to foreign companies to operate gold mines in Papua, which the OPM alleges is harmful to the environment while providing little benefit to the indigenous people living in Papua province.
In response to these developments, the Indonesian governments has renewed its partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to realize an economically “prosperous Papua region,” which would consequently reduce recruitment to TPNPB (id.embassy.gov, October 19). On the security side, Indonesia will continue accepting Australian assistance in military training, including conducting joint exercises, as well as the provisions of weapons to the Indonesian military (aljazeera.com, October 19). Both the U.S and Australia initially assisted Indonesia when they formed the special counterterrorism detachment known as Densus-88, which has successfully uncovered a series of JI plots and arrested or killed many of its key leaders (Terrorism Monitor, August 12, 2011).
What could undermine this Australian, and potentially U.S, support to Indonesia are, however, the accusations of Indonesian human rights abuses in Papua. Complicating matters for Indonesian counter-insurgency forces, for example, is the suspicion that certain villages in conflict areas raise money for the TPNPB and hide weapons for the TPNPB, allowing it to conduct attacks (antaranews.com, October 28). Thus, the Indonesian security forces must distinguish between TPNPB-supporting civilians and other “ordinary” civilians, which is a difficult task. When mistakes are made, the security forces risk alienating civilians and subsequently prompting them to support the TPNPB even where that support did not exist in the first place.
In the South Pacific region, Indonesia has used a combination of diplomatic influence and financial assistance, including building a football stadium in the Solomon Islands, to blunt criticism of its human rights record in Papua (benarnews.org, October 7). Nevertheless, the OPM has attempted to link its cause with other social justice movements popular in the West, such as Black Lives Matter, to garner popular support for its cause and put pressure on Indonesia to relinquish Papua or at least withdraw troops from the province and allow greater autonomy for the indigenous inhabitants living there (thewire.in, July 10, 2020). The OPM and TPNPB, therefore, function as a typical political and militant wing of an insurgency, with each putting pressure on Indonesia diplomatically and militarily. Notwithstanding their efforts, the OPM and TPNPB’s cause still remains peripheral on the international stage while Indonesian influence and infrastructural development of the region is steadily increasing.