Philippines Security Forces Halt Islamic State Attacks after Mindanao Bus Bombing
On November 27, Philippine police conducted an operation at an Islamic State in Southeast Asia Province (ISEAP) hideout in Maguindanao, Mindanao and killed two ISEAP members (akhbaralaan.com, November 28). The operation served as a reminder that despite setbacks since losing control of Marawi in 2017, ISEAP continues to pose a threat in the country. For example, only weeks before that operation, on November 6, Philippine security forces blamed ISEAP for a bus bombing in Sultan Kudarata, Mindanao that killed 11 persons.
At the same time, however, the military asserted the bus bombing may have been a “diversionary tactic” by the pro-IS Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), who they believe sought to ease pressure on ISEAP by attacking an urban area (benarnews.org, November 7). These pro-IS BIFF fighters had already been targeted by air strikes in May, which caused its “Abu Torayfie” faction in the marshlands of Datu Salibo, Mindanao to flee their base in that area. The air strikes also led to the displacement of hundreds of civilians (Mindanews.com, May 23). Similarly, the bus bombing came after a series of successful counter-insurgency operations against ISEAP and its sympathizers in the country. Such operations included:
- On May 4, the security forces arrested an ISEAP recruiter and weapons supplier in Zamboanga (pna.gov.ph, May 4).
- On June 7, the military killed ISEAP’s spokesman, known as Abu Huzaifah, in a special operation in Maguindanao (benarnews.org, June 7).
- On August 16, three ISEAP members were arrested in Lanao del Sur. Their weapons were seized, and information from them led to the arrest of another family member who was a part of ISEAP (pna.gov.ph, August 2).
Given the pressure ISEAP is under from the Philippine security forces, the group is also struggling to maintain consistent communication with Islamic State (IS)’s centralized media apparatus. Many of the group’s photographic releases this year have been published online by pro-IS accounts, but not necessarily by IS itself. These images further reveal group members in camouflage uniforms in Mindanao’s jungles and often display weapons captured from Philippine soldiers (Twitter/@war_noir, November 25).
The lack of any pledge to the new IS caliph from ISEAP, who was announced at the end of November, also indicates an estrangement of ISEAP from the organizational center, especially compared to where ISEAP was during the 2017 conquest of Marawi (aljazeera.com, November 30). At that time, ISEAP became the highlight of IS media because the group acquired territorial control in Marawi, albeit with it lasting for only half a year until Philippine security recaptured the town through intense urban combat (mindanews.com, December 31, 2017).
One final headwind against ISEAP is the decreasing effectiveness and even near extinction of IS cells elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and especially Indonesia. This means that at a time when IS central lacks resources to support ISEAP, the group will also receive few foreign fighters or financial or other logistical support from within the region (scmp.com, June 21). ISEAP and its sympathizers will continue to carry our sporadic attacks like the bus bombing in urban areas or ambushes in the jungles on Philippine troops to pilfer weapons, if not also the occasional kidnapping-for-ransom, but the chance for a “second Marawi” elsewhere in Mindanao is increasingly a remote possibility.
ISWAP Upends Nigerian Military in Mallam Fatori and Reaffirms Loyalty to the New Caliph
On November 22, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) raided two military bases in Mallam Fatori. This town, which is located on the border between Nigeria and Niger, has become a hub for humanitarian workers and displaced people in northeastern Nigeria. In addition, it plays a strategic role as a border town and “last outpost” between Nigeria and its northern neighbor (humanglemedia.com, January 9, 2021).
After the raids, ISWAP released photos of its fighters, with some in rag-tag and inconsistently colored uniforms burning the bases (Twitter/@secmxx, November 24). In previous years, ISWAP fighters had appeared somewhat more professionally uniformed in attack videos and photos. However, their appearance in these photos might reflect the group’s reintegration into its ranks of former Abubakar Shekau loyalists, who were typically more disheveled in appearance than ISWAP (humanglemedia.com, February 8). The reintegration occurred after an ISWAP offensive led to the excessively brutal Shekau detonating an explosive to kill himself, which allowed his fighters the option to join Islamic State (IS)’s global project and the comparatively more moderate ISWAP side (vanguardngr.com, May 21, 2021).
ISWAP’s enhanced capabilities as a result of fielding these former Shekau loyalists could also explain the group’s success in attacking Mallam Fatori; previously ISWAP had enjoyed years of success in attacking targets across Borno State, with the exception of the Mallam Fatori outpost. For example, both in December 2021, when Borno governor Babagana Zulum visited the town, and again this year in May, the Nigerian army disrupted attempted ISWAP attacks in Mallam Fatori (vanguardngr.com, December 3, 2021; punchng.com, May 6). According to ISWAP’s own claims, which are consistent with media reports, 20 soldiers were killed at the first base and 10 more soldiers were killed at the second base in Mallam Fatori, and military vehicles were burnt and pilfered in both raids (saharareporters.com, November 23). ISWAP’s ability to overrun these bases—even if they were not able to hold them—represents one of the only times since early 2021 that the group has manage to overrun a Nigerian military base in Borno (humanglemedia.com, March 2, 2021). The morale boost to ISWAP of these attacks, especially in the formerly impenetrable Mallam Fatori, is significant for ISWAP.
The Nigerian air force unsurprisingly retaliated against ISWAP in the days after the raids in an attempt to ensure no follow-up raids would occur (blueprint.ng, November 29). ISWAP fighters had been hiding in their vehicles under trees in the bush around Mallam Fatori. However, videos released by the Nigerian air force indicated several of those technicals were struck and ISWAP fighters were forced to flee on foot and retreat towards hideouts along Lake Chad (spyetv.ng, November 29).
Despite ISWAP advertising the Mallam Fatori attacks as successes and the group’s continued attacks throughout Borno, the group’s attempted expansion in northwestern Nigeria and cooperation with the bandits there has stalled, with an ISWAP liaison to that region reportedly arrested in early November (vanguardngr.com, November 6). Likewise, despite several attacks in southern Nigeria earlier this year, ISWAP has not produced anything more dramatic in that region (Terrorism Monitor, October 7). Therefore, for the time being, ISWAP continues to remain operationally most effective in Borno and generally confined to that state and its surrounding areas.
ISWAP’s most prominent feature, however, is not even necessarily its domestic insurgent successes, but rather its place within the global IS organizational structure. When IS announced its new caliph and provinces began releasing photographs of their pledges, six came from ISWAP alone, including Banki, Sambisa, Lake Chad, Kirenawa, Yobe (“al-Farouq”), and “central Nigeria” (Twitter.com/@G88Daniele, December 2). This attested to ISWAP being the main propaganda pillar of what remains of IS’s global presence outside of the Middle East and South Asia.