Christian Converts and Islamic Terrorism in the Philippines

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 8

For several years now, the Republic of the Philippines has attracted the attention of regional and Western authorities as an emergent hub—both logistically and operationally—for cross-border jihadist extremism in Southeast Asia. Most of this focus has been directed toward the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), largely on account of the group’s past historical ties to Osama bin Laden, persistent rejection of any form of religious compromise and/or cohabitation and recent attempts to re-establish itself as a credible and integrated Islamist force (between 1998 and 2001, the group appeared to be motivated more by financial greed than religious fervor). While the ASG is certainly a cause for concern, the activities of extremist Christian converts organized under the auspices of the Rajah Solaiman Revolutionary Movement (RSRM) may represent an even greater threat, not least because of their increasing interaction with militants from the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyya (JI) movement.


The RSRM represents a highly fanatical fringe element of Balik Islam (BI)—a legal movement of Christian converts (or reverts as they like to be known) to the Muslim faith. Official records estimate BI’s membership at around 200,000 (out of a total Islamic population of some 6.5 million)—20,000 of whom live in traditionally Catholic Luzon (which makes the movement the seventh largest of the Philippines’ local Muslim tribes) (The Manila Times, November 17, 2003; Christian Science Monitor, November 28, 2005).

It is thought that the RSRM was established around 2002 with the ostensible aim of creating a theocratic Islamic state across the Philippines—supposedly to rectify what it views as the artificial influx of Catholic and Christian influences that had been first introduced by the Spanish and then consolidated under the United States. The group is believed to have a special commando unit that is responsible for carrying out acts of urban sabotage and terrorism and is allegedly financed by Saudi money that is channeled through charitable fronts located in Mindanao (The Manila Times, April 12, 2004).

The reputed commander of the RSRM is Ahmed Santos, who was born Hilarion del Rosario Santos III into a landed and squarely Catholic family in 1971 and who took the Islamic testimony of faith 20 years later while working in Riyadh (The Manila Times, November 17, 2003). Also acting as the ostensible and self-defined leader of BI, Santos was arrested in October 2005 and charged with inciting rebellion against the Philippine state (which is a non-bailable offense in the Philippines). He is currently being held in a maximum security facility located at the military’s sprawling Camp Aguinaldo complex in Manila. Local sources maintain that while Santos almost certainly remains the undisputed leader of the RSRM, responsibility for the day-to-day running of the group now falls to Sheikh Omar Lavilla (formerly known as Reuben Lavilla)—a shadowy figure with a degree in chemical engineering who is thought to have participated in the Chechen jihad (author interviews with security and intelligence officials, Manila, March and November 2005).

The RSRM is small, probably constituting no more than 50-100 hard-core activists. Despite its size, the group has demonstrated both a willingness and ability to “strike well above its weight,” and is now known to have played an important role in some of the more high-profile assaults and plots that have taken place in the Philippines since 2004. The most notable include:

– The 2004 partial sinking of SuperFerry 14, which with 116 fatalities remains the most destructive act of maritime terrorism in the modern age.

– Synchronized bombings in February 2005 that targeted civilian-centric venues in Manila, General Santos City and Davao City.

– A multi-dimensional plan discovered the following month that was allegedly to have involved truck bomb attacks against either the U.S. or Saudi embassies in Manila; mass and light rail transit tracks and stations across the capital region; and nightclubs, restaurants and other venues popular with Western businessmen and tourists in the central commercial district of Makati (author interviews with security and intelligence officials, Manila, March 2006).

For a number of reasons, these incidents generated considerable concern throughout the Philippines as well as among Western government officials and intelligence analysts: they were deliberately calibrated to maximize civilian casualties; they demonstrated that decisive acts of terrorism could be carried out well beyond the Mindanao theater; and at least with regards to the March 2005 plot, they underscored an operational focus on large-scale vehicular-borne devices—a first in the Philippine context—to destroy targets that would have direct implications for wider international interests.

What appears to have especially worried counter-terrorism officials, however, is the fact that the attacks also involved militants associated with JI. More specifically, there is a growing fear that the Indonesian-based movement is now moving to expedite bombings across the Philippines archipelago via the RSRM, which, for its part, appears to be actively prepared to facilitate such endeavors (author interviews with security and intelligence officials, Manila, March and November 2005).

The Rationale Behind the Presumed RSRM-JI Nexus

There are at least four factors that would seem to have salience in terms of explaining the emergent nexus noted above. First, many BI members (the movement from which the RSRM is drawn) are either based in or have intimate knowledge of Manila. This facet makes Christian converts uniquely suited for carrying out attacks that are able to impact directly on the seat of national political, economic and cultural power. JI would presumably have a strong interest in availing itself of such a conduit given the Philippines’ overwhelming Catholic character, its universal endorsement of capitalism and liberal democracy and strong defense and security relationship with the United States (all of which symbolize much of what the group is violently opposed to).

Second, and very much related to the above, because RSRM cadres do not originate from ethnic Moro Muslim backgrounds, they are less likely to be identified as Islamist terrorists. Again, this characteristic trait is useful insofar as it provides greater functional and operational latitude for conducting indiscriminate, civilian-oriented attacks in non-Islamic areas. There is good reason to speculate that this has been an equally strong motivating driver behind JI’s interest in instituting ties with the RSRM, not least because of the negative backlash it has suffered in Indonesia as a result of bombings that have left large numbers of Muslims killed or maimed (notable cases in point being the attacks on the U.S.-owned Marriott Hotel in 2003 and the Australian Embassy in 2004).

Third, and directly related to the above two points, it would be extremely difficult for JI to act independently in the Philippines given the enormous ethnic and linguistic diversity that exists across the Republic. According to one defense official, because people look, speak and even smell differently from one province to the next, outsiders attempting to infiltrate and operate in local communities under their own auspices would almost certainly stand out and be quickly exposed. Government sources in Manila contend that JI readily appreciates this reality and accepts the necessity of extending its operational and logistical presence in the country primarily by working through homegrown militants that are both known and trusted in their respective regions.

Finally, since the RSRM is made up of converts to Islam, the group arguably has more to prove in validating the credibility of its jihadist credentials. Working in conjunction with an organization that is broadly accepted as presently posing the greatest Islamist threat in Southeast Asia satisfies this requirement and, in so doing, provides a visible ideological fulcrum that can be used to further radicalize existing cadres, mobilize additional recruits, and “positively” sway undecided “fence-sitters” (author interviews with security and intelligence officials, Manila and Singapore, November 2005).

The RSRM and the Question of Future Suicide Terrorism in the Philippines

One additional major question that is occupying the minds of security officials in the Philippines—local, regional and international—is whether the RSRM will emerge as an operational conduit for the execution of JI suicide strikes in the Philippines. As noted, the group is composed of converts to the Muslim religion who are keen to actively and visibly demonstrate their commitment to the militant Islamist cause. One of the defining hallmarks of this ideological movement—and one that is heavily imbued in JI—is a commitment to martyrdom, both as a highly effective force equalizer and, more intrinsically, as the most visible way of establishing a true pioneering vanguard to champion the Islamic faith. Speculation is now mounting that the RSRM, in an effort to burnish its jihadist credentials, will take it on itself to further JI’s wider Southeast Asian struggle by either assisting Indonesians in carrying out suicide strikes in the Philippines or conducting such attacks independently. While the culture of militant martyrdom has yet to take hold in the Philippines, it is a potential contingency that cannot be dismissed and, should it occur, is one that many commentators believe will manifest through the RSRM.

Indeed, such a process may already have begun to take place. According to intelligence sources in Manila, during interrogation at Camp Aguinaldo, Santos declared that a small cell of RSRM members have not only affirmed the utility and legitimacy of martyrdom, but have also pledged to carry out suicide strikes should it ever be requested of them. If this is in fact the case, there is every possibility that the Philippines will decisively transplant Indonesia as the main operational center for JI jihadist terrorism in Southeast Asia (author interviews with security and intelligence officials, Manila, November 2005 and January 2006).