At around 10:30 pm on Friday, 2 September, an explosive device detonated at a night market in Davao city, the Philippines, killing 14 and wounding 68, say multiple reports (The Telegraph, The Independent, and CNN.) The latest from police says that the bomb was made from a 60mm mortar round triggered by a cellphone.
By analyzing multiple photographs of the blast scene and triangulating that data with maps, Muir Analytics has pegged the blast point (or seat of the explosion) to within 60 feet in front of Millennium Park’s bust sculpture of Sam Ratulangi, the first Governor of Sulawesi Province, Indonesia. For further reference see the “t” intersection of Roxas Avenue and Padre Zamora Street. (Ironically, Governor Ratulangi’s most famous saying was, “Men lives to help others live.”)
The explosion happened in the outdoor massage area (mostly seated massages) in the Roxas Avenue night market. The area was packed with people sitting in chairs, a perfect killing zone for an IED left out in the open.
President Duterte declared a nationwide “state of lawless violence” in the wake of the attack. It is unclear what exact legal provisos this affords the president, but it is clear Duterte will increase intelligence, police, and military activity against the perpetrators in the coming days and weeks.
The mayor of Davao, Sara Duterte-Carpio, put a bounty of 2 million pesos ($42,975 USD) on those responsible, but specified that they must be brought in alive. The government wants the perpetrators for their intelligence value. (The mayor of Davao is President Duterte’s daughter. The vice mayor, Paulo Duterte, is President Duterte’s oldest son.)
Mayor Duterte-Carpio moreover on 5 September fired Davao’s police chief and the head of Task Force Davao, the Philippine military contingent that works jointly with Davao police to provide security for the city.
Regarding the investigation, the Inquirer reports that the government is looking for at least one man and two women suspected of planting the bomb. There might be a fourth male suspect involved as well. Witnesses say a man believed to be in his 40s had a massage and then hurriedly left, leaving his backpack behind. As people called out to the man about his backpack, it exploded. Two suspicious women nervously lingered in the area and also hurried away just before the blast.
While the Philippine government is not ruling out the involvement of drug gangs, it is mainly focusing its investigation on the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG,) primarily because ASG’s spokesperson, Abu Rami, claimed responsibility for the attack. Additionally, Davao’s vice-mayor, Paulo Duterte, said that ISIS-linked terrorists had threatened Davao before the attack, and ASG has pledged support to ISIS.
In other reporting, the Inquirer‘s management said Abu Rami called them and said the responsible party was an ASG ally called “Daulat Ul Islamiya.” Rami told the paper: “They are doing this to sympathize (with) our group and we are sending a message to President Rodrigo Duterte that all the Daulat throughout the country is not afraid of him.” Rami furthermore said that more attacks were coming, but they would stop “if Duterte will make our hadith his laws and he will seek conversion to Islam.”
This specific group, “Daulat Ul Islamiya,” is relatively unheard of in unclassified circles in the Philippines. It means “Islamic State.” This attack, then, is potentially ISIS’ first official attack in the Philippines.
Muir Analytics predicted the spread of ISIS in Southeast Asia in September 2014 in an article for UPI.
The IntelCenter lists five Philippine groups that have pledged support to, or joined, ISIS, including:
- Abu Sayyaf Group
- Ansar al-Khilafah
- Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)
- Bangsmoro Justice Movement (BJM)
- Jemaah Islamiyah (JI, Indonesia-concentrated, regional based)
Additionally, on 12 June 2016, Caleb Weiss, for The Long War Journal, detailed several other groups that were associated with ISIS in the revealing article, “Islamic State details activity in the Philippines.” They include:
- Ansar al Sharia
- Katibat Marakah al Ansar
- Islamic State in Lanao
- Jund al Tawhid (former ASG battalion)
- Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad (formerly al Qaeda associated group)
- various factions of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)
On 28 August 2016, another ISIS affiliated group called the “Maute group” staged a prison break of militants in Lanao del Sur, Marawi City, says The Independent. The Maute group is supposed to be a collection of former fighters from the MILF and other like groups. It is also reportedly associated with JI.
It should also be noted that ISIS, in a video released on 21 June 2016, declared war on the Philippines. In the video, presumably filmed in Syria, ISIS operatives beheaded three people deemed spies. Then, a man by the name of “Abu Oun al-Malysi” told Muslims all over Southeast Asia to join ISIS and fight in their home countries. “Kill the polytheists,” al-Malysi said. “Hit them with cars. You have knives, stab them in their chests. My brothers in Malaysia, launch your operations. We are here to support you,” he said.
Al-Malysi also placed special emphasis on the Philippines. He said if ISIS-inspired fighters could not make it to Syria, then they should instead travel to the Philippines and fight there. Al-Malysi announced that “Abdallah al-Filipini” was its chief commander in the Philippines.
When President Duterte assumed office, he acknowledged the political and economic hardships of minority ethnic and religious groups in the Philippines (and also communist-linked peoples,) and he attempted to negotiate with them. Duterte has hardened his position as negotiations have failed and/or been rejected. After ASG recently beheaded a kidnap victim, for example, the Inquirer said a cabinet member heard President Duterte say, “There’s no other option. These people are like germs, which must be eliminated.” Duterte reportedly directly addressed the ASG, saying, “You started this. I wanted to talk to you but you leave me with no choice.”
There are three main takeaways here followed by four critical questions.
First, ISIS’ war in the Philippines is now on. ISIS, by its own words and by the words of its affiliates like ASG, not only announced its policy to open up a new global front there, it also asserted its end goals and war methods.
Its main end goal is to subject the Philippines to Hadith-based sharia law – a Taliban-like version of sharia law – and force the conversion of its president. ISIS’ ways and means of war will be by individual attacks (aka, its leaderless revolution component,) and by organized groups (12 in all,) ideally, but not necessarily, operating under “Abdallah al-Filipini.”
Violence is to include all manner of military and improvised attacks. The latter include stabbings as in Abu Dhabi, vehicular homicides such as Nice, and other makeshift attack methods. Terrorists will look for opportunities to stage sensational attacks, so sophisticated/major bombings, kidnappings, and even Mumbai 2008/Paris November 2015 style raids in major metropolitan and resort areas cannot be ruled out.
The strategy described here is the standard ISIS approach, and the attack methods mentioned are all well within the proven capabilities of Philippine-based groups.
Second, while there have been score of attacks in the Philippines by ISIS affiliated organizations, since the Davao night market bombing was carried out by a group specifically calling itself the “Islamic State,” it can likely be considered ISIS’ first official attack in the Philippines. Muir Analytics will update/alter this conclusion if and when new information becomes available.
Third, because ISIS has declared war on the Philippines and attacks have begun, significant threat warnings are necessary, and physical security of potential targets should be increased nationwide. Terror attacks in violence prone regions such as Mindanao can almost certainly be expected, but the ISIS playbook also dictates distributed operations, or attacks both small and large scattered all over a country as is happening in France.
Metro areas such as Manila (including upscale areas such as Makati and Quezon City,) Davao, Cebu, and scores of other cities should be on alert. Small towns should not be considered immune, either – again, see a quick analysis of how ISIS is staging operations in France.
Hotels and resort areas such as, but not limited to, Palawan, Boracay, Sipaway, Lapu Lapu, etc. should be considered under threat.
Transport hubs (train stations, airports, ferry ports, etc.) and means of transit (airliners, maritime ferries, buses, trains, etc.) might also be targets.
The Philippines has seen attacks in all of these types of places and on all of these types of assets before. See various lists of terror attacks in the Philippines here, here, and here. Increased government and private security should be applied throughout.
In light of these developments, four questions arise.
One, will the war gain momentum and enlarge, or will it remain small scale? This depends on how many Muslims in the Philippines agree with ISIS’ ideology, an unforeseen factor at the moment.
Two, will the large rebel groups such as MILF and the Moro National Liberation Font reject or join ISIS? Or might they fracture – as is typical amongst Islamist groups in the Philippines – and bleed supporters to ISIS?
Three, will the communist New Peoples’ Army (NPA) take advantage of the ISIS problem and increase attacks to further its own cause? Dedicated and strong willed, the NPA is probably the most sophisticated rebel group in the Philippines, and recent peace talks with the government failed.
Four, might China also take advantage of the Philippines’ ISIS terrorism issue as an opportunity to seize yet more maritime territory away from Manila?
All of these threat warnings and strategic questions must be taken into account as the Philippines prepare to tackle this Islamist jihadist threat. It will be no easy task, and allied assistance from neighboring Southeast Asian countries and the United States will likely come into play if violence escalates to the extreme.
Sources and further reading:
The IntelCenter, “Islamic State’s 43 Global Affiliates Interactive World Map.”
“Davao City blast caused by cellphone-triggered IED,” CNN, 5 September 2016.
“Davao City bomb ‘similar’ to 2005 Ecoland IED – PNP chief,” Inquirer, 5 September 2016.
“Bloody Friday in Davao,” Inquirer, 4 September 2016.
“We are equally affected after Davao blast, Oro mayor says,” The Sun Star, 3 September 2016.
“Isis affiliate claims responsibility for Davao attack as Philippines President declares ‘state of lawlessness’,” The Independent, 3 September 2016.
“Isil-linked Abu Sayyaf claims Philippines bomb attack in president Duterte’s home city which killed 14,” The Telegraph, 3 September 2016.
“PNP chief: IED caused Davao blast,” Rappler, 3 September 2016.
“Davao blast survivors claim 2 women left ‘bomb’,” ABS-CBN News, 3 September 2016.
“Davao blast death toll rises to 14; 67 others hurt,” ABS-CBN News, 3 September 2016.
“Abu Sayyaf disowns Davao explosion, says ally was behind attack,” Inquirer, 3 September 2016.
“Philippines jailbreak: Isis supporters storm prison to free eight militants and 15 more inmates,” The Independent, 28 August 2016.
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