TINYg Supporters Falanx Assynt Predictions and Analysis – Philippines


Jihadists will stage further attacks to disrupt efforts to improve stability in South following landslide vote for new Muslim autonomous region

Militants’ ability to conduct major attack in Sulu does not indicate increased ability to operate on mainland Mindanao, containing risk over 6 February plebiscites

Attacks will continue in longer term, with jihadists seeking to stir up religious tensions and provoke heavy-handed military response


Twenty people were killed and more than 100 injured in a double bomb attack at a Catholic cathedral in Jolo, Sulu Province, which lies in the south-western Sulu archipelago, on 27 January. The first explosion occurred inside the church during Sunday mass, and the second targeted responders outside the building. Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility via its Amaq news agency the following day, but the Government blamed a pro-IS faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). The blasts came two days after the election commission ratified the results of plebiscites held in Muslim-majority areas, where 88.57% voted to replace the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) with a new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR). Sulu Province voted against the move, likely because former ARMM Governor Nur Misuari, who remains influential in the island, fears his Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) will be sidelined in the new region. Sulu will nonetheless join the BAR because the current ARMM provinces voted as one unit.

The BAR’s establishment was a condition of a peace deal the Government reached with the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2014 and aims to improve security by addressing longstanding grievances among Muslims in the South. Citizens in the new region – which will expand to include Cotabato City and any contiguous areas that vote on 6 February to join it – will now begin a three-year transition process, including electing a legislature to administer the BAR. MILF will almost certainly dominate the new body, and this will have led to Misuari’s concerns about the MNLF’s likely loss of influence, impacting the Sulu vote.

Jihadist militants also fear losing support and recruits if the BAR succeeds in reducing the sense of marginalisation among local Muslims and so we warned last time that militant groups would seek to stage attacks around the plebiscites. It is therefore credible that a pro-IS faction of ASG, whose stronghold is in the Sulu archipelago, carried out the attack. Most recent ASG operations have focused on targeting the security forces, but bombing a church will have been intended to maximise media coverage, in part by appealing to IS’s central leadership which frequently strikes religious sites, and prompt the Amaq claim. For its part, IS is keen to maintain ties to jihadists in the Philippines, which form its ‘East Asia Province’, in order to demonstrate to its global supporters that it remains active. However, the claim does not suggest that IS’s central leadership has any direct involvement in jihadist activities in the Philippines.

Jihadists will remain determined to carry out attacks around the second round of plebiscite voting. However, ASG and other militant groups have limited ability to conduct major operations in the provinces of mainland Mindanao where the polls will be held, namely Lanao del Norte and six municipalities of North Cotabato. The Government’s crackdown since the five-month Marawi City conflict in 2017 has helped constrain the capabilities of pro-IS groups there, especially since army operations have been focused on mainland Mindanao rather than the remote Sulu islands, in order to prevent instability spreading to other areas of the region. A major attack in the voting areas is therefore unlikely. In the longer term, jihadists will be aware that the new region will only improve stability if it enjoys popular legitimacy and delivers effective governance. Militants will therefore attempt to derail its ability to achieve this through further attacks, in the hope of stirring Muslim-Christian tensions that will boost radicalisation and also provoking aggressive reprisals by the Army, which will stoke further local resentment towards Manila.

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