The Lessons of Terrorism in Mindanao Part II

August 8, 2017

This is part 2 of the story – See part 1 here.

By Dan Steinbock

The Ramawi terror did not come out of the blue. It is a result of decades of economic polarization, political exclusion, neglect of terrorism by the Aquino administration, and ISIL’s collapse in Syria and Iraq. If the stabilization fails now, terror will spread beyond Mindanao.

Neglected domestically, “geopoliticized” internationally, Mindanao was seized by the Jihadists to establish a foothold and regionalize terrorism across Southeast Asia.

In the process, the role of Asia and the Philippines have become central to the Jihadi world. The most recent issue of Rumiyah, the ISIL online magazine used for propaganda and recruitment, features a cover story about “The Jihad in East Asia” (in Caliphate parlance that connotes Southeast, South and East Asia). Typically, it portrays the Marawi fight as a struggle between good (ISIL) and evil (“Filipino crusaders”), which derives from decade-old efforts of the Abu Sayyaf Islamic movement “to open a jihad front there.”

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Clearly, the strategic objective of the Rumiyah is to recruit new cadres of militants to launch multiple terror fronts in Asia. But why have the ISIL and its precursors pushed Mindanao as the key destination?

Mindanao’s economic suffering

Geographically, Mindanao is often seen as the Philippines’ “food basket.” Historically, it has witnessed colonial violence by Spain, America and Japan; several communist insurgencies; armed Moro separatist movements, and now terrorist attacks.

Along with Palawan, the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is the only area in the Philippines with significant Muslim presence. In 2012, the struggle for greater autonomy in the ARMM deteriorated with President Aquino’s failure to establish the Bangsamoro.

ARMM is a distinct territory, with its own culture and identity and has served as home to Muslim Filipinos since the 15th century. The Moros share a 400 year resistance of Bangsamoro (Moro nation) against Spanish, American, and Japanese rule. Historians remind us that the US surveillance state and torture, including waterboarding, was first used in Mindanao more than a century ago.

According a decade-old US intelligence assessment, the Mindanao may have “untapped minerals worth between $840 billion to $1 trillion,” which explains the great domestic and foreign interest in the region. Yet, today the ARRM remains one of the most impoverished areas in the country.

Income polarization is alarming. While real per capita income in Philippine capital region is almost three times the national average, it is 17 times higher than average per capita income in the ARMM. In international comparison, metro Manila’s capita incomes are about the same as the average in Mexico, Brazil or China. But in Muslim Mindanao, per capita incomes are more comparable with those in Mozambique and Congo. Among Jihadist locations, ARMM is behind Syria, Pakistan and Yemen but at par with Afghanistan – which makes it an ideal target (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Per Capita Incomes in International Comparison, 2016

Sources: IMF, World Bank, CIA


Despite their struggle against economic, political and military odds, the majority of Muslims in Mindanao continue to have great hope in peace and the Duterte administration. Before the jihadist fighting, criminal and narcotic activities actually declined in the area. But now the future of Muslim Mindanao’s ailing and decent population is threatened.

Four steps toward progress

Due to legacies of insurgencies, ethnic and religious disparities and huge income polarization, Muslim Mindanao could serve as an ideal target for Jihadist footholds, training, recruitment, and propaganda. Such nightmare scenarios can be avoided, but only by decisive actions.

1. Restoring peace and stability in the near-term. In the short-term, Duterte administration’s effort to pacify terror in ARMM is vital, including the extension of the martial law. The threat must be neutralized now when it is still marginal, soft and fragmented and the majority of the ARMM supports government’s efforts to restore peace and stability in the region.

2. Acceleration of economic development across ARMM. In the medium-term, it is critical to escalate all viable efforts at economic development, through the stabilization of key cities and host regions, by prioritizing the Mindanao Development Corridors to intensify development.

3. Initiation of medium- and long-term regional integration. This is vital to ensure regional integration in parallel with other regional corridors. Stabilization is not possible without cooperation with neighboring countries that share similar threats, especially Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, even Australia and Japan.

4. Cooperation with major Asian and Pacific powers. This is critical in economic development (foreign investment, trade, aid), China-led pan-regional globalization (OBOR) and regional counter-intelligence. The joint patrols in the Sulu Sea are a good start, but only a beginning. The long-term objective is predicated on greater collaboration with not just China and the US, but Russia, Japan and Australia, as well as Saudi Arabia and Iran – that is, nations that have a significant presence in Asia and that are central to stabilization in the Middle East.

True development requires peace and stabilization in Mindanao, while national integration in the Philippines supports regional integration in Southeast Asia. Major powers have a supportive role in conflict resolution, if they can offer support.

Failure is not an option because it would mean the spread of terror first into major Philippine cities, and then across Southeast Asia.

About the Author:

Dr Dan Steinbock is the founder of Difference Group and has served as research director at the India, China and America Institute (USA) and visiting fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Center (Singapore). For more, see 

The original version was published by The Manila Times on August 7, 2017