ISIL: Cathedral Attack in the Sulu Province

Source: Reuters 2019

Abu Sayyaf attacked the Catholic Church, Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, during mass on January 27th in the Sulu Province of the Southern Philippines. The Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL) claims the two back-to-back bombings were the work of suicide bombers, which was later confirmed by Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano.

At least 20 people were killed in the attack and more than 100 individuals were injured. In response to this attack, the Filipino Government is on high alert and is conducting military operations to “destroy” Abu Sayyaf. President Duterte also declared martial law until the criminals are found.

Abu Sayyaf is a branch of the ISIL that has been active in the Philippines since 1991. The group is known for bombing a ferry in 2004, killing 116 people, as well as various kidnappings for ransom. The attack in Jolo is one of their largest to date, with 131 total casualties, as calculated by our Active Intelligence Database.

A week prior to the bombing, a referendum was conducted on the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which would allow for expanded autonomy of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. While experts don’t believe the two events are related, it’s possible that the attack was meant to further divide the Muslim and Christian communities in the province.

The Philippine government has taken proper steps to reassure the community through security personnel outside places of worship and patrols through large public areas. President Duterte responded with strong and ruthless commentary on the church bombing by declaring the military to take care of the threat posed by Abu Sayyaf by any means necessary.

The military adamantly agreed with Duterte and staged multiple manhunts to find Abu Sayyaf members behind the attack. The Army suffered a few fatalities in the altercations with Abu Sayyaf militants before making a major arrest.

On February 4th, five Abu Sayyaf members believed to have orchestrated the attack surrendered to the Philippine Army. This arrest, coupled with strong words from the President, undoubtedly relieved the fears of citizens in Jolo and throughout the Philippines.

At least 14 main suspects are still at large; however, the Philippine government needs to recognize that these main suspects are only one part of a larger terrorist organization. Abu Sayyaf has at least 400 members and the main suspects that the Army has in custody represent a small subset of the overall group.

The Philippine Government should gather the information they can from the members that surrendered in order to take down Abu Sayyaf. While the attack doesn’t seem related to the Bangsamoro Organic Law, the government needs to keep the referendum in mind as it symbolizes movement towards peace for many in the region.

Terror’s New Form

Source: The East African (2014)

Author: Caleb Septoff

Perhaps one of the greatest scientific achievements in human history is the invention of the internet, which landmarked the beginning of the digital age in the modern era. Its uses span multiple fields and in large part is responsible for the high levels of rapid globalization we have become accustomed to today. Although it has improved humanity in many facets, it has also led to the increase in the susceptibility of nations’ and individuals to cyber-attacks. The internet has evolved over the last decade with the inception of social media and cyber currency, but with this evolution comes a new wave of terrorism in the form of cyber-attacks, propaganda, hacking, and online recruitment. The threat has grown substantially – enough for even university institutions, namely New York University (NYU), to offer cyber security majors and courses solely to deter these types of attacks.

Before venturing into the subject of digital terrorism, it is important to explore something less widely known to the average internet user; this being the deep web and dark net. The internet is composed of two main points of access; the surface web and the dark web. The surface web is most common to everyday users and comprises mainly of search engines, like Google and Bing, and the information found is unrestricted. Comparatively, the deep web differs mainly in size, estimated at four to five hundred times bigger than the surface web, accounting for 90% of the internet. In comparison to the surface web, the wealth of information stored on the deep web is gigantic. Most of the deep web is restricted by applications, which grant access to databases or password protected sites. Anything from social media, such as Facebook or Instagram, to online banking are considered part of the deep web. In addition to its size, the dark web differs  in its accessibility. Despite popular beliefs, the deep web and dark net are not synonymous. Rather, the dark net exists hidden below the surface web. The dark net is almost entirely unregulated and is even harder to access than the deep web. To date, the dark net hosts an unknown number of websites, but the content ranges from people sending messages who wish to maintain anonymity to underground drug dealing, sex trafficking, weapons dealing, and the focus of this article, terrorists and extremists’ sites.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Daesh, was the first terrorist organization to truly maximize their outreach using the internet. When Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi declared the caliphate, a wave of propaganda and recruitment media took social media by storm. While destructive, authorities and the companies themselves were able to mitigate much of the content since it took place on the more accessible surface web. However, the organization consistently found new ways to respond to authorities’ crackdowns. First, they began attracting people through social media and other corners of the surface web and then slowly moved them towards more difficult protected places like domains and chat rooms on the dark net. In addition, the use of messaging applications that offered heavy encryption, like Telegram, were core ways for them to communicate. The use of these cyber tools aided in attracting over 20,000 foreign fighters from more than 10 different countries to flock to Syria to fight on ISIL’s behalf, and even more followers aided the organization from remote positions around the globe. In early 2018, New York Times’ reporter, Rukimini Callimachi, released a podcast by the name of “Caliphate.” The podcast goes into detail about one Canadian man’s experience of being recruited through multiple steps, starting on social media and eventually moving into private chat rooms. Callimachi’s reporting highlights how effective ISIL’s extensive reach was, not only technologically, but by simply creating effective connections with people, especially the youth.

Thus far, terrorists’ groups have not been able to do much more than the defacement of webpages and execution of minor cases of hacking. For example, a series of attacks in 2015, all claiming ties to Daesh, were executed in various countries. Most notably, a self-titled group called Cyber Caliphate managed to hack Malaysia Airlines’ main website, deface the French TV5 broadcast station, and hack the US military Central Command’s YouTube and Twitter accounts. Technology is continuously growing and it gets more sophisticated every year. As greater attention turns to digital recruitment and terrorism, these “small” attacks will grow larger in scope and harm. The possibility of cutting electric to hospitals or inciting mass riots through the spread of false media is very real and dangerous. The need to find adequate responses to the rising dangers of cyber terrorism is crucial to the future of counter terrorism. Perhaps most conspicuously, the important question becomes how to best be proactive in thwarting attacks and rather than simply being reactive.

The international community has a plethora of different third-party watch dogs when it comes to war and terrorism, whether they come in the form of global entities like the United Nations (UN) or International Non-Profit Organizations (INGO). In addition, a multitude of international treaties and agreements exist to set standards for war and outline what is not acceptable. The Geneva Convention, one of the most important and widely known, is comprised of four treaties and three protocols that establish standards for humanitarian rights and treatment during times of war. Yet, something these organizations don’t cover adequately is how to respond to cyber warfare and digital terrorism. One of the greatest challenges in dealing with these online threats is attribution, or ascribing blame to those who have committed the crime and proving it. According to a RAND Corporation video on the subject, they identify three main types of attribution: political (dealing with diplomatic knowledge and political actors’ objectives), technical (IP addresses, log file analysis, etc.), and clandestine (classified information and political insights).

Categorizing makes it easier to decide how to interpret the crime and, thus, how to assign punishment. However, it is not simple to prove digital crimes without access to data that, for the most part, is private, anonymous and not easily tracked. Citizens’ right to privacy and the level of privacy that is entitled has become a topic of high contention in the debate for higher cyber security. Although these are difficult issues to deal with, the international community needs to step up and begin to take action before cyber warfare reaches a level with much higher stakes. Like the UN, there needs to be a large international organization that can specialize in cyber security and cyber terrorism. It would require the nonexistence of any political affiliation to be effective and act on behalf of any country that requires its services to increase its credibility. Perhaps, most important, would be its role in providing international laws on cyber warfare and attacks to clearly and concisely build a foundation or framework for security agencies to work from. It would also be responsible for developing the mechanisms for freedom of expression and privacy; although this would most likely fall to the specific countries rather than the independent watch dog organization.

Social media platforms have done relatively well at combing through their users and content to locate possible terrorist activities, but this is not enough. Further action needs to be taken regarding regulation. Systems need to be devised to adequately monitor both the surface web content and the deep and dark web to locate, deter and respond to these threats before they can implement harm to critical infrastructures, governments, businesses, and even the psyches of viewers. Creating measures to regulate data and prevent data mining for terrorist activities is crucial to preventing the attacks in the future. There is no easy answer to the rising threat of cyber terrorism and warfare, but it’s imperative that solutions and international cooperation begins sooner than later.

Brazilian Prison Gangs: Message Delivered

Source: The Washington Post/Alex Gomes/AP

Author: Cameron Cassar

The newly elected right wing president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, had just been newly inaugurated when he had to deal with his first security crisis; terrorism attacks led by prison gangs in the Brazilian state of Ceara. The attacks have been centered on the capital of Ceara, Fortaleza, which is a metropolitan home to about 4 million Brazilians. These attacks have destroyed homes, businesses, modes of transportation, and has left many residents stuck in their homes due to threats of violence.

All of these attacks have been motivated by a desire to get the Brazilian government to end the practice of segregating gang factions in the Brazilian prison system. This goes completely against Bolsonaro and his ideologies. In fact, a major point of his political platform was that he vowed to enact strong policies to combat crime in Brazil. These policies include military takeovers in crime ridden Brazilian cities and shoot to kill policies for violent criminals.

This current wave of violence in Brazil shares many similarities to the wave of violence led by Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel during their reign of narcoterrorism in Colombia. However, while the Brazilian prison gangs have opted to mainly use violence, the Medellin Cartel not only committed violence to instill fear in lawmakers in Colombia, but they also bribed police officers to turn a blind eye towards their criminal activities. Importantly, both of these organizations have used “violent lobbying” tactics to scare lawmakers into implementing policies that benefit them. Pablo Escobar wanted to get rid of extradition while the Brazilian gangs want to eliminate desegregation in prisons. The gang leaders want to end the prison reform which includes ending the separation of rival gang members and the blocking of cell phone service in the prisons.

These reforms would hinder the effect of the gang leaders who are locked up inside of the prison by disconnecting them from the outside world, which gives them the chance to coordinate their attacks. However, many gang leaders do not want desegregation in the prisons because they fear for their safety amongst the other prisoners who are often times rival gang members with a personal vendetta against one another. Incidentally, the violent lobbying of the gangs has united them in an unusual alliance due to the “common enemy”. The First Capital Command and the Red Command, two of the biggest gangs in the area have already formed a pact and there are plenty more that will be formed as the conflict ensues.

Brazil has the third highest prison population behind China and the US (of course). The problem is that President Bolsonaro wants to be even tougher on crime, which will result in even more Brazilians being sent to prison. Some of the policies he wants to implement include lowering the age of criminal responsibility from age 18 to age 16, which will only increase the number of Brazilians in the prison system. More Brazilians in the Brazilian prison system will not help reform the broken prison system. If anything, the country needs less prisoners so they can focus on improving the conditions in the prisons due to the overcrowding. The point of prison is to rehabilitate the prisoners so they can be reintegrated into society when they are released, but a prison in bad condition and ran by the prisoners instead of the guards is not suitable for rehabilitation.

President Bolsonaro must now deal with the crisis that has begun to unfold in his country. However, many members of the left saw this wave of terror coming. As Renato Roseno of the Socialism and Liberty Party stated, “This crisis was entirely predictable, we were sitting on a barrel of gunpowder and it just needed someone to light the fuse”. It is now up to him to decide if he will counter these actions, if he will send in foreign help, will peacekeeping troops be deployed, and will he still be able to stick to his tough on crime policy? It will be interesting to see how Bolsonaro deals with his first major crisis as a president. Will he be able to stick to his hard right policies or will he be pressured to renege on the promises that got him elected as president in the first place?

Old Crisis Sparks Anew: The Bogota Car Bombing

Source: The Tico Times (2019) 

Author: Billy Baker

Colombia has a bloody history of political violence (La Violencia, FARC, ELN). But after the peace agreement with FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in 2016 and the peace talks with ELN (National Liberation Army), many thought that this would be the end of the bloodshed.

That was until January 17th, 2019, when a vehicle drove into the National Police Academy in Bogota, Colombia. The truck, armed with explosives, sped into the facility until hitting a wall. This triggered the detonation, killing 21 people (including the driver) and injuring 68 others. This marked the deadliest attack in 16 years.

Shortly after the bombing, ELN members in Colombia claimed responsibility for the attack. This has stalled peace talks currently being held in Cuba, although ELN chief negotiator, Pablo Beltran, has denied involvement in the attack. Colombian President Ivan Duque is now calling for the Cuban government to arrest and extradite the ELN negotiators in the country.

The Cuban government has responded by stating that they will follow the previously agreed protocol for a break in the dialogue. The protocol for this situation allows ELN negotiators to travel back to Colombia through Venezuela in a safe manner. It also requires the Colombian military not to engage any identified rebel strongholds for a 72-hour period during their return.

So what does this mean for the future? This single attack has damaged prospects for peace between ELN and the Colombian government, with the possibility of bringing back an escalation of widespread violence that Colombia has not experienced for years. This is unfortunately a possibility for a variety of reasons (low popularity for President Márquez, widespread disgust against ELN’s attack, need to respond to the attack).

It is necessary for the Colombian government to respond to the violence and crime that ELN has committed over the years. Along with the attack in Bogota, ELN has committed numerous attacks since peace talks began. Peace talks have proved difficult due to the group’s decentralized structure. This most recent attack by ELN has caused uncertainty about the future of political violence in Colombia.

The Mosul of Southeast Asia? Countering Extremism in the Philippines

Filipino and American forces shaking hands in September 2017. Image Credit: Cpl. Robert Sweet, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

The recent tension between the Philippines’ security forces and Islamic separatists has exposed the cultural, economic, and military inefficiencies of the central government in countering terrorism. Strengthening cooperation with the United States will help the government tackle these issues more effectively, helping them solve some of the coordination and collective action problems which currently plague their operations. By briefly covering the history of the conflict, stating who the major extremist groups are, and examining how they act, this article shall propose recommendations that can promote further cooperation to counter extremism, encourage more cultural and religious cohesion in civil society, and help break up the revenue-generating activities of terrorist groups in the Philippines.

The church bombing in Jolo on January 27th 2019, which killed twenty people, highlights the recent flare-up in tensions between Catholics and jihadist groups in the Mindanao region. This attack came just days after a referendum of autonomy was held in the area where the majority of citizens voted to approve the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. The referendum was part of a deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – an organisation that has been fighting for independence for decades.

The country has been a victim of these attacks before, all claimed by ISIL and its affiliates. On August 28th, 2018, an improvised explosive device (IED) tore through a festival in Isulan in the same region as the church bombings. On July 31, 2018, a bomb exploded in a van at a security checkpoint on the southern island of Basilan, killing ten and wounding eight. In 2017 a group of pro-Islamic State (IS) jihadists captured and held part of the city of Marawi in the province of Lanao del Sur.

Historically, the security and police forces of the Philippines have failed to deal with extremist groups active in the South Philippines such as Abu Sayyaf/ISIL, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The source of tension dates back to Islamist militancy in the 1970s, while groups such as ISIL relative newcomers to the region. IS, however, has yet to acknowledge the Philippines as an official wilayat, or franchise.

Despite this, dozens of groups in the Philippines claim allegiance to IS. They have even aided the Maute group – an ISIL affiliate – in seizing strategic parts of the city of Marawi on the 23rd May 2017 in a standoff with government security forces- causing 1,100 fighter and civilian deaths and the displacement of 400,000 people. The conflict subsided with the government’s evacuation of residents in the city and the subsequent bombing campaign. The execution of the two main jihadist leaders in the Philippines, Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, ended the conflict but also created a hotbed for extremist activities that further destabilized the region. The Filipino military alone is ill-equipped to deal with these types of insurgent groups, facing a lack of capacity, poor coordination, and geographic obstacles in its struggle to fight extremism. Although one hundred US military advisers were on the field, in addition to US and Australian intelligence support, their combined strength was not enough to stop a credible, potent jihadist threat.

Marawi map.png

Map displaying the location of Marawi. Image Credit: BBC.

In 2015, the US ended the campaign of Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines, which was formerly the largest counter-terrorism operation in Southeast Asia. Research shows that the presence of US Special Operations Forces (SOF) to train and equip, advise and assist, and contribute to civil/military information operations helped reduce the level of support for terror groups. The presence of US SOFs also improved the tactical and operational efficiency of the Philippines Security Forces. With an average presence of 600 SOF present in the Philippines between 2001-2014, this number has now plummeted by more than half. The latest news reported the US would increase the number of SOFs to 261 in joint military operations with Filipino security forces. In 2019, uncertainty surrounding the American presence in the Middle East also holds implications for the American presence in the Philippines, potentially threatening their battle against internal extremist forces. With planned withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan and an overall laissez-faire approach to US military presence around the world, it is unclear whether the US will maintain or increase cooperation with the Philippines in areas such as counter-terrorism, maritime security, and humanitarian aid.

US presence in the region makes a significant difference. Recommendations to improve counter-terrorism strategies include targeted US involvement in maritime security to prevent IS-affiliated groups such as Abu Sayyaf from carrying out kidnap-for-ransom operations on ships going through the South China Sea. As of 2016, the group has raised around $7 million from kidnapping operations, using this money to finance further extremist activities. Maritime security can prevent these groups from conducting successful kidnappings and have a positive impact by helping the Philippines combat other internal challenges. For this cooperative relationship to operate well, the government must also form stronger partnerships with Malaysia and Indonesia to encourage intelligence sharing and patrolling of sea lanes, which they have already carried out through trilateral patrols. Moreover, strategic partnerships with Japan, South Korea, and Australia can help only with the US acting as a facilitator and leader on this front. Without this guidance, counter-terrorism strategies are much less effective. Careful communication and constructive cooperation might even help in convincing the US to re-establish its Joint Operations Task Force – Philippines to contain a potential rising terror threat.

For the IS, the Siege of Marawi was a propaganda victory which enabled them to extrapolate a local conflict into a larger Muslim-Christian sectarian war. Being able to hold the largest city in the southern region of the Philippines gave the group legitimacy in jihadist circles and enabled the recruitment of more foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia. As a result, this development has lead to fears that the Philippines will become a hub for terrorists fleeing places where ISIL have lost ground, such as Iraq and Syria.

To counter this threat, the Filipino government must not only use military means, but religious and cultural ones as well. Research by DAI published in August 2018 showed how marginalization and discrimination were stronger predictors of violent extremism than poverty, social conflict, or corruption. The government of the Philippines should therefore strengthen its cooperation with civil society groups on the ground and encourage the development of more cohesive communities. The government has already put in place a policy that would include Muslims in the military. This can lead to more support from the local community, especially in the Mindanao region, and help create room for dialogue. Further policies, such as encouraging millenials with influential social media presence to spread the message of peace or strengthening the government’s deradicalisation programme, can go a long way to help bridge the differences within civil society and marginalized religious communities.

Dialogue can also be a constructive tool at the international level. A balanced tone must be struck, and Duterte must abandon the use of nationalist and inflammatory rhetoric against the presence of US troops. Effective diplomacy can encourage the American government to strengthen their relationship with the Philippines through continued humanitarian aid, technical military assistance, and engagement with local government, civil society, and ASEAN through Congressional delegations and non-governmental organisations. Efforts such as the adoption of the Langkawi Declaration on the Global Movements of Moderates in 2015, pushing for a more moderate political environment within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), are steps in the right direction.

The Philippines must also follow up on lessons learned from training with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Anti-Money Laundering Council to closely monitor the economic maneuvers of domestic extremist groups. It is already a member of the Asia Pacific Group (APG) on Money Laundering and is no longer subject to its monitoring process. However, the IS have been funding smaller extremist groups, including the Maute Group, which now engages in looting, kidnapping, and the illegal drug trade to finance their activities. As Duterte’s disastrous war on drugs has shown, it is wise to use means other than military force to combat illegal activities. To combat this problem, the US should not only strengthen trade cooperation with the Philippines, but also play an active role in setting up stable financial architecture in the region to counteract more illicit money-laundering operations, such as those by North Korea.

In order to tackle these extremist elements, the United States must increase its role in maintaining security in the region. Not only will this require action from the government of the US, but also NGOs, charities, private citizens, and Congressional influence are necessary to promote humanitarian aid and cooperation with civil society in the Philippines. Larger military and technical assistance will help promote maritime security and counter-terrorism on the ground. And finally, positioning as an economic power in southeast Asia will help both the US and the Philippines cut terrorist funding whilst at the same time developing a stable architecture and sphere of influence that could repel terrorist activities.