Counterterrorism efforts in 2020 left 130 Islamic terrorists dead and 347 captured or surrendered. Half (52 percent) the dead were Abu Sayyaf, with the remainder split between two smaller but similar groups; BIFF
(Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) and Maute Group.
Abu Sayyaf has been around since the early 1990s, initially as a radical breakaway fringe group of the larger Moslem separatist MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front). At first Abu Sayyaf was more outlaw than Islamic terrorist but gradually changed developed more links with Islamic terrorist groups around the region and the world. There were never more than 500 active members of Abu Sayyaf and that number varied depending on how much cash the groups had obtained from extortion or ransoms of locals or foreigners. Another factor was how intense the government effort against them was. Abu Sayyaf also provided sanctuary for foreign Islamic terrorists and that made them a larger threat. Since 2000 Abu Sayyaf has been seen as a major security and Islamic terrorism problem in the south and from 2015 on the effort to eliminate the groups was increased dramatically. That meant thousands of additional soldiers and marines searching areas where Abu Sayyaf usually establishes their camps. This effort was aided by obtaining more aircraft and sensors (aerial vidcams and electronic monitoring gear), first from the U.S. and later by purchase for use by Filipino forces. When it became too difficult to find valuable kidnap victims Abu Sayyaf went to sea, attacking ships and taking foreign crews for ransom. This backfired as neighboring nations, especially Indonesia, became active allies in the fighting against Abu Sayyaf.
BIFF was originally formed to demand independence for the Moslems in the south. By 2014 the majority of Moslems and Christians in the Philippines agreed to an autonomous Moslem region on the southwest coast of Mindanao (the large southern island) and the string of smaller islands (Sulu, Basilan, Tawi, Tawi) extending from southwestern Mindanao towards Malaysia. Bangasamoro, the new Moslem entity, has more autonomy, but makes the Moslems down there responsible to maintaining the peace. This is no small matter because, more than elsewhere in the Philippines, the Moslem south has long had many more clan militias that believed it was their right to engage in private wars. Not all the clans share the official attitudes about who has the right to make war in Bangasamoro. In late 2018 the decades long state of war against MILF ended and since then MILF has been a lot more useful in eliminating Islamic terror groups.
Bangasamoro governs the four million Moslems in Mindanao. Down there the Moslems are outnumbered by Christians who had moved south during the last half century. Nationwide there are about 11 million Moslems and over 90 million Christians. The Christian Filipinos are better organized, more industrious and economically more successful. The Moslems believe they should run Mindanao even if they are the minority, because Mindanao is the local "Islamic homeland." While some in the government are willing to concede this, the Christian majority in Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines, does not. Because of this groups like BIFF, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Abu Sayyaf are treated as outlaws in Bangasamoro and have lost support and members since 2014, but remaining active, but a lot less active.
Maute Group is similar to BIFF and both joined Abu Sayyaf in forming the Filipino branch of ISIL in 2016. Maute Group was nearly wiped out during the May-October 2017 battle for Marawi City. In December 2017 the army confirmed that all seven Maute brothers were dead. These men were the core leadership of the Maute Group. The largest ISIL faction in Marawi City was from the Maute Group who unexpectedly brought in hundreds of their own gunmen who were willing to fight to the death and triggered an existing plan to gather in Marawi City to inspire local Moslems to rise up and drive out Christians. That did just the opposite and resulted in nearly all the thousand or so ISIL gunmen who showed getting killed. Only about a dozen were willing to surrender and a hundred or so apparently escaped. The thousands of soldiers and police sent in to eliminate the ISIL force suffered 168 dead.
The Maute Group was formed in 2012 by members of the family Maute, which is one of the larger and wealthier clans in the south. The seven Maute brothers got mixed up with clan politics, MILF and eventually ISIL. All seven brothers died in Marawi City and the group has survived by recruiting from outside their clan. That has kept Maute Group going but, like BIFF, both groups have fewer than a hundred active members and Abu Sayyaf has about twice that.
Since 2017 the major source of losses to the local ISIL branch has been members who surrender or simply desert. The is an amnesty plan available to most ISIL members. Those known to have participated in murder or kidnapping are not eligible for amnesty but the government will negotiate a deal depending on how much useful information is being offered.
China is still seen as a major threat to the Philippines. China tries to placate Filipinos by offering useful aid. The latest example is offering 25 million doses of the Chinese covid10 Sinovac vaccine. Not as effective as Western vaccines, but China gave the Philippines a discount and promised delivery beginning in February but not completed until the end of 2021. The government has also ordered an Indian vaccine and a British one (from AstraZeneca) and is seeking vaccines from two American firms (Pfizer and Moderna), Russia (Gamaleya) and a second Chinese vaccine (Sinopharm). Because of past misbehavior the Chinese vaccines are regarded as less effective, something which China admits, but at the same time the Chinese vaccines are seen as at least fifty percent effective. The government admitted that it had already obtained some of the Sinopharm on the black market and used it to vaccinate soldiers and other officials most exposed to the virus.
January 6, 2021: Indonesian counter-terrorism police raided a suspected ISIL safehouse and after a brief gun battle with the two men there, killed them and identified them as two Indonesian ISIL members men sought as organizers the 2019 twin suicide bomber attack against a Catholic cathedral in southern Philippines (Jolo). The Filipino branch of ISIL took credit for this attack, which killed twenty and wounded over a hundred. The suicide bombers were a couple from Indonesia. A vigorous manhunt for those responsible soon identified about twenty local and foreign Islamic terrorists as suspects. The attack was financed by a large ransom recently paid to Abu Sayyaf for two men taken from an Indonesian ship. Paying such ransoms is illegal in the Philippines and Abu Sayyaf boasted about how it used the money to finance the attack on the cathedral. So far seven of those involved have been killed or captured and another twelve are being sought. Abu Sayyaf had a lot of help from the Indonesian branch if ISIL. Indonesian and Filipino Islamic terrorists have long cooperated, usually by providing hideouts if the local counterterrorism efforts became too intense.
December 28, 2020: The AMLC (Anti-Money Laundering Council) ordered the freezing of funds and seizure of property belonging to the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines) and NPA (New People’s Army). This follows a December 9 decision by the Anti-Terrorism Council to designate the CPP and NPA as terrorists under the New Anti-Terrorism Act.
The NPA has been suffering a massive decline in popular and communist party support. Increasingly most NPA units must depend on extortion, theft and other criminal activity to survive. This is causing much anger and protest in areas where the NPA still operates “for the good of the people.” Yet the NPA can no longer do much political work when their very survival is at risk.
The government is trying, without much success, to negotiate a peace deal with the NPA. The leadership, as well as the commanders of various armed factions, are split on which peace terms are acceptable and most are continuing to operate (fighting and stealing). The NPA, to most Filipinos, have become bandits with a veneer of communist ideology to justify their crimes. The banditry option is not working well enough to assure long-term survival. This can also be seen when factions run short of money. Less cash and popular support led to more desertions. The army will grant amnesty to NPA members who surrender, especially if they bring their weapons and some useful information with them. Information on the location of NPA camps or weapons storage sites is considered useful and the fact that more NPA camps are being attacked and weapons storage sites seized indicates that the NPA is losing secrets as well as people and popular support. Some NPA leaders feel this is all a temporary setback and that a peace deal would enable a revitalized Philippines Communist Party to become a major political power. These delusions make negotiating a peace deal more difficult. Meanwhile the NPA has maintained its status as a major source of criminal, as opposed to Islamic terrorist activity in the country. Most of the NPA senior leadership live in Europe and are considered somewhat out of touch with the reality of what the NPA has become in the Philippines.
December 22, 2020: The U.S. Navy conducted another FONOP
(freedom of navigation operations) by sending a destroyer into areas of the South China Sea that China considers its territorial waters. In mid-2020 the Americans took a stronger stand against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea by declaring Chinese claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is the Chinese campaign of bullying to control these resources. In 2016 an international court ruled against China and stated that occupying uninhabitable rocks and building artificial islands did not confer an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). Ownership of “rocks” gets you, at best 22 kilometers of territorial waters from the edge of each rock rather than 360 kilometers for EEZ rights. Before this change the U.S. merely called for China to comply with the court ruling, something China said it would not do even before the court completed its deliberations. The Americans did continue to carry out aerial and naval FONOP with warships to assert the right of innocent passage. This annoyed the Chinese, who claimed most of the South China Sea was under Chinese control and no foreign ship or aircraft could enter without permission. China has been claiming areas long recognized as belonging to Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. That has caused all these nations, plus the United States, Japan and South Korea to form an alliance to halt Chinese aggression.
December 17, 2020: In the south (Sulu province) five soldiers were wounded during a brief (30 minute) clash with a large group of Abu Sayyaf gunmen. The Abu Sayyaf force retreated with their wounded because they knew aerial and ground reinforcements were on the way for the soldiers.
December 11, 2020:
In the south (Mindanao island) fifteen members of Abu Sayyaf surrendered and brought their weapons with them. The fifteen included two of their leaders. Many of those who surrendered wanted to take care of their families, which they could not do while constantly sought by the security forces.