The Abu Sayyaf extremist organization in Sulu, southern Philippines, reportedly executed Robert Hall yesterday after a ransom deadline expired. This was the second execution in recent months and two more people remain in captivity.

Rohan Gunaratna is the head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

He warns that while Abu Sayyaf is a “hybrid” organization — part criminal, part terrorist — a breakaway group with close ties with Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq; Islamic State Philippines is attracting new members throughout the region.

“IS is expanding eastward, they are very determined now to create a base of operations in Asia and Asian governments must work together to prevent that,” Gunaratna says.

He notes IS has already established “provinces” in Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, southwestern Russia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It now wants to establish a “satellite” in southern Philippines as an operations and training base for Southeast Asian fighters.

“This is going to threaten not only Southeast Asia it is going to threaten Northeast Asia too,” he told The News Lens International (TNLI) from Beijing this morning.

Gaining traction

Gunaratna says IS Philippines is estimated to have only “a few hundred” members, but because of its link to the central IS command in the Middle East, it has “huge potential to grow.” Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has appointed Isnilon Hapilon as the IS representative in the Philippines. Hapilon was the former deputy leader of Abu Sayyaf and now leads IS Philippines.

“Any local group that uses the word ‘IS’ has more traction,” he says. “We have information that the youth of Abu Sayyaf, at night they are all on mobile devices watching IS videos. Our assessment is IS Philippines will supplant the Abu Sayyaf group and other groups.”

He says IS Philippines intends to launch IS-style attacks and implement Islamic law according to the IS vision.

“If IS succeeds [in creating a satellite] in the Philippines, then the threat grows very sharply.”

While noting that Abu Sayyaf has weakened and it is a much smaller group than it was in the past — it is thought to have less than 1,000 members — Gunaratna says the Philippine government has for a long time not been decisive in the fight against terrorism.

Andrin Raj is the Southeast Asia regional director for the International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals-Centre for Security Studies. The Washington-headquartered organization has offices throughout Southeast Asia.

Raj likewise says the spread of IS ideology is already taking place. He believes there is “growing” sympathizer sentiment towards the conflict areas in the Middle East and says sectarian disputes in SEA is becoming a reality.

Sulu Sea

Raj told TNLI from Kuala Lumpur that a lack of international control over the Sulu Sea, which connects Malaysia, eastern Indonesia and the southern Philippines, has enabled terrorist activity in the region.

The ongoing territorial dispute between countries in the Sulu region has made it “much easier” for the groups to maneuver throughout the region, he says. Moreover, intelligence sharing between the countries has been “lacking.”

“Egyptian terrorist membership cards have been found on dead Sulu operatives in the Sulu region according to intelligence sources,” he says.

Gunaratna agrees that international cooperation across the Sulu archipelago is crucial in responding to terrorism.

“This region has been infested with terrorists and criminals, so it is high time for governments to work together to fight these groups and eliminate these groups.”

He suggests there is already a move toward regional patrolling but says collaboration needs to take place at a “higher level.”

“There must be greater political will.”

Following the recent election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Gunaratna says Manila should now work to eliminate Abu Sayyaf and the breakaway IS-linked group, as well as the numerous other smaller terrorist groups operating in the Philippines.

“For too long the Philippines have tolerated these groups,” Gunaratna says. “I believe this is a turning point, because there is a new president and there is a renewed political will. There is a willingness on the part of the armed forces to work with the new administration to eliminate these groups.”

The extent of the threat

Joseph Chinyong Liow holds the Lee Kuan Yew Chair in Southeast Asia Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He recently testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence on the Islamic State's reach in Southeast Asia.

He says the January attack in Jakarta and the April attack against the Philippine security forces in the southern island of Basilan were conducted by groups claiming allegiance to IS. Those events and the recent spate of kidnappings in southern Philippines, “serve as a timely reminder of the persistent threat that terrorism continues to pose to Southeast Asian societies.”

Liow says the “threat posed by ISIS in Southeast Asia is real, and it has been growing since mid-2014,” but “the extent of the threat should also not be exaggerated.”

“On present evidence, no ISIS-aligned group has developed the capability to mount catastrophic, mass casualty attacks in the region. Four civilians were killed in the Jakarta attacks,” he told the committee. “By comparison, 130 were killed in the Paris attacks, on which the Jakarta attacks were purportedly modeled. Because of improved legislation and operational capabilities that have gradually developed over the years since the October 2002 Bali bombings, Southeast Asian governments have managed for the most part to contain the threat posed by terrorist and jihadi groups.”

While 700-800 Southeast Asians are estimated to be currently in Iraq and Syria, about 40% are women and children below the age of 15.

"In both real and proportionate terms, these figures are a mere fraction of the recruits coming from Europe and Australia.”

Still, Liow says given the emergence ISIS in Southeast Asia and the traction it appears to have garnered, “regional governments must remain vigilant to ISIS-related developments, particularly in terms monitoring both returnees as well as communications between militants in Syria and their counterparts and followers back home.”

Despite anxiety that ISIS causes, people should not “miss the forest for the trees,” he says.

“There are multiple groups operating in Southeast Asia that are intent on using some form of political violence to further their ends. Many are at odds with each other; not all are seeking affiliation to, or enamored of, ISIS.”