ISIS in…the Philippines?

By Daniel Russo

Between late 2015 and early 2016, several news agencies reported an ISIS presence in the Philippines.  In December, the UK Daily Mail argued that ISIS’s new recruitment video, which depicts ISIS training in a Filipino jungle, represents the organization branching into the Philippines.  In February of 2016, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warned against the spread of ISIS in the Philippines and southeast Asia.


The spread of ISIS in the Philippines also may sound intuitive to some, particularly internationally-savvy students and practitioners.  The Philippines has long been home to an underrepresented Muslim population, which has also been fighting for independence and more autonomy over the past couple decades.  The region collectively known as the Bangsamoro, which contains most Filipino Muslims, has been in talks with the Filipino government for the better part of the early 2000s after decades of secessionist fighting.  Those talks ended in March of 2014 with the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB).  The CAB established a procedure for establishing a semi-autonomous Bangsamoro region in the southern Philippines.


This agreement, however, was negotiated by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).  The MNLF is the largest group representing Filipino Muslims in the Bangsamoro and is the only group that has actually negotiated with the Filipino government.  The MNLF has been the vanguard of the movement from the 1960s, and holds more respect and authority than any other organization claiming to represent Muslims in the Philippines.  The MNLF has explicitly rejected ISIS’s ideology, denouncing it as a distorted and perverted interpretation of Islam.  The existence, and past success, of the MNLF is what stands in the way of ISIS actually setting up camp in the Philippines.  ISIS succeeds where there is a lack of organization for frustrated Muslims to act upon such frustrations (see: Libya, Iraq, Syria).  The Philippines is different from these cases because of the presence of the MNLF, which represents a vehicle for Filipino Muslims to collectively act for more autonomy and representation with the Filipino government.  More importantly, however, it takes up space that ISIS would normally take up, preventing the organization from really taking hold in the Philippines.